This was an engrossing biography of Joseph McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who, during the early ’50’s led a crusade against communism in government, in society, and in the world. But McCarthyism is more than just a paranoia about communist conspiracy, it’s a word that speaks to demagoguery of the worse kind; a kind of un-democratic undermining of civil society and the rule of law. McCarthyism is mob rule, disguised as a hunt for “reds”.
As a read, this book is actually quite sad and depressing. Its necessary and highly relevant to today’s world of Islamaphobia and fear of terrorism, but sad. McCarthy – definitely not a proto-Hitler nor a vicious cynic riding a hot topic to prominence and power – did actually believe that a vast communist conspiracy was undermining American society and government. And while its obvious that McCarthy was an unscrupulous, lying hack and unthinking scumbag, one genuinely comes to feel sorry for the guy. HIs story ultimately reads as a tragedy both for McCarthy and for America. Really. Nobody wins here.
Something that I want to make abundantly clear is that Joe McCarthy never found a real communist in government. He never found a real soviet spy. And while he ruined hundreds of lives and careers (including at least one suicide), he never found one, single real Red Spy.
Certain people out there will be going: “A-ha! What about the Verona Papers?! They prove that there were soviet spies in the government!” I grant this. The thing to remember is that by the late ’40’s, the FBI had rooted all those out. So by time McCarthyism got started, all the real Red Spies where already gone. There is also a larger historical context here which explain both the number of communists in government in the ’30s and ’40s, as well as the basic engine behind McCarthyism.
So here’s the big picture: the Republicans fail to take action of any kind during the Great Depression, and FDR is elected along with his New Deal policies – effectively an Americanized brand of socialism. This is realistically the furthest to the left that this country has ever gone. FDR and the New Deal era was cosmopolitan, left leaning, and highly elite/east coast/academic/eurocentric. It has a strong oder of New England paternalism about it. Communism was still understood largely as an academic, progressive thing; one could be a communist in the government and a loyal American. This was especially true during WWII when the Soviets were our allies.
So at the end of WWII the American political situation was this: the Republicans had been out of power for twenty years. In the meantime, the Democrats had taken strenuous efforts to save the American economy during the Great Depression, and had just brilliantly won the most destructive, most justified war in human history. Basically, the Republican Party of the 1940s was on the verge of becoming irrelevant; disappearing. How does one discredit a ruling political party when the economy is doing well and has just won the biggest war one can win?
You guessed it: the spectre; the fear of communism, global and domestic. So even though things were actually going quite well in America, there were a number of signs of Soviet ascendancy, combined with American set backs on the diplomatic/international affairs front. Continued Russian aggression and development of the atom bomb, the Korean War, the “loss” of China to communism mixed with the exposure of soviet spies at home (Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs) all contributed to a sense that communism was winning, or at the very least, undermining the American government.
McCarthy’s genius was to portray communism as a black-and-white, cops-and-robbers struggle that was both easy to understand, and played on existing anxieties and fears. He also was shameless enough to use them to the hilt; and he was a genius at political intrigue. He had an uncanny ability to smell out an opponent’s weakness, and he was a master at utilising the media to his own ends.
You may have heard of it: it’s called the “megaphone effect.” Journalism, especially major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post strive hard to maintain neutrality or impartiality. They may pander or lean to the right or to the left, but by and large, they work very hard to remain “an honest broker” or “paper of record”. This means that I, as an US Senator, say that Mr. So-and-So is a communist, you, the journalist has to print this, even if you are very sure that my statement is bullshit. McCarthy was great with his timing and with his slinging of communist allegations against his political enemies.
It has been common, both when McCarthy was alive and beyond to see him a prototype American Dictator; a Hitler-in-the-Wings. And while I think that there are serious parallels between the appeal of Hitler and the appeal of McCarthy, these men are not analogous; it would be incorrect to insinuate that McCarthy was anything like Hitler. They are both eloquent examples of right-wing demagoguery that play upon fear: they offer a simple explanation or solution that emotionally satisfies. And it is scary to read as the mechanisms of American justice never quite catch up with McCarthy. Yes, he is censured by the Senate and you really have to be a bastard to be censured; think of all the crooks, frauds, and idiots in the Senate, and censure has only happened a handful of times. But McCarthy goes on a rampage that did lasting damage to American civil rights and civil society; I think our government is still paying the price for what he did to the State Department, and he never faced any sort of real punishment.
McCarthy was only stopped when he had crossed his own party, and was only censured for breaking the clubby, folklore ways of the Senate.
I would read it for its timeliness. It portrays the birth of the political parties as we know them now: the Republicans have nothing to offer and must rely on money and fear; the Democrats incapable of being a true party of the left (that sense constantly being on the defensive and having no back bone). It is also timely because it feels so modern and contemporary. What is happening in Europe and in America with Islam and terrorism, and the partisan political elements taking advantage of this fear is happening now.