Saying It Ain’t So on Joe

Saying It Ain’t So on Joe

The cold war has been over for a decade but it lingers on the American home front.


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.

Herman has scores to settle, apparently with McCarthy’s enemies and for himself. He finds it ironic that the noted historian and critic of American foreign policy, William Appleman Williams, taught at the University of Wisconsin and, like McCarthy, was a combat Marine in the Solomon Islands. But Williams was wounded (we need not resurrect Tail Gunner Joe’s dubious war record here) and, as Herman correctly notes, his wartime injuries caused him pain the rest of his life. Alas! none of his friends, colleagues or students are privy to Herman’s information: The “pain of physical suffering and the bitterness associated with his experiences served to feed a resentment and an angry will to resist the prevailing liberalism in American intellectual life.” Thus Williams’s biting critiques; unlike McCarthy, who (because he had no war wounds?) moved to the right, Williams moved left, Herman writes–and historical revisionism plummets to new depths of absurdity.

McCarthy came to the Senate in 1946, after defeating Senator Robert La Follette Jr., scion of Wisconsin’s Progressive dynasty, who curiously decided to run as a Republican that year. McCarthy, backed by La Follette’s “Stalwart” enemies, who nursed a half-century of grievances against the La Follette family narrowly won–with a little bit of help from Communist labor leaders in some Milwaukee CIO unions, uncomfortable with La Follette’s hostility toward the Soviet Union. McCarthy quickly proved a reliable foot soldier in the new Republican majority, although, in a hint of things to come, he lobbied for reduced sentences for Waffen SS troops who had precipitated the Malmédy Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge.

The Republicans promised a great deal, vowing to find out what had happened under “the cloak of official secrecy.” One Congressman prophetically promised: “We will open with a prayer, and close with a probe.” The Republicans believed, as Herman notes, that the “Democrats’ rapid expansion of the federal government had also spurred the expansion of Soviet espionage activities.” The executive branch “sat on a political time bomb, waiting to go off once anyone discovered the truth.” Labels had lost their meaning: “The historical record of liberalism and Soviet communism,” Herman deadpans, “lent Republican critics at least a prima facie case.”

After the Republicans, with Democratic acquiescence, abolished wartime economic regulatory measures, they turned to the exposure of pervasive Communist subversion. “To this day,” Herman grimly states, “no one knows exactly how many federal employees were secretly working for the Soviet Union.”

Alger Hiss’s case is crucial for understanding the period. His prominence in shaping FDR’s domestic and foreign policies gave him both partisans and accusers. Hiss begat McCarthy, as well as Richard Nixon. His perjury conviction legitimized the dark criticisms of the Soviet Union and allegations about Communists in the State Department that elevated anti-Communism to a civil religion, with results that still haunt American society.

“This is not the place to rehash the issue of who, if anyone, ‘lost’ China,” Herman writes. But he does exactly that, citing the central roles of such dupes/subversives as Truman, Acheson, Currie, the “China Hands” and, yes, Theodore White, plus, according to McCarthy, the greatest spy of all, Owen Lattimore. The “truth” about Lattimore has finally emerged, he argues, “thanks to a former Chinese espionage agent’s memoirs and declassified FBI files, which go a long way to vindicate McCarthy’s original charges.”

Those who have used the FBI files–and there is no indication that Herman has–have found quite the opposite. A skilled scholar-journalist, Lattimore in 1945 shrewdly predicted the end of colonialism in Asia and the rise of indigenous governments. He was alert to the weaknesses of Chiang’s regime and the growing power of the Chinese Communists. Lattimore had his share of flaws, but he certainly was not the “Number One Soviet Spy” in America, as McCarthy had contended. Hoover’s FBI bureaucracy warned him of the dubiousness of the case against Lattimore, and Hoover distanced himself from the unsuccessful prosecution. Luther Youngdahl, a courageous Republican federal judge, twice dismissed different sets of indictments against Lattimore.

We look back in amazement now and ponder how this nation could have believed that the Chinese should have struggled to cast off the domination of their lives by Western imperialists and substitute for them Russian masters. Yes, Mao signed an alliance agreement to rebuild his country, but the United States, paralyzed by McCarthy and his allies, offered Mao nothing but hostility. Lattimore predicted that Mao would eventually break with Moscow and provide an opportunity for American foreign-policy-makers. Herman sheepishly acknowledges that “in the long run” Lattimore was correct. Maybe a posthumous medal is in order.

Herman ultimately recognizes that the policies fostered by the “dupes” proved correct. Frustrated, cornered, he is reduced to berating Kennan, Acheson and others for their “self-confident arrogance” and willingness to settle for the status quo. But Herman has no understanding of Kennan’s “Long Telegram” of 1946 and its perceptive analysis of the Soviets’ inner contradictions and weaknesses. What troubles him at bottom is that things turned out just as Kennan had predicted. He was the “rightist” of all.

The time has come to end the partisan, political squabbling over the cold war. To label Dean Acheson arrogant and Harry Truman a dupe is both silly and pernicious. Even R. Emmett Tyrrell, the conservative editor of the American Spectator (of all people), rejected such simple-mindedness among his fellow Reaganites and ordered a round of applause for those who had fought the cold war over the long run–specifically beginning with Truman, Acheson, Marshall and Kennan, and continuing through the parade of Presidents in late-twentieth-century America. Herman’s natural allies can only be embarrassed by this work.

The end of the cold war has empowered and emboldened those who agree with McCarthy’s aims, however they distance themselves from the man. The cold war triumphalists, as well as the keepers of the conspiracy faith, rarely consider whether the excesses in the search for subversives really were worth the social and political costs of the time. Beyond ferreting out real spies, did all that zeal, all that repression, all that suffering of innocents, or the tarnished reputations, give us victory in the long twilight struggle of the cold war? Commenting on the recent cases of Russian infiltration of the CIA, a former CIA officer noted that “I think we were fairly well penetrated. But the point is, so what? It didn’t save the USSR. And it didn’t bring down the US.”

Exactly. We would have won anyway.

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