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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1105-1129

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The Smearing of Joe McCarthy:

The Lavender Scare, Gossip, and Cold War Politics

Despite historians' best efforts to disassociate the anticommunist purges of the post-World War II era from one individual's extreme behav-ior, the early cold war years continue to be known as the McCarthy era, and Senator Joseph McCarthy remains a symbol—perhaps the paramount symbol—of irrationality and illegitimacy in American politics. His fall from grace in 1954 likewise denotes the return to moral order and political sanity. McCarthy did not introduce the practices and policies of political repression and sexual oppression that constituted the domestic cold war, and many of those practices and policies outlasted him. Nonetheless, he inhabits our memories as their most visceral representation. The man—his name, his face, as much as his behavior—stands for the era.1

One of the most enduring images of that era is a photograph of McCarthy's aide, Roy Cohn, whispering into the senator's ear. In 1954, the pose was already iconic. It signified McCarthy's untrustworthiness by marking as illicit his relationship with another man—an unsurprising rhetorical device, given the ways that homophobia and anticommunism were intertwined in the domestic politics of the time. As two decades of careful scholarship has revealed, the "red scare" was accompanied by a far-reaching "lavender scare," in which thousands of suspected homosexuals were investigated, interrogated, and dismissed by government officials and private employers.2 Senator McCarthy himself played a role in popularizing these antihomosexual purges; ironically, he became their victim as well.3

In this essay, I examine more closely the sexual smearing of Joe McCarthy in order to elaborate the cultural logic and political practices of the era that bears his name. The terms of the sexual attack upon McCarthy responded to his own self-presentation as a Washington outsider, a self-made, autonomous, and aggressive representative of the common man. This gendered persona was destabilized by portrayals of the senator as dependent upon, dominated by, or beholden to men without a legitimate claim to political authority. Explicit [End Page 1105] statements that McCarthy himself was homosexual rarely made it into the media, but the senator's enemies, both liberal and moderate, were nonetheless able to smear him by framing his relations with his "circle" as suspect. In the heightened anxiety that accompanied the expansion of the national security state, inappropriate private relationships often functioned as signifiers of disloyalty, and insinuations about McCarthy's relations with other men cast suspicion on his fitness as a representative of the public interest.4 Focusing on McCarthy illustrates how homophobia could be used as a political tool, even against one of the figures most closely associated with the anticommunist and antihomosexual campaigns.

More broadly, the smearing of Senator McCarthy reveals much about the sexualization of cold war politics. First, it demonstrates that cold war liberals not only subscribed to the cultural logic of the lavender scare; they employed some of its tactics to pursue their own ends. Other scholars have shown that cold war liberals established their anticommunist credentials by embracing a rhetoric of masculine virility. Here, I emphasize the means by which liberals worked against the excesses of anticommunism by using "gay-baiting to fight against red-baiting," employing some of the same strategies as did the Republican moderates who feared McCarthy's corrosive influence on his own party.5

Second, examining the uses of sexual gossip against McCarthy deepens our understanding of the connections between the lavender and red scares. Historians who have excavated the antihomosexual campaign have pointed to a number of factors giving rise to the lavender purge. Among these are the unsettling impact of the 1948 publication of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and the growing visibility of gay communities in the postwar years. Further, many commentators understood communists and homosexuals to possess similar characteristics, including moral corruption, psychological immaturity, and an ability to "pass" undetected among ordinary Americans. More fundamentally, communists and homosexuals were linked...