October 17, 2003

Eliot Abrams Identifies Himself with Joe McCarthy

Eliot Abrams of the National Security Council staff may (or may not: I cannot assess the probabilities) be one of the White House aides who betrayed the covert identity of Joe Wilson's wife, and thus joined the ranks of those whom George H.W. Bush would call "insidious traitors." At least, Abrams has been fingered by various Washington journalists who hang from the gossip vine (and who may or may not know anything at all).

It is in this context, I find it interesting that in an article he wrote for National Review back in 1986 Eliott Abrams not only defended but--in a sense--identified himself with Joe McCarthy:

Here's something I wrote on this several years ago:


Eliott Abrams, "McCarthyism Reconsidered," National Review February 26, 1996, pp. 57-60. [A review of the reissue of William McCarthy and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies (Regnery).]


To read Eliott Abrams's review of Buckley and Bozell's McCarthy and His Enemies is to enter a strange and inverted world. One learns that the issue at stake in the fight over Senator Joe McCarthy was not whether General of the Army, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense George Marshall was a Maoist traitor, or whether there actually were 57 card-carrying Communists in the State Department--that is a left-wing delusion that distorts what the fight over Senator Joe McCarthy was about.

Instead, according to Eliott Abrams, the key issue in assessing Joe McCarthy was "whether the State Department was running its security program well or poorly." Moreover, in order to show that the State Department was running its security policy poorly, Senator McCarthy did not need to demonstrate that there were spies in the State Department. Instead, all he needed to do was to "show that there was some evidence that an employee was a security or loyalty risk--present "enough evidence to raise reasonable doubt as to whether all loyalty and security risks had been removed from the State Department." Abrams believes that McCarthy did meet this standard of proof: "In most of his cases McCarthy adduced persuasive evidence; the State Department's efforts stood condemned; and the screams of 'Red Scare' were efforts to occlude the truth."

Now this sets the bar very, very low: Truman, Marshall, and Acheson, and after them Eisenhower and Dulles, would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that every single employee of the State Department was not a "security or loyalty risk" in order to meet it. Never mind that George Marshall was not a Maoist traitor, or that there were not 57 card-carrying Communists in the State Department. After all, "McCarthy was in a business that permitted a certain latitude," "politics, not physics." Abrams quotes with approval Buckley and Bozell's statements that "McCarthy's record is... not only much better than his critics allege, but, given his metier, extremely good," and that McCarthy "should not be remembered as the man who didn't produce 57 Communist Party cards but as the man who brought public pressure to bear on the State Department to revise its practices and to eliminate from responsible positions flagrant security risks."

With the bar set so very, very low, Abrams can conclude that McCarthy and his supporters were true patriots--rather than unscrupulous demagogues seeking partisan advantage. He can even praise Buckley and Bozell's McCarthy and His Enemies for its moral seriousness: lauding its "special contribution... challeng[ing] the liberals' claim to the moral high ground. [Buckley and Bozell] faced and rejected the argument that McCarthyism was in its very essence evil because it was an effort at censorship and thought control. Its essence, they argued, was to defend liberty from Communism." And he can praise Buckley and Bozell for standing up to liberal anti-McCarthyite hysteria:

At precisely the moment of greatest hysteria, Buckley and Bozell insisted on clarity of thought and moral purpose. The intellectual standards they upheld here do them honor four decades later, not least because so many in the academic and intellectual elites were happy to compromise those standards in the interest of "democratic centralism." The book remains of lasting value not so much for its factual accounts or its political reasoning, but because of its moral stance.

Now this is a startling inversion of the way the story is usually told--and, I would argue, the way it really happened. The hysteria--traitors in the cabinet, large cells of card-carrying Communists making foreign policy--was McCarthy's. The honor and moral purpose were those of McCarthy's political opponents. That's the standard judgment.

So how does Eliott Abrams account for the fact that history's--strongly negative--judgment of Joe McCarthy is so wildly divergent from Abrams's--strongly positive judgment? I think the key is found in a long passage two-thirds of the way through the review, where Abrams tries to explain why Joe McCarthy lost the political battle:

As [Whittaker] Chambers had predicted, [Joseph] McCarthy's blunders became capital crimes for which his cause would be punished. His opponents' capital crimes became blunders that were not newsworthy. Thus the many hearings about McCarthy focused not on whether State Department procedures really were adequate, but first on whether McCarthy had offered legally persuasive proof that Mr. X and Mrs. Y were indeed espionage agents, and then on whether McCarthy was behaving himself. What neither McCarthy, nor Buckley and Bozell, could have known in 1954 was that this new pattern would take hold in our public life.... [I]t was in the McCarthy era that the iron triangle of liberal bureaucrats, a liberal press, and liberal Democrats in control of Congress was first evident.... But from the early 1950s on, the pattern unveiled in the McCarthy era reigned supreme, reaching its apotheosis in the Watergate and Iran/Contra hearings.

Abrams's answer is that McCarthy was smeared--smeared by the liberal press, smeared by liberal congressmen holding circus-like hearings, smeared by liberal bureaucrats. Abrams thinks that McCarthy was smeared, just like Abrams think Nixon was smeared in Watergate and just like Abrams thinks that... Eliott Abrams was smeared in Iran-Contra.

Now most of us do not think that Eliott Abrams was smeared in Iran-Contra. In October 1986 Senator Richard Lugar asked Eliott Abrams whether there was any government involvement in the then-ongoing Contra resupply effort. Abrams replied that the effort was undertaken "without any encouragement and coordination from us, other than a public speech by the President, that kind of thing, on the public record." Representative Hamilton asked Eliott Abrams whether the statement that "the United States Government has not done anything to facilitate the activities of these private groups" was "a fair statement," and Abrams said "Yes." Most of us think that Eliott Abrams troubles sprang from the fact that these two statements of his were lies. But clearly it is difficult for Abrams to see his legal and political troubles in the late 1980s as his own doing.

And here is the answer to why Abrams has such a strongly positive evaluation of Joe McCarthy--because Abrams has identified himself with McCarthy, or McCarthy with himself. In Abrams's eyes, both are politicians trying to pursue good ends who make blunders and then are trapped and smeared by ruthless, liberal opponents. Trapped, yes; ruthless, yes. But to call a McCarthy opponent (albeit a cowardly one) like Dwight Eisenhower a "liberal" is very strange. And looking back at Joe McCarthy's accusations of treason against George Marshall, I cannot help but conclude that Abrams has confused the smearer and the smearee.

Eliot Abrams's review of the reissue of McCarthy and His Enemies...


William Buckley is nothing if not an optimist, or he would never have founded this very magazine at a moment when liberalism dominated American political and intellectual life. That optimism is displayed again in his introduction to McCarthy and His Enemies, where he writes that "a gradual and painful process of historical rectification" is under way with regard to McCarthy and anti-Communism.

Thanks to the opening of some Soviet archives, far more information is available now than in 1954, when this book was first published, on the subject of American Communism and its ties to Soviet espionage. The guilt of the Rosenbergs, for example, has been transformed from clear (after their trial) to crystal clear (since Allen Weinstein's book) to undeniable (since Soviet files have been available). But the guilt of American Communists has not seemed to do much for Senator Joseph McCarthy's posthumous reputation. Whereas in the early 1950s many people tried to believe that one could prove the innocence of Joseph McCarthy's targets by attacking his methods and morals, today incontrovertible evidence of Soviet espionage efforts in America is treated as if it were unrelated to history's judgment of Senator McCarthy.

Buckley and Bozell went at the McCarthy problem in two ways. First they undertook an elaborate evaulation of the evidence in nine cases, trying to show that McCarthy's charges were persuasive. This was a laborious undertaking, and in his introduction Buckley notes that "18 months... is a very, very long time to spend on the question whether Esther Brunauer was ever a member of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee League." Buckley may fear that these pages read slowly, but in fact they are fascinating--more so today than when they were first published. That shadowy world of wartime front organizations; of Communist agents, fellow travelers, and dupes; of Owen Lattimore and John Stewart Service, Philip Jessup and John Paton Davies, was far moe familiar then; now it reads rather more like a novel. Back then these pages were yet another addition to the ongoing debate about McCarthy and his enemies. Today they prvide a rare insight into what McCarthy's arguments were all about.

For as Buckley and Bozell repeatedly underline, the issue was in fact whether the State Department was running its security program well or poorly. For this, Buckley and Bozell, like McCarthy, did not need to show that specific employees were guilty of espionage; they needed only to show that there was some evidence that an employee was a security or loyalty risk, and that the State Department (or whatever agency was pertinent) had willfully overlooked it. They accused State of "criminal nonchalance" in regard to these cases--a "total absence of will" to take the charges seriously.

What were the charges? They ranged from accusations of actual espionage--handing secret documents over to Soviet agents--to involvement in dozens of Communist-front organizations (the argument being that involvement in one or two might indicate carelessness, but that involvement in 15 shows a certain political leaning). When someone switches his views of whether to fight Hitler from "Stay out of the fascist war!" to "Join the united front against fascism!" immediately after Hitler attackes the USSR and the Communist line changes, this is at least suggestive. And so Buckley and Bozell asked, "Did McCarthy present enough evidence to raise reasonable doubt as to whether all loyalty and security risks had been removed from the State Department?"

The verdict rendered here is that he did. In most of his cases McCarthy adduced persuasive evidence; the State Department's efforts stood condemned; and the screams of "Red Scare" were efforts to occlude the truth.

But in other cases McCarthy had it wrong, the authors say, or his rhetoric exceeded what the evidence permitted. Thus he committed "an egregious blunder" when, in the follow-up to his famous speech of February 9, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia, he said that he had the names of "57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party" within the State Department, when in fact all he had was a list (whose length was unclear) of security risks there. Claiming that these were "new" names, when in fact they came from a Houe investigation, was "misleading the Senate." McCarthy told the Senate he would give it "the fullest, most complete, fairest resume of the files" but willfully failed to do so, and "on this point, McCarthy deserves to be censured." Some of the charges McCarthy made before the Tydings Committee, which was investigating his claims against State, "were exaggerated; a few had no apparent foundation whatever" and deserved censure. McCarthy was "guilty of a number of exaggerations, some of them reckless... they are reprehensible." McCarthy "smeared" the columnist Drew Pearson, and his charges against General George Marshall "deserve to be criticized... McCarthy's judgment here was bad."

Buckley and Bozell were, then, honest in their assessment of McCarthy and his methods, though gentle in passing sentence. In the Marshall case, for example, they acknowledge that McCarthy in effect accused the general of treason, and one can think of harsher terms than "bad judgment" to describe that accusation. But they point out that McCarthy was in a business that permitted a certain latitude: it was politics, not physics. "McCarthy's record is... not only much better than his critics allege, but, given his metier, extremely good." Thus he "should not be remembered as the man who didn't produce 57 Communist Party cards but as the man who brought public pressure to bear on the State Department to revise its practices and to eliminate from responsible positions flagrant security risks."

The second way Buckley and Bozell approached the overall issue of McCarthy and McCarthyism was by confronting the issue of dissent in a democracy. Every society, they argue, is based on certain values and battles against competing values. "Not only is it characteristic of societies to create institutions and to defend themselves with sanctions. Societies must do so--or else they cease to exist." Our society has the moral right to abhor Communism, and to suspect those who do not do so, and to impose sanctions on them. "We cannot avoid the fact that the United States is at war against international Communism, and that McCarthyism is a program of action against those in our land who help the enemy. McCarthyism is... nine parts social sanction to one part legal sanction. But that one part legal sanction is legitimate."

In this way did Buckley and Bozell defend the entire anti-Communism effort. While they criticized its excesses, their special contribution--more valuable than their case studies, because others could have done that work--was to challenge the liberals' claim to the moral high ground. They faced and rejected the argument that McCarthyism was in its very essence evil because it was an effort at censorship and thought control. Its essence, they argued, was to defend liberty from Communism.

Their argument was undercut politically if not intellectually by the conduct of Senator McCarthy himself. Some of that conduct came after McCarthy and His Enemies was written. The Army-McCarthy hearings, during which McCarthy displayed his character flaws, and his political flaws, all to flagrantly and was censured by the Senate, occurred with in a year of the book's drafting. Roy Cohn, McCarthy's counsel during those hearings, later wrote that "with his easily erupting temper, his menacing monotone, his unsmiling mien, and his perpetual five-o'clock shadow, he did seem the perfect stock villain."

In his introduction Buckley quotes from a 1960 exchange with Evelyn Waugh, who noted that this book was "written before [McCarthy's] later extravagances." Waugh told Buckley that "your book makes it plain that there was a need for investigation ten years ago." But until various charges against McCarthy personally are rebutted, Waugh concluded, those "who are sympathetic with his cause must deplore his championship of it."

To all this Buckley responded that:

McCarthy and His Enemies ... is not an attempt at biography.... It is a fragmentary inquiry into... the issue of security procedures in the government, of McCarthy's charges, of the tumult that ensued. It is a study (by no means uncritical) of the rhetoric used by McCarthy to make his case.... This book does not presume to instruct Mr. Waught or anyone else on whether McCarthy was or was not, taking into account the whole of his career, morally fit to earn their support. Our ambition was to set down the facts upon which a responsible judgment can be made of the issues McCarthy raised, and rode, through the years that made him prominent.

The "issues." There is of course a problem here, for it is simply impossible to judge the "issues" without judging as well the behavior of McCarthy. While at times Buckley demands that we rise above politics and personalities and judge the facts, he knows that this cannot be. "Why have we focused attention on the record of Senator McCarthy?" Buckley and Bozell asked in 1954. "Because it is predictable that, if McCarthy's enemies are successful in discrediting him, the mobilization will lose momentum and, perhaps, grind to a dead halt."

True enough. Whittaker Chambers wrote to Buckley back in 1954 that those of his persuasion lived "in a terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will... discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come." Even though that effort in one sense triumped with the victory in the Cold War, its justice still has not been acknowledged in many circles.

Looking back, one is struck by the mismatch between the great moral seriousness and political sophistication of Buckley and Bozell, and the behavior of their champion. Buckley's introduction quotes Dwight Macdonald's remark that McCarthy and His Enemies "gives the general effect of a brief by Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft on behalf of a pickpocket." Even if one acknowledges absolute seriousness of purpose on McCarthy's part, the damage his conduct did to the cause is unforgiveable. The danger of Communist espionage does not pardon that conduct; on the contrast, that danger should have taught McCarthy that precision was essential just because every error would be a gift to the enemies of the cause.

Buckley does not attempt, in his introduction, to weigh McCarthy's contributions in alerting Americans to the security issue against the damage his misconduct in fact did to the anti-Communist cause. This would have required him to assess McCarthy's "later extravagances"--and would as well have requied a judgment of the likely course of American anti-Communism had McCarthy never lived. The first may be a distasteful task, and the second a very difficutl one, but one cannot help regretting that Buckley did not try it. It can be argued, as Richard Gid Powers dos in his new Not without Honor: the History of American Anti-Communism, that McCarthy's excesses actually set the cause back enormously. Does Buckley agree?

In his introduction, Buckley writes that "it is up to the individual to decide at just what point the individual politician has, by his behavior, morally disqualified himself. In this book we suggest only that the same standards be imposed on all public figures." Here he adverts to another theme of McCarthy and His Enemies, and one that seems more significant today than it could possibly have been in 1954. Appended to the 1954 account of McCarthy and His Enemies is an account (taken from Buckley's Up From Liberalism) of a ludicrous effort by the liberal attorney Joseph Rauh and several allies to employ a very shady figure to spy on McCarthy. Spying on the opposition was not an activity characteristic only of McCarthy and the Right (whose opposition was, after all, the underground and conspiratorial Communist espionage apparatus); but only they were condemned for it. Throughout the book there are accounts of the conduct of McCarthy's enemies, including the many parallels between their misconduct and his. If McCarthy is to be censured for saying he had a list of 57 card-carrying Communists when he did not, what of his nemesis, Senator Millard Tydings, who told the Senate he had in his hand a recording of McCarthy's Wheeling speech when he did not? If it was justifiable to censure McCarthy for his abusive treatment of some fellow senators, why did Tydings and the liberals get away with the same conduct when it was directed at McCarthy and his allies? What of the many violations of normal standards of procedure and indeed decency committed by the Left? These were never condemned by the Senate, nor were they ever the subject of much attention by the press.

Buckley and Bozell describe something that, in the early Fifties, was quite novel: televised circus-like hearings whose main purpose is really neither investigation nor justice, but moral instruction. The Democrats and the press would join together to teach the American people all about evil on the Right. This would assist them to vote in a more enlightened fashion when next at the polls, and would help raise the cost of being on the "wrong side." All that was required was that certain sins--real sins, very often--be magnified while others were buried. An act was judged on the basis of political utility, and whether it was in truth illegal, immoral, or even unwise became almost irrelevant. For what was "wrong," what was worth condemantion, depended on which side you were on. As Chambers had predicted, McCarthy's blunders became capital crimes for which his cause would be punished. His opponents' capital crimes became blunders that were not newsworthy. Thus the many hearings about McCarthy focused not on whether State Department procedures really were adequate, but first on whether McCarthy had offered legally persuasive proof that Mr. X and Mrs. Y were indeed espionage agents, and then on whether McCarthy was behaving himself.

What neither McCarthy, nor Buckley and Bozell, could have known in 1954 was that this new pattern would take hold in our public life. And it was new, although it lasted so long that it came to seem the natural order of American politics. But it was in the McCarthy era that the iron triangle of liberal bureaucrats, a liberal press, and liberal Democrats in control of Congress was first evident. During the New Deal a fair proportion of the press had still been Republican, and during the Second World War these partisan divisions had been muffled. But from the early 1950s on, the pattern unveiled in the McCarthy era reigned supreme, reaching its apotheosis in the Watergate and Iran/Contra hearings. As a participant in the latter, I found the circus atmosphere, the concentration on personalities rather than issues, the sleective indignation, the partisan morality, the amazingly biased press coverage, and the immoral conduct of some of the supposed "consciences of our government" that Buckley and Bozell describe here.

Today the pattern has changed. Republicans control both houses of Congress, so the partisan purpose of the Whitewater hearings is to help the conservative side. The liberal dominance of the major media is unchanged, but the search for Pulitzers and the now-ingrained suspicion of authority guarantee a challenge even to a liberal administration like that of President Clinton. Meanwhile, the long-lived liberal certainties about the McCarthy era are in fact coming under attack as the Soviet files come open.

So perhaps the optimism of this book, the hope that moral and factual argument could sway men's minds, was correct. In those days people talked of "premature anti-fascism" (the Communist term for those who were anti-Nazi before the Nazi-Soviet pact was broken by the German attack on the USSR). We can see Buckley's "premature optimism" in 1954, and he may be indulging himself in it again in agreeing to the reissue of this book. But he will have the last laugh. History is opening its files and revealing the true nature and extent of Communist activity in the United States.

And with the optimism, there was moral seriousness. At precisely the moment of greatest hysteria, Buckley and Bozell insisted on clarity of thought and moral purpose. The intellectual standards they upheld here do them honor four decades later, not least becasue so many in the academic and intellectual elites were happy to compromise those standards in the interest of "democratic centralism." The book remains of lasting value not so much for its factual accounts or its political reasoning, but because of its moral stance.

And Buckley always remembers that he who wants the last laugh should have a few along the way as well. Through four decades, this has not changed. In 1954, he quoted E.B. White's comment in The New Yorker that if McCarthy had ever heard of Thoreau, he would have damned him as a loyalty risk. Buckley cannot resist adding in a footnote, "Which, incidentally, Thoreau was."

Regnery's first printing of this new edition of McCarthy and His Enemies has already sold out. That "historical rectification" may be nearer than we think.

Posted by DeLong at October 17, 2003 04:55 PM | TrackBack

Comments

"Abrams's answer is that McCarthy was smeared--smeared by the liberal press"

Back then most of the far-right crowd called it the "Jew Media" and the "Jew York Times."

Posted by: Dave Johnson on October 17, 2003 05:52 PM

Yeah, the jew-baiting which was a part of all this is something that the latest round of McCarthy defenders seems to have flushed down the memory hole.

As is the fact that, in the end, it was McCarthy trying to get revenge on "mistreatment" of Roy Cohn's boyfriend that brought him down...

Posted by: Atrios on October 17, 2003 06:58 PM

McCarthy was a reaction to

1. US nuclear secrets being stolen by Soviets.
2. Eastern Europe and China being surrendered to Soviet Union by US and Britain.
3. Soviet spys and fellow travellers penetrating the highest levels of US establishment (definitely Hiss, possibly Hopkins and White).

McCarty himself was a glory-seeker and an unpleasant man. People he rallied against were worse than murderers and rapists - they were traitors selling their country to militant communism.

Complaining of McCarty's excesses and unpleasantries has been a way American political establishment has choosen to change the focus from those who should really live in infamy.

Posted by: Leopold on October 17, 2003 08:04 PM
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