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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 450-454
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The Other Shoe Remains Aloft
Richard M. Fried
Arthur Herman. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000. 404 pp. Illustrations, appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index. $26.00.
As Arthur Herman's Joseph McCarthy neared publication, one felt a frisson that perhaps the other shoe might drop. The first incoming footwear had been the revelation of the contents of the top-secret VENONA project, the decryption of Soviet cable traffic from the war years. These intercepts showed that many more Americans worked, in one fashion or another, for Soviet intelligence than partisans of the New Deal had ever imagined. Many accusations which liberals once ridiculed as the meanspirited or loopy vaporings of HUAC and its devotees turned out to find substance in VENONA. 1
So perhaps this book would prove McCarthy right after all. That it does not do: There are no bombshells, no smoking guns. Herman, coordinator of the Smithsonian Institution's Western Civilization Program and adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, does seek to redress the senator's squalid reputation, though possibly with less gusto than McCarthy's more avid boosters might wish, and McCarthy's memory can take only so much refurbishing. He concedes many of McCarthy's shortcomings and vices-his lying, his alcohol problem, his loss of focus at key stages-and he speculates that McCarthy suffered from hypomania. The text is strewn with qualifications like the comment that McCarthy was "making a good point badly" (p. 100). Ultimately Herman rehabilitates not so much McCarthy's actions as the worldview of his conservative intellectual supporters in the 1950s-mainly those who helped William F. Buckley found and then wrote for the National Review.
The book is less a full-blown biography than a biographical meditation on the context and the meaning of McCarthy's rise and fall. Its evidentiary basis is chiefly secondary works. New primary sources include Department of the Army materials in the National Archives, which bear on the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, and the Francis McNamara Collection at George Mason University. (McNamara edited the anti-communist newsletter Counterattack and worked for the House Un-American Activities Committee.) A dip into the [End Page 450] J. B. Matthews Papers, some interviews with McCarthy allies, a brief visit to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and a junket to Appleton, mostly it would seem to visit McCarthy's grave, mark the outer limits of the original research. These gleanings add texture but little shape.
This remote-control reliance on secondary sources means that the book sometimes gets it wrong. McCarthy let go his February 1950 opening salvo and sent the president a feisty telegram, to which, says Herman, Truman "angrily" wired back: "you are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the Government of the United States" (p. 101). Truman often composed, as therapy, hostile retorts he would have liked to have mailed. This one was never sent. 2
In a case of overkill, Herman discards one of the era's foundational myths--that McCarthy, desperate for a reelection gambit, hatched his crusade at dinner in January 1950 with a group that included Father Edmund Walsh, rector of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. The author asserts that the episode "had no more basis in hard fact" than Roy Cohn's fishy tale of how an Army intelligence officer, slipping McCarthy a secret report about Reds in government, inspired him to act (p. 97). For his account of the famous meal, Eric F. Goldman canvassed McCarthy's other two dinner companions. One, Washington attorney William A. Roberts, who became McCarthy's energetic foe, was a frequent source for the "Dinner at the Colony" story. Drew Pearson, his client and an ardent McCarthy critic, soon made it a staple of his column, often exaggerating Georgetown's role in launching the McCarthy era. Given such origins, one might well discount the story of a feckless McCarthy who was taken in hand by three...