A longtime smear campaign has clouded the truth.
James J. Drummey is a former senior editor of THE NEW AMERICAN. This article appeared originally in the May 11, 1987 issue of this magazine.
Whether Joe McCarthy was right or wrong, it is important that we know the truth about him. If he was wrong, then we can learn some important lessons for the future. If he was right, then we need to be vitally concerned about the issues he raised because virtually nothing has been done to deal effectively with those issues since the mid-1950s.
This article will attempt to answer
many of the questions asked about Joe McCarthy and the criticisms directed
at him. The responses are based on years of study of McCarthy's speeches
and writings, congressional hearings in which he was involved, and more
than a score of books about him, most of them highly critical and condemnatory.
I. The Years Before 1950
Q. Was Joseph McCarthy a lax and unethical judge?
A. Joe McCarthy was elected as a circuit judge in Wisconsin in 1939 and took over a district court that had a backlog of more than 200 cases. By eliminating a lot of legal red tape and working long hours (his court remained open past midnight at least a dozen times), Judge McCarthy cleared up the backlog quickly and, in the words of one local newspaper, "administered justice promptly and with a combination of legal knowledge and good sense."
Q. Did McCarthy exaggerate his military record in World War II?
A. Although his judgeship exempted him from military service, McCarthy enlisted in the Marines and was sworn in as a first lieutenant in August 1942. He served as an intelligence officer for a bomber squadron stationed in the Solomon Islands, and also risked his life by volunteering to fly in the tail-gunner's seat on many combat missions. Those who quibble about the number of combat missions he flew miss the point - he didn't have to fly any.
The enemies of McCarthy have seized on his good-natured remark about shooting down coconut trees from his tail-gunner's spot (an ABC television movie about McCarthy in the late 1970s was entitled Tail Gunner Joe) to belittle his military accomplishments, but the official record gives the true picture. Not only were McCarthy's achievements during 30 months of active duty unanimously praised by his commanding officers, but Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, issued the following citation regarding the service of Captain McCarthy:
For meritorious and efficient performance of duty as an observer and rear gunner of a dive bomber attached to a Marine scout bombing squadron operating in the Solomon Islands area from September 1 to December 31, 1943. He participated in a large number of combat missions, and in addition to his regular duties, acted as aerial photographer. He obtained excellent photographs of enemy gun positions, despite intense anti-aircraft fire, thereby gaining valuable information which contributed materially to the success of subsequent strikes in the area. Although suffering from a severe leg injury, he refused to be hospitalized and continued to carry out his duties as Intelligence Officer in a highly efficient manner. His courageous devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.Q. Was McCarthy backed by the communists in his 1946 campaign for the U.S. Senate?
A. In 1946, Joe McCarthy upset incumbent U.S. Senator Robert La Follette by 5,378 votes in the Republican primary and went on to beat Democrat Howard McMurray by 251,658 votes in the general election. The Communist Party of Wisconsin had originally circulated petitions to place its own candidate on the ballot as an independent in the general election. When McCarthy scored his surprising victory over La Follette, the communists did not file the petitions for their candidate, but rallied instead behind McMurray. Thus, Joe McCarthy defeated a Democratic-Communist Party coalition in 1946.
Q. Had Joseph McCarthy ever spoken out against communism prior to his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950?
A. Those who contend that McCarthy stumbled across communism while searching for an issue to use in his 1952 re-election campaign will be disappointed to know that the senator had been speaking out against communism for years. He made communism an issue in his campaign against Howard McMurray in 1946, charging that McMurray had received the endorsement of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper. In April 1947, McCarthy told the Madison Capital Times that his top priority was "to stop the spread of communism."
During a speech in Milwaukee in 1952, Senator McCarthy dated the public phase of his fight against communists to May 22, 1949, the night that former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal was found dead on the ground outside Bethesda Naval Hospital. "The communists hounded Forrestal to his death," said McCarthy. "They killed him just as definitely as if they had thrown him from that sixteenth-story window in Bethesda Naval Hospital." McCarthy said that "while I am not a sentimental man, I was touched deeply and left numb by the news of Forrestal's murder. But I was affected much more deeply when I heard of the communist celebration when they heard of Forrestal's murder. On that night, I dedicated part of this fight to Jim Forrestal."
Thus, Joe McCarthy was receptive in
the fall of 1949 when three men brought to his office a 100-page FBI report
alleging extensive communist penetration of the State Department. The trio
had asked three other senators to awaken the American people to this dangerous
situation, but only McCarthy was willing to take on this volatile project.
II. A Lone Senator (1950-1952)
Q. What was the security situation in the State Department at the time of McCarthy's Wheeling speech in February 1950?
A. Communist infiltration of the State Department began in the 1930s. On September 2, 1939, former communist Whittaker Chambers provided Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle with the names and communist connections of two dozen spies in the government, including Alger Hiss. Berle took the information to President Roosevelt, but FDR laughed it off. Hiss moved rapidly up the State Department ladder and served as an adviser to Roosevelt at the disastrous 1945 Yalta Conference that paved the way for the Soviet conquest of Central and Eastern Europe. Hiss also functioned as secretary-general of the founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, helped to draft the UN Charter, and later filled dozens of positions at the UN with American communists before he was publicly exposed as a Soviet spy by Whittaker Chambers in 1948.
The security problem at the State
Department had worsened considerably in 1945 when a merger brought into
State thousands of employees from such war agencies as the Office of Strategic
Services, the Office of War Information, and the Foreign Economic Administration
- all of which were riddled with members of the communist underground.
J. Anthony Panuch, the State Department official charged with supervising
the 1945 merger, told a Senate committee in 1953 that "the biggest single
thing that contributed to the infiltration of the State Department was
the merger of 1945. The effects of that are still being felt." In 1947,
Secretary of State George Marshall and Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson
engineered the firing of Panuch and the removal of every key member of
his security staff.