By M. Stanton Evans
Readers of these pages may recall that last year I published a study of Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.), the premier Red-hunter of the 1950s, based on long-secret but now available Cold War records (Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy; Crown Forum. Reviewed in HUMAN EVENTS for November 5, 2007)
While the main burden of my McCarthy volume was the substance of his charges and what we currently know about them, a subtext was the extent to which the truth about such matters has been covered up in academic and media treatments of the era. In a nutshell, as I show in some detail, there has been a massive falsification of the record, involving the suppression or denial of key data, and flagrant misreporting of crucial episodes by journalists and alleged scholars.
Such misreporting, sad to relate, continues still today—both in responses to my book, and in more general comment on McCarthy. A prime example is a recent anti-McCarthy article in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, by Ronald Kessler. As I noted in a letter to the Journal, this Kessler piece was an admixture of demonstrable falsehoods and uncheckable bloviations from deceased third parties. My letter briefly citing chapter and verse about these matters reads as follows:
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Like many other critics of Joe McCarthy, Ronald Kessler would be more persuasive if he knew something of the subject.
Kessler’s Journal essay (“The Real Joe McCarthy,” April 22), attacking the Wisconsin senator and taking a sidewise shot at my recent book about him, is an odd amalgam of unverifiable hearsay and a handful of items checkable from the record. It’s noteworthy that, on the checkable matters, Kessler is repeatedly, and egregiously, in error.
For openers, there is the bizarre assertion in Kessler’s lead that, 54 years ago this April, McCarthy “started his televised hearings on alleged Soviet spies and Communists in the Army.” The point is twice repeated in subsequent paragraphs referring to these sessions as McCarthy hearings.
In fact, the hearings that began 54 years ago this April weren’t hearings conducted by McCarthy, but hearings in which he was the main defendant, brought on by charges lodged against him by the Army. Kessler has obviously confused these sessions with the Fort Monmouth inquest of the previous year run by McCarthy. Anyone who doesn’t know the difference between these two sets of hearings can’t be taken seriously as an authority on such topics.
Scarcely better is Kessler’s repetition, as supposed fact, of the discredited notion that McCarthy claimed a list of “205 Communists” in the State Department, then crawfished and changed the number to 57. (McCarthy’s version was that he never claimed 205, but had said 57 all along.) I devote two chapters to this issue, showing (a) that the alleged documentation of McCarthy’s supposed lying about the numbers was a backstage concoction of the State Department, and (b) that the charge of McCarthy’s having claimed 205 was debunked in 1951 by investigators for a Democratically controlled committee of the Senate. (Curiously, after the investigators turned in a 40-page report that in essence backed McCarthy, their memo would abruptly vanish—to be recovered later.)
Likewise with the face-value quote of Army Counsel Joseph Welch’s lachrymose denunciation of McCarthy for allegedly having outed Welch assistant Frederick Fisher as a former member of the National Lawyers Guild, an officially cited Communist front. Omitted from this Welchian morality play—and apparently unknown to Kessler, since he says nothing of it—is that Fisher had already been outed to the press and public as a former member of the Guild—by none other than Joe Welch, six weeks before this set-to with McCarthy.
As to Kessler’s hearsay accounts of what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover supposedly said to William Sullivan or what Robert Lamphere then said to Kessler, suffice it to note that these windy generalizations about deceased third parties are uncheckable by their nature. Somewhat more susceptible to proof are comments that McCarthy made false accusations against a host of innocent people (specifics, please) and that the FBI couldn’t find any Communists in the State Department to back his charges.
If that were true (which it isn’t), then the Bureau was more incompetent than its worst enemies have imagined, as there were indeed Communists in the State Department when McCarthy came along, as shown by the official records. In my book I give a complete list of McCarthy’s early suspects, plus now accessible data on many of these cases that show Communist affiliation, hanging out with Moscow spies, identification as Soviet agents in the Venona papers, and so on.
In one notable instance, it’s possible to check Kessler’s hearsay stories from the grave, as he quotes a third-party account in which Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune allegedly said McCarthy picked up the “205” number concerning Communists in the State Department from a rumor relayed by Edwards. This, however, is also wrong, as shown by a memorandum on the matter from Edwards himself (provided by his son, Lee). This says McCarthy may have picked up the number 57 (not 205) from an Edwards article listing this number of suspects in the Federal government—a speculation that supports McCarthy’s version of the numbers and contradicts the Kessler version.
A final instance to be noted is Kessler’s reliance on Senate associate historian Donald Ritchie, who edited the McCarthy executive hearings for publication. Though Kessler quotes Ritchie as an impartial expert, the facts of the matter are quite different. In numerous comments, Ritchie has routinely stacked the deck against McCarthy—most conspicuously and most often in McCarthy’s most famous case, that of Annie Lee Moss.
Mrs. Moss, who appeared before McCarthy in March of ’54, has been portrayed for 50 years as a mistaken-identity victim because the committee supposedly collared the wrong suspect. Ritchie’s treatment of the case, cited to secondary sources, reinforces the standard image of Moss as victim and McCarthy as browbeating tyrant. All of this, however, again is false, as shown by the extensive archives of the FBI and other official records.
When I got Ritchie on the phone I asked if he had by any chance checked out these official sources, rather than simply citing other academics. When I offered to sum up the relevant data proving McCarthy was right about the case, the historian grew irate, said “I am growing very tired of this conversation” and quickly ended our discussion. Such is the supposedly impartial authority quoted by Kessler—all too typical of the recycled error that passes for historical knowledge of McCarthy.
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Though devoting about a third of a page to venting provable misstatements about McCarthy, the Journal has explicitly refused to run my answer. The reasons given for this include (a) that my rebuttal was too long—though considerably shorter than Kessler’s essay (I have been told that a 200-word letter might be considered); (b) that the paper didn’t realize I wanted to have the letter run since it was emailed by an office staffer; (c) that the paper doesn’t accept op-eds in answer to previous op-eds. Bottom line: The Journal has plenty of room to run wildly inaccurate hearsay statements about McCarthy, but no comparable space for accurate data from official records.
As it happens, this is not my first such experience with the Journal. Five years ago, the paper ran a misleading column by Dorothy Rabinowitz attacking Ann Coulter for her comments on McCarthy, the main point of contention being the above-noted case of Annie Lee Moss. Ann’s comments were very much on target, while those of Rabinowitz were, to put it mildly, misguided. On that occasion I wrote a letter to the Journal pointing out the facts about the case. That missive never appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
In these instances of stonewalling and refusal to correct the record on McCarthy, the Journal is following in the footsteps of other newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. I recite some of these earlier episodes of misreporting in my book, and my previous attempts to set the record straight concerning McCarthy and his cases. Concerning these I wrote:
“Responses to these sporadic efforts have always been the same—reluctance to admit or fix the problem, or even to run a letter pointing out the miscue. The prevailing attitude seems to be: We will print any off-the-wall assertion about McCarthy that comes along, without bothering to check any facts whatever, and if we get called on it won’t correct the record. Why such a mindset should exist, and what it says about the state of journalistic ethics, are intriguing questions, but less important than the effects of such slovenly reportage on our understanding of the Cold War and Joe McCarthy’s involvement in it.”
As is readily apparent, these comments about the mostly liberal press corps and its treatment of McCarthy fit my experiences with the Journal like a glove. The bias of such as the Washington Post and New York Times on such topics is well known and only to be expected. But why should there be similar misreporting and stonewalling at The Wall Street Journal?