Joseph Raymond McCarthy was Appleton’s most important native son, and its most controversial one. No Appletonian has had a more profound effect on the history of this country, or indeed, the history of the world. His influence, whether or not we realize it – or acknowledge it – extends deeply into our lives as Americans today. No other Appletonian, no matter how significant – Harry Houdini, who did not spend much time here but always considered Appleton his home town, Edna Ferber, whose “Show Boat” is an American classic, both as literature and as the subject of a groundbreaking American musical, even Willem Dafoe, one of our most respected contemporary actors – none of them has had the historical reach of Joe McCarthy, who started his life just outside Appleton’s borders in a Grand Chute farm house and ended it beneath a headstone in St. Mary Cemetery on a bluff overlooking a beautiful stretch of our Fox River, and if any of you have ever visited you’ll agree that it’s the best seat in that proverbial house. Joe McCarthy, as they are not, is an “ism,” and few Americans in our history – few in world history, for that matter - have that “honor,” if we can call it that.
When we think about individuals after whom an “ism” is named, it is often not a compliment. Think about it…..Stalinism. Maoism. Peronism (after the Argentinian authoritarian, famously husband to “Evita”). Even today, “Trumpism,” usually employed by his political opponents as an epithet. So, the use of an “ism” after one’s name customarily implies controversy and negativity, but it also connotes an enduring legacy that survives death and lives on unto the generations.
That is what Appleton’s most famous native son has bequeathed to the nation and the world. Whether he intended it or not, McCarthyism has come to mean suspicion, intolerance, innuendo, and fear – and lest we seek to comfort ourselves by viewing it only as a disease of the right in America – and of course that is how it began – it is clear that McCarthyism is now an equal opportunity smear device, now used by the left against its perceived enemies in ways that would have been familiar to McCarthy himself.
So, McCarthyism has offered us very few heroes, on either side of our political divide. Both now seem to possess his self-righteousness, his disregard for nuance and context, his suspicion of the motives of “the other side,” his affinity for scapegoating, and his willingness – now exponentially more powerful and wide-reaching in an age of social media that fortunately McCarthy himself never lived to see – to hurl the most exaggerated and untruthful accusations at their political enemies, all in an environment that seems to regard the mere loss of an election, a single election cycle, as a cataclysmic event that foretells the end of democracy altogether. If you want to know where our present-day culture of “if you disagree with me, your motives, your character, even your validity as a fellow human being are suspect” comes from, you can look to McCarthy and McCarthyism. If you want to know where the idea of “fake news” comes from – and again, as much as we wish to blame it all on “the other side,” it emanates from both sides today - look again to McCarthy and McCarthyism. If you want to know where hateful “twitter mobs,” again a feature of both left and right in our country today, come from, look to McCarthy and his “ism.”
We have a poisoned political atmosphere in this country the likes of which I have never seen – and I’ve been observing, thinking about, and writing about American politics, if you put it all together, for about half a century now – and while I do not claim to give McCarthy all the blame – that would itself be a form of “McCarthyism” – there are others, again on both sides of the political divide, who are also to blame. So much of what we are living through today can be traced to the moral and ethically compromised Pandora’s Box that McCarthy opened during the comparatively short but deadly time during which he was at the height of his power and influence, roughly 1950 to 1954. McCarthyism is America’s saddest and most destructive “ism,” and it seems to have entered and infected our country’s bloodstream in permanent ways.
But having said all this, McCarthy’s story is more complicated than a simple morality play with good people arrayed on one side and bad ones on the other. The reasons it is complicated are twofold, I think.
The first reason is the fact that Communist subversion and espionage in America, the kind that McCarthy railed about, and called hearings about, and badgered witnesses about, and gave ranting press conferences about, actually existed in the United States during the early Cold War years – it existed throughout the Cold War – and was, despite the left’s attempt to minimize it, a serious problem in American life during that time. McCarthy may have been wrong on the specifics – few of his investigative targets were true threats to our national security – but he was correct that there were spies and subversives in our midst, and that some – Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official who almost certainly was a Soviet spy and Julius Rosenberg, a part of a Soviet-sponsored atomic spy ring in the United States, were the most notable but they were not the only ones – some intended to do and indeed did significant damage to their country. They were traitors.
And one did not have to be a McCarthyite, or even a conservative, to know this. Plenty of American liberals during the 1950s, including Hubert Humphrey, the great liberal Senator from Minnesota and future Vice President, and Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers who was closer to socialism in his politics even than to liberalism, and who fought a long and bitter battle to prevent Communists from taking over his union, understood this as well.
So to use McCarthy and McCarthyism to avoid coming to grips with the legitimate dangers posed by Communism in both its internal and external manifestations to American freedom and democracy, as some on the left at the time attempted to do, and as many historians writing after the fact have attempted to do, is, while not on a par with the excesses of McCarthyism itself, wrong, and I would argue, reprehensible. Tell the truth. That is the task of the historian, and indeed, it is a duty all of us have. And if we tell the truth, we cannot avoid the fact that there was a danger in the America of Joe McCarthy’s time from Soviet-sponsored subversion. McCarthy – and McCarthyism – doesn’t absolve us of the duty to tell the truth.