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.


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