A.Word.A.Day on “McCarthyism”


To comment on this article go to B’Man’s Revolt.


A friend recommended the free email service to me several years ago.  You sign up for it and Monday through Friday you get a vocabulary-stretching word sent to you, along with interesting background and context.  The words are built around a particular theme each week.  It’s called A.Word.A.Day.  The New York Times has called it, “The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace,” the web site proudly proclaims.


Operating, as I like to do, under the general assumption that it is better to know more than to know less, I followed my friend’s recommendation and signed up.  For a number of years, the only problem I had with the service was that I seldom found the time to read it and it added to my inbox overload.  Then came the theme for November 25-29, “Words that arose from cartoons.” The word for November 26 was “McCarthyism,” and here’s what it said:



noun: The practice of making unfounded accusations against someone.



After US senator Joseph McCarthy (1909-1957) known for making unsubstantiated claims accusing people of being Communists, spies, and disloyal. Earliest documented use: in 1950 in a cartoon by Herbert Block.



"This is the greatest case of rampant McCarthyism to ever hit organized sports. ... There was no hard evidence that three other first-timers on the ballot used steroids, but that didn't keep the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voters from denying them entry to the Hall."

Bob Keisser; Extreme Thinking Common for Hall Voters; Daily News (Los Angeles, California); Jan 10, 2013.


Since this is a subject about which I feel that I am somewhat better informed than the writer of those lines, I quickly weighed in with a critical comment, which you can do by going to the Wordsmith.org web site and typing your comment into a box.  On Sunday you get a mailing with selected readers’ comments on the words of the week.  I had had a good experience with this feature, having had my comment published upon my only previous submission, the subject of which now escapes my recollection.  Here’s what I said this time:


There are a couple of things that are problematic about your description of the word "McCarthyism." First, you say that its first known usage was in a Herblock cartoon.  I think that further research is called for.  Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson in Johns Hopkins Magazine says that McCarthy investigative target Owen Lattimore is credited with coining the term.  It definitely originated with his political enemies of the day, a fact that calls into question your statement that he "was known for making unsubstantiated claims accusing people of being Communists, spies, and disloyal."  That was the charge leveled by his political enemies, who were and are powerful in the media like Herblock and The Washington Post, so it has stuck.  For whether or not his charges were accurate, see my articles "Truman Administration Adviser Counseled Surrender of Korea to Reds," "James Forrestal and Joe McCarthy," and "M. Stanton Evans on Good Night and Good Luck."


On November 28 I received an email confirmation from Wordsmith.org that said simply, “Thanks for sharing this,” and what I had typed into the box was repeated below the note of appreciation.  My hopes were up.  The very best thing, to my mind, would be for them to print my entire letter so that my discoveries would reach a much broader audience than they usually do.  I could understand, though, why they might not want to allow someone to use their forum to plug their own work.  So, at the very least, I had hope that the letter would be printed, less the concluding sentence.  That sentence was added, as much as anything, for the edification of the folks at A.Word.A.Day.  No one reading those articles with an open mind and any sense of fairness could possibly let that characterization of Senator McCarthy stand without challenge, I thought.


During the week I shared my A.Word.A.Day experience with some like-minded contacts.  One of them steered me to a related article, which I shared with the Word.A.Day folks on Saturday with my comment as follows:


A correspondent has sent me this essay in relation to the subject at hand, Joe McCarthy and the Establishment Bolsheviks by Kerry Bolton.  It reinforces your statement that the term originated with Herblock, but it further calls into question your assertion that McCarthy made unsubstantiated claims accusing people of being Communists.


The Garg Rabbit Punch


I waited for Sunday afternoon with great expectation, and, sure enough, there was a critical comment on “McCarthyism.”   Here it is:


From: Robert Voitier (mrv1948 gmail.com)
Subject: Bias on your part (Re: McCarthyism)

In 2009 the Texas State Board of Education revised their high school history class curricula to suggest that the results of the Venona Project show Senator Joseph McCarthy to have been justified in his zeal in exposing those whom he believed to be Soviet spies or communist sympathizers.

Robert Voitier, Lafayette, Louisiana


Ah, the Texas State Board of Education! The same folks who never let facts get in the way of ideology. The same folks who are still trying to sabotage science textbooks by inserting creationism into them. For a peek into their minds, watch this brief interview with Don McLeroy who served as the chairman of the Board (video). About Venona Project exonerating McCarthy, see this.

-Anu Garg


Now it’s hard not to admire Anu Garg, the immigrant from India who rose from rural poverty to worldwide prominence through his love of the English language, but what he has done here is simply shameful.  I asked for a more scholarly and objective approach to the question of the origin of the word “McCarthyism,” and he has gone hard in precisely the opposite direction.  I have asked for a sense of fair play, and he has responded with a kick to the groin, a low blow, a cheap shot.


He knows full well that the Board of Education folks hardly make the best case in defense of McCarthy and against the word “McCarthyism,” because he has what I have sent him in hand.  He suggests that those folks are just blinded by their ideology, and in support of his assertion he links to the writings of the statist ideologues at the Texas Freedom Network.  The founder of that organization, Cecile Richards, is not just the daughter of the former Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, but has been the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 2006.  The TFN is in close alliance with such organizations as the ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, People for the American Way, and the Hate Crimes Research Network in support of more laws that go contrary to the principle engraved in stone over the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court Building, “Equal Justice Under Law.”


Almost everything the organization stands for belies its name (shades of “People’s Republic” or “Affordable Health Care”), but nothing does it so much as its explicit position against local control of neighborhood schools:


The Texas Freedom Network affirms the crucial reforms and progress made by Texas public schools since the mid-1980s. Standards such as small class sizes, teacher certification and strong accountability measures have helped our state’s students succeed. Deregulation measures called “local control” or “home rule” would threaten that progress by erasing these and other quality education standards.


We recently received another reminder of just how much progress we have made with those centralized “quality education standards.” But let us not stray too far from the question at issue.  In the article to which Garg links, the TFN shoots down the notion that the Venona intercepts exonerated McCarthy by invoking Emory University historian Harvey Klehr.  Klehr might be right in a narrow technical sense that those revelations don’t generally reveal that McCarthy was right about the lion’s share of people whom he accused of being Communists.  They deal mainly with the bigger fish who had already been identified as Communist spies by the famous defectors from their ranks, Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers.  Among them were Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and Lauchlin Currie, the sort of people whom the TFN’s ideological soul mates defended to the hilt in their day, and some do up to the present time.  These were men of very great influence and power.  The leading McCarthy target, Asia specialist Owen Lattimore, had not been fingered as a spy by either Bentley or Chambers, and he does not turn up in the Venona documents, but his primary avenue of influence on the government was through the Red spy, Currie. 


There is a much better authority on McCarthy than Klehr on McCarthy and his assault upon U.S. Communism.  That is M. Stanton Evans.  Most recently he has written, with Herbert Romerstein, Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government.  I sum it up in my review, “What we learn from Evans and Romerstein is that the Soviet war and post-war gains at the West’s expense were hardly an accident.  They had ample assistance from a Roosevelt administration that was thoroughly laced with Stalin’s agents.  The agents were sufficiently numerous and highly placed that almost any theft of secrets they might have accomplished was small potatoes compared to their influence upon policy.”    


Mr. Garg would do well to read that book and that review, but the Evans book that bears most directly upon the question at issue is his earlier tour de force, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight against America’s Enemies. That is the book to which we refer in the article we called to Garg’s attention, "M. Stanton Evans on Good Night and Good Luck."  In the George Clooney movie, the Army code cloak Annie Lee Moss is depicted as the very epitome of government workers unfairly maligned by McCarthy.  With meticulous documentation, Evans shows that the unfair slanderers in this case were not McCarthy, but Edward R. Murrow and CBS News and later George Clooney. 


On page 456 Evans makes this observation about McCarthy’s general manner in the hearings he conducted:


Among the more conspicuous features of the early subcommittee sessions were McCarthy’s frequent comments about the new Republican administration that had just taken office and his relations with his Democratic colleagues.  In both cases, the transcripts show, he was generally speaking a model of politesse—something nobody could possibly figure out by reading a whole library of books about McCarthy now available to the public.


Concerning McCarthy’s fairness, or lack of same, we have this on the next page:


A third conspicuous feature of the hearings was the leeway granted even hostile witnesses, up to and including conduct plainly contumacious (a good one for A.Word.A.Day ed.).  Again contra the usual horror stories, witnesses before the panel were (a) permitted to have counsel present and confer with counsel on an unlimited basis; (b) given time to obtain counsel, and urged to do so if they didn’t have such; (c) allowed to say almost anything they wanted, including criticism of McCarthy, challenges to the jurisdiction of the panel, and ideological filibusters of all types—though these always tended in the same direction.


Unlike Klehr, Evans is not an academic historian.  As you watch Klehr on YouTube, you can see how boxed in he is from a professional standpoint.  You can well appreciate the pressures that he has been under merely on account of his discoveries concerning American Communism.  He is almost apologetic about it, and even minimizes it, calling the Communist movement “marginal.” He has already swum against the tide of his profession enough.  He knows that saying too much good about McCarthy would be taking a step too far.


But why is that so?  Why has McCarthy been so vilified, even to the point of the creation of the slanderous word “McCarthyism?”   One may begin to formulate an answer to that question for oneself by reading my “James Forrestal and Joe McCarthy," or perhaps even better through studying Bolton’s “Joe McCarthy and the Establishment Bolsheviks,” also sent to Garg, as we have noted.  (We also noted in a follow-up email to Garg that in none of the articles that I recommended to him does the word “Venona” even appear, demonstrating that he had merely knocked down a straw man, and knowingly so.) 


We shall take a stab at a more explicit answer to the “McCarthyism” mystery in a future article.  In the meantime, we have canceled our subscription to A.Word.A.Day, explaining why. 


David Martin

December 6, 2013





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