The title of Arthur Herman?s book, setting the record straight about Senator Joe McCarthy, refers to McCarthy as “America?s Most Hated Senator.” This is a phrase that still captures the hostility in the media and academia that greets his name. But in a recent address to a conference entitled “Rethinking McCarthy,” the George Mason University Professor discussed the popular support that existed for McCarthy?s campaign to root communists out of government. Taking on the charge that McCarthy engaged in a delusional witch-hunt, Herman said, “There really were witches out there to be hunted.”
Despite the left-wing criticism of his book, he detects a change in media coverage of McCarthy and the period in which he operated. He said there is growing recognition about the deep communist penetration of the U.S. Government at the time. Some of this stems from a review of the new evidence that has come out from Soviet archives and decoded Soviet cables during World War II. He noted that a New York Times Magazine piece from last November basically admitted, despite decades of left-wing doubt, that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs really were Soviet agents. Herman said he personally is now in the cross hairs, because he has confirmed the essential accuracy of Joe McCarthy?s charges. But he seemed confident that the New York Times and other media would eventually come to accept the truth about McCarthy as well.
He said the truth has even crept into academia. He talked about a colleague who wanted to review information from the Soviet archives and cables and changed his views based on the evidence. Even his students, he said, accept the facts about the guilt of Hiss and the Rosenbergs.
How does this change of perception affect McCarthy?s place in history? While he said some of McCarthy?s claims were inaccurate, many of them can now be seen as reasonable and rational. And, equally important, they were seen that way at the time. He said McCarthy, a Republican, struck a chord by saying that the Democratic administrations of the time were failing to safeguard the national security of the United States. But Herman said that when he extended these criticisms to the Republican Eisenhower Administration, he began losing support from the public and his own party.
Herman said McCarthy overreached in his criticisms of General George Marshall, who, as Secretary of State, was accused of furthering the aims of the communists in the Soviet Union and China. Herman said Marshall was a legitimate target of criticism by many in Congress, including Senator Robert Taft, but that McCarthy carried the attack too far.
Herman said that while McCarthy can be criticized for his accusations against those who facilitated the communist takeover of China, scholars would be well-advised not to focus on McCarthy?s charges but the motives of those he named. He wondered how so many seemingly smart people could be taken in by the communists or become their agents. Herman explained, “The shift of focus has to come because now we really do understand just how deep, how active and how prevalent that Soviet espionage activity really had been.”