The cold war has been over for a decade but it lingers on the American home front. The Soviet Union and its KGB are extinct but they survive in a proxy paper war, a subspecies of our current political divisions. The premise is familiar: The Soviets spied, aided and abetted by “a conspiracy so immense,” which included such spies as Alger Hiss, Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White and unknown numbers of less prominent people who infiltrated the federal bureaucracy to serve the Soviet cause. Arthur Herman, in this new biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy, agrees that the Soviets deeply penetrated the American government, and he endorses McCarthy’s sensational charge that Owen Lattimore was the “Number One Soviet Spy.” For good measure, he relegates Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, George Marshall and others to the outer reaches of Dupedom and Appeasement. Do not confuse Herman with Casablanca‘s Captain Reynaud; for him, this is serious business.
McCarthy has ever been a third rail in American politics. Even such conservative contemporaries as J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers, Henry Luce and Russell Kirk rejected him for various reasons. Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, who have written extensively on Soviet infiltration, quickly add a warning label: “None of this, however, offers any vindication for Senator McCarthy, or McCarthyism.” Paul Johnson, who rarely misses an opportunity to savage American liberalism, dismissed McCarthy as “not a serious politician but an adventurer, who treated politics as a game.” The real conspiracy, Johnson argues, was in Moscow and was not a plot by Acheson, Marshall and assorted New Dealers to deliver the United States to the Russians.
Herman is undaunted; to him, McCarthy is a prophet without honor. He acknowledges that the Senator backed down from his sensational claims about the number of card-carrying Communists in the State Department, but nevertheless he “proved more right than wrong in terms of the larger picture.” Recent revelations of Soviet espionage, stemming from marketable KGB records, memoirs of Russian intelligence officials and fragmentary American intercepts of espionage communications, Herman contends, have reinforced old charges that Truman’s people were “floundering” in thwarting the Soviets. Floundering? Herman conveniently ignores the Truman Doctrine, NATO and the creation of the National Security State. Korea is mentioned only to thrash Truman for his failure to listen to MacArthur. (And here we were thinking that Truman had slavishly followed MacArthur’s assurance that the Chinese would not intervene…)
Herman’s attempts to “explain” McCarthy border on the comic. First, he looks to his Irish background: “The grandiloquent gesture, the blarney, the do-or-die bravado, the inability to forget slights and humiliations, as well as the drinking and affinity for lost causes: It is not possible to understand McCarthy’s career without this component.” Herman then moves to higher ground, suggesting that McCarthy may have been manic-depressive–“hypomanic”–but he has no clinical evidence whatsoever. Here, Herman offers a fashionable analysis in suggesting a bipolar disorder. “McCarthy’s notorious ‘cruelty’ and ‘insensitivity’ had little to do with the political cause he espoused–and may have had everything to do with a man’s simply not being in control of himself.”
This is careless, sloppy work. Herman writes that the House of Representatives “approved Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter by a single vote,” but no such vote occurred. McCarthy’s fall from grace was followed, he adds, with the election of Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire; and while both indeed served in the Senate, in Nelson’s case it was not until five years after McCarthy died. Is Herman serious when he finds something sinister in Eisenhower’s decision not to capture Berlin? Henry Wallace’s presidential run “was the closest the Soviets ever came to choosing and nominating a candidate for the American presidency,” Herman asserts. That would surprise Earl Browder. McCarthy’s use of tax-free political contributions to pay his personal debts was “sleazy but not illegal.” With friends like Herman, McCarthy needs no enemies.