Saturday, February 18, 2023

McCarthyism: Historiography frozen in time

When Facts cannot overcome the narrative

In his (very good) biography of Sen. McCarthy (1982), Thomas C. Reeves summed up the verdict of history:

Perhaps no other figure has been portrayed so consistently as the essence of evil. He is our King John.
Forty years later this remains largely true. Despite all the revelations about Soviet espionage and subversion, McCarthy remains a litmus test for historians and journalists alike. Even scholars who explore the communist's secret war against America usually conclude with a ritualistic declaration that these disclosures do not prove that McCarthy was right or mitigate the evil that was McCarthyism.

To be anti-McCarthy is part of the catechism of faith that one must proclaim in order to be accepted in academia or “prestige journalism”.

Ann Coulter:

McCarthyism is one of the markers on the left's Via Dolorossa. It is their slavery, their gulag, their potato famine. Otherwise, liberals would just be geeks from Manhattan and Hollywood.
And what great evils did McCarthy perpetrate to become this linchpin of liberal faith?

Did he imprison thousands of American citizens who had committed no crime?

No – that was FDR and he remains a liberal saint in good standing.

Did he enforce segregation in federal employment and do nothing during the rise of the second KKK?

That was Woodrow Wilson. Again-- a liberal icon.

After all the moaning and wailing, the verdict ends up being anti-climatic:

He was not a would-be dictator. He did not threaten our constitutional system, but he did hurt many who lived under it.
David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense
How did the senator hurt them? He questioned their loyalty, honesty, and/or competence.

Oddly enough, that standard was never applied to Adam Schiff and the other Russian hoaxers.

Historical black holes: When Facts cannot overcome the narrative

Only a handful of historical figures get the McCarthy treatment. Usually, historians want to present a measured, nuanced view of any prominent figure. Only a few receive unalloyed opprobrium.

Like McCarthy, Gen. Douglas MacArthur has wound up in that category. He is routinely included on lists of the “worst generals” of WWII or the “most over-rated generals” American history.

Both men's historical standing is impervious to revision. Other figures, Ulysses Grant, for example, see their image rise or fall with changing mores and unsealed archives. For the two Macs reappraisal is treated as heresy.

Another similarity is that the enduring reputation is heavily based on their personality flaws as conveyed by journalists and enemies. Real accomplishments are treated almost as an afterthought while warmed-over gossip takes center stage. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea  becomes less a smashing victory and, instead, is an example of MacArthur's PR mania. Soviet spies in the White House and the Manhattan Project are less important than the denigration of Adlai Stevenson.


Wednesday, February 01, 2023

McCarthy and the intellectuals: Not that innocent

In the Standard Received Narrative of McCarthyism, the junior senator from Wisconsin did incalculable damage to American civil liberties. His wild charges, we are informed, cast a pall over our intellectual life. The best minds of a generation were hounded and blacklisted for uttering unpopular truths, for their youthful idealism, for their naivety in choosing friends and associates.

And it was all for nothing. True Communists were rare and even they were never a real threat to America.

Except that is not the way it was.

Robert Warshow:

For the intellectual, however, the Communist movement was the fact of central importance; the New Deal remained an external phenomenon, part of that 'larger' world of American public life from which he had long seperated himself-- he might 'support' the New Deal (as later on, perhaps, he 'supported' the war), but he never identified himself with it. One way or another, he did identify himself with the Communist movement.
The 30s intellectuals were anything but naïve.

Robert Conquest:

One of the things that gave even Stalinism its prestige in the west, even (or especially) among those who recognized that its methods were immensely ruthless, was the abstract, utoptian notion that there was a certain horrible grandeur in what was going on. Men of ideas, who had profoundly considered the laws of history, were creating a new society and taking upon themselves the guilt of the necessary merciless action.
Nor were they drawn into the Stalinist orbit because they were pacific do-gooders.

Tony Judt:

Western intellectual enthusiasm for communism peaked not in the time of 'goulash communism' or 'socialism with a human face,' but rather at the moments of the regime's worst cruelties: 1935-1939 and 1944-1956. Writers and professors and teachers and trade unionists admired and loved Stalin not in spite of his faults, but because of them. It was when he was murdering people on an industrial scale, when the show trials were displaying Communism at its most theatrically macabre, that men and women were most seduced by the man and his cult. Likewise the cult of Mao in the West.
Noel Annan:
The poets of the thirties were intoxicated with the idea of violence. You could not be sincere unless you were prepared to have blood on your hands. For Day Lewis it was the hour of the knife, for Spender light was to be brought to life by bringing death to the age-long exploiters. 'We're much ruder,' boasted Day Lewis writing to his scavenger press baron, 'and we're learning to shoot.'
Donald Rayfield
Chekisty and poets were drawn to each other like stoats and rabbits-- often with fatal consequences for the latter. They found common ground: the need for fame, an image of themselves as crusaders, creative frustration, membership of a vanguard, scorn for the bourgeoisie, an inability to discuss their work with common mortals. There was an easily bridged gap between between the symbolist poet who aimed to epater le bourgeois and the checkist who stood the bourgeois up against the wall.
Owen Lattimore, one of McCarthy's first “victims” – he was, really, he wrote a book about it – was so concerned about civil liberties that he defended the Moscow show trials and praised conditions in the Soviet Gulags.

Hemingway did not become the darling of the intellectual Left until he went to Spain and befriended one of Stalin's willing executioners. When he told Dos Passos in Madrid, “Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or against us” he spoke for the large numbers of American intellectuals.

Dos Passos, who really did care about liberty and the dignity of man, saw his literary reputation destroyed and his character maligned because he preferred to think for himself rather than let Stalin do it for him.

He was the exception.

In the 1930s to be an intellectual was to be on the Left, and to be on the Left it was necessary to be Stalin-friendly if not an outright Stalinist. One might not support the party line in public, but one never opposed it publicly. Dos Passos dared to do it, and paid the price.

Many of the journals that wailed about McCarthy in the 1950s joined in the politically motivated “literary execution” of Dos Passos in the 1930s.

Intellectual life, for the intellectuals shaped by the 1930s was defined by willful blindness.

Richard Wright:
They denounced books they had never read, people they had never known, ideas they could never understand, and doctrines they could not pronounce.
Edward Dmytryk:

I found out that I couldn't read a book by Koestler because he was an ex-Communist. I remember saying to Adrian [Scott] 'I've been reading a very good book.' He said 'What?' I said, 'Koestler's Darknes at Noon.' He said, 'Oh my God! Don't tell anybody that!' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'He's an ex-Communist-- you're not supposed to read him!

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