It's 46 years since Senator Joseph McCarthy's liver finally surrendered to years of abuse by alcohol, but the old scoundrel keeps rattling his chains. Though he's been dead almost as long as he lived (1908-1957), his grip on the American imagination remains firm. This week he was back where he loved to be, in the newspapers. The U.S. senate released 4,000 pages of transcripts from secret sessions of the subcommittee that McCarthy chaired in 1953 and 1954, during the career he built by falsely accusing various Americans of being Soviet agents.
Equipped with little more than animal cunning, an irresponsible tongue, and the power of subpoena, McCarthy became a famous ogre in the U.S. and beyond. The newly available material demonstrates once more that he was a charlatan who lusted after headlines, knowing that fame brought him power. Journalists, who wanted fresh sensations almost as much as McCarthy wanted attention, became his collaborators even if they considered him a bumpkin and a bully.
The record shows he interrogated some 400 potential witnesses in private to learn whether they could produce exciting material in public, a casting process that preceded his staged dramas of accusation and disgrace. In these private sessions we see him testing people like James Reston of The New York Times, the poet Langston Hughes, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, and the composer Aaron Copland. If they calmly stonewalled him, he forgot them. If they confessed, cringed with shame, or pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating themselves, he smelt the blood of headlines and forced them to appear before his senatorial inquisition.
To an outsider he was an obvious humbug whose wolfish grin suggested that he knew he was spouting nonsense. Even so, many considered him sincere if misguided. In the government, the universities, and the media, he sometimes destroyed careers. But a powerful strain of irony ran beneath his campaign. Curiously, McCarthy probably did more than any other American to legitimize communism and protect it from criticism.
On the great issue of the day, he turned liberal opinion upside down. While the Soviets took control of Central Europe and China fell to Mao, McCarthy's viciousness made anti-communists look more sinister than communists. He was so casually destructive of individual lives that he cast his shadow over even the most genuine enemies of the USSR. If a thug like McCarthy was against communism, many assumed, then communism must have otherwise invisible virtues. This helped to obscure the fact that networks of Soviet spies were working in the U.S., as Soviet records and the files of American counterespionage agencies have lately confirmed.
McCarthyism also provided a glib defence for the guilty. Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh, in their book The Amerasia Spy Case, point out that by making so many false charges, McCarthy gave "actual communists who engaged in and contemplated espionage" the chance to claim victim status.
While many liberals suffered under McCarthy, he helped make others appear the martyrs they wanted to be. It was possible to become a hero merely by claiming to be his potential victim. Mary McCarthy's novel, The Groves of Academe (1952), depicts a college teacher, about to be dismissed, who pretends to have been a communist in order to win support from the faculty. Certain Americans and Canadians did well in the English movie business by presenting themselves as refugees from McCarthyism, exaggerating (or inventing) their persecution in the U.S., a ploy Mordecai Richler satirized in his 1957 novel, A Choice of Enemies.
Today, historical scholarship suffers from McCarthy's distorting influence. American academics writing the history of the 1950s automatically criticize anyone who opposed communism. They imply that by simply stating the truth, certain intellectuals gave aid and comfort to McCarthy. That seems to them more important than an honest discussion of Soviet tyranny.
In the 1950s, enemies of America assumed it would be engulfed by McCarthyism. In fact, he made a fool of himself during his last hearings, Edward R. Murrow attacked him in a famous TV documentary, and in 1954 his Senate colleagues censured him. After that, he apparently chose alcoholic suicide.
But McCarthyism, the word, remains a tool for anyone who wants to plead persecution. "The new McCarthyism" has become a favourite phrase of journalists and "sexual McCarthyism" began appearing in the 1990s. At one point, proposed legislation against unsolicited advertising on the Internet was attacked as "cyber-McCarthyism."
During the Iraq war, those who criticized the anti-war movement were sometimes called McCarthyites. Inherited abhorrence of McCarthyism now helps shape the politics of Hollywood people who weren't even born when he died. The fatuous Bill Maher, who had a tedious show on TV called Politically Incorrect, became a hero and martyr when he was criticized for differing with George W. Bush on the meaning of Sept. 11, 2001. In the end Maher made it work for him. He received an ocean of publicity, signed up for another TV program, and this week appeared in a one-man stage show in New York, a minor actor transformed into a political philosopher by yet another twist on McCarthyism. Senator Joe would be amused.