McCarthy as Buccaneer

When Even Angels Wept: A Story without a Hero.
by Lately Thomas.
Morrow. 654 pp. $12.50.

For a book that bases itself on a false premise, Lately Thomas's account of the rise and fall of the late Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy stands up fairly well, is reasonably solid in its facts, and warranted in most of its assumptions. The premise, which can and does lead to dangerous conclusions, is that inasmuch as McCarthy was a swashbuckling freebooter in politics, he should be immune from moral condemnation. “One does not, one cannot, pass moral judgments upon pirates . . . the pirate is not amenable to moral laws because he recognizes none.”

The truth is, we may judge McCarthy on moral grounds and perhaps only on moral grounds. He came into national and even worldwide prominence through his one-man crusade against Communist infiltration into high government circles. It was admitted even by those who shared this purpose that he pursued it to an extreme. Now, it is in the nature of the holiest of crusades—like the holiest of wars—to be indiscriminately ruthless, but what distinguished McCarthy from other Torquemadas in history, what made him singularly reprehensible, was not his fanaticism but his lack of it, the absence in him of any moral or even political purpose. He desired, quite simply, self-aggrandizement, and any cause that would have furthered this end would have suited him as well as anti-Communism. To advance himself, moreover, he was as willing to sacrifice friend as foe, political ally as political opponent. He forced not only Owen Lattimore, John Stewart Service, Edmund Clubb, and others whose loyalties, rightly or wrongly, were being questioned, to walk the plank, but also such Establishment stalwarts as Millard Tydings, John Foster Dulles, Walter Bedell Smith, Margaret Chase Smith, and even that hard-core Tory, Robert T. Stevens, then Secretary of the Army, who as a private industrialist could not stomach Green or Meany of the non-radical AFL any more than Walter Reuther of the militant CIO—radicals all.


McCarthy himself was without loyalty of any kind, to party or to principles. It is not altogether true, as some have recently claimed, that he uncovered no Communists on his own; hard-pressed, he did pull a few out of his hat. But rather than naming names, he preferred to wave papers, flourish documentary evidence that he would allow no man to read, and quote figures for which he offered no substantiation—they may even have been accurate, for all anyone may ever know. How much these wild tactics helped the cause he professed to serve is a moot question. Undoubtedly McCarthy helped to dramatize a dangerous infiltration of Communists into high government circles. On the other hand, he spread disarray in his own camp as well as in the camp of the enemy and made it all too easy to raise the cry of McCarthyism whenever exposure of the secret and subversive activities of the lackeys of the Soviet Union (if I may paraphrase) was threatened; and in this regard he was of service to the Communists in this country and their sympathizers. If there had been no McCarthy the Communists would have created him.

It is supreme irony, and poetic justice, that it was his own party, to which he was an embarrassment, and its conservative wing, moreover, that put the quietus on his meteoric career, and it was a cry of outraged morality—“Sir, have you no shame!”—real or assumed, from Joseph Welch, attorney for the U.S. Army, that supplied the finishing touch. The liberals might howl, inside and outside of the Senate, but they were impotent. Particularly ineffective in the fight against McCarthy were those who might be called the “one-eyed liberals,” who could see injustice only through the left eye, who were keenly aware of the evils of the system under which they lived and even flourished but were blind to the sweeping inhumanities of the Soviet system. In the name of the Four Freedoms, they knowingly espoused causes, joined organizations, signed manifestoes, all sponsored by the enemies of those freedoms, and cried “guilt by association” when the fact of their involvement was pointed out. They were also the first to flee before the McCarthy reign of terror. Their panic, in fact, led them to excesses of their own, as when victims of the Hollywood and television blacklisting of suspected Communists were fired by the very people who had hired them in full knowledge of their Communist association or lack of it.

Be that as it may, the task of defeating McCarthy was left in the end to the outraged legislators of the Right. He had become too shifty even for politicians, too blatant a cheat to be allowed in the gentleman's club, too treacherous to be accepted as an ally, too dishonest to be loved, too crude to be engaging, much as he sought to appear friendly and even charming. The first open move in the Senate to subdue him, led by Margaret Chase Smith, a conservative Republican, was significantly called “A Declaration of Conscience.” Though the wish to ostracize McCarthy long preceded the deed, once he was put down he stayed subdued. It had been bull-headed stupidity, not audacity, that led him to take potshots at President Eisenhower and the revered General Marshall: the impudence of a naughty child testing to see how much he could get away with. Finally papa, too long enduring, spanked and that was the end of it.


All this, to be sure, took place on a grandiose scale, against a background of momentous world events, and, as Thomas points out, “before a rapt audience of millions.” However, the size of the stage, and the audience, even the huge billing, should not be allowed to ennoble a cheap performance. Thomas's almost juvenile obsession with the notion of McCarthy as a bold buccaneer sets the story in false perspective, or rather offers none at all. Too much time is spent on courtroom drama—McCarthy versus his accusers in the Senate—much of which was, as in a real court-of-law, mere tiresome squabbling.

The real drama was outside of the courtroom, in McCarthy's impact on the nation at large, and in particular on its liberal and progressive elements. In Thomas's account the figure of the man is made to loom too large, against too limited a background, as if we were viewing a detail, highly magnified, belonging to a huger canvas. This is useful, certainly, but restricting. Worse, the lens through which it is viewed is distorted. The book jacket proclaims “an objective appraisal,” while the author in his foreword disclaims any appraisal, political or moral, but in fact he cannot resist an occasional hurrah for his non-hero, or a jibe or two at McCarthy's opponents. Still, When Even Angels Wept is worth reading; it is carefully researched and contains much useful information. But it still falls short of being the definitive work on its subject.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link