Joseph McCarthy and Intellectual Dishonesty

July 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m working on a new research project, for which I am reading George H. Nash’s classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945.  Nash, a conservative himself, wrote this book 37 years ago, in 1976, but it has been updated regularly, most recently in 2006 (the edition I’m reading).  It is, for the most part, a tour de force, but too often Nash (and the men he studies) are incapable of recognising the moral and real world implications of their arguments.

One glaring example of this is in the 1950s and the support of the American Right for McCarthyism.  At least according to Nash, almost to a man, the right in the 1950s supported the bullying, unintelligent senator from Wisconsin.  They supported his lies.  They did so because of their belief in the evils of communism.  But they seem to have been incapable of recognising the cost of McCarthyism.  As one of my old professors, Steve Scheinberg (a 1960s radical) noted, many lives were destroyed by McCarthy and his accolytes in the early 1950s.

Nash even refers to one, Owen Lattimore.  Lattimore was accused by McCarthy of being a Soviet stooge (along with many of the China Hands at the CIA, for that matter).  Lattimore was was professor at Johns Hopkins University, in the 1930s, he was an adviser to both the American government and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist movement in China.  Chiang, of course, was engaged in a long and brutal civil war against Mao Zedong’s Communists throughout this period and was supported by, amongst others, the Americans.  The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee engaged in an investigation of the Institute of Pacific Relations, as well as the American government’s China policies (remember, Mao and the Communists won the civil war in 1949, Chiang’s nationalists withdrew to Taiwan, but it was not until 1972 that the Communists were recognised by the US as the legitimate government of China).

Rumours of Lattimore being a Soviet spy had existed since 1948, but it in the early 1950s, McCarthy went after him, calling him the top Soviet spy in America, as well as accusing him of having delivered China into the hands of the Soviets.  After investigation, it was found that Lattimore, though he had been an admirer of the Soviet Union and Stalinism in the 1930s was not, and had never been a Soviet spy, nor had he engaged in espionage.  But that didn’t stop the Subcommittee’s report from concluding that Lattimore was “from the some time beginning in the 1930s, a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.” This was untrue and a lie.  Nonetheless, it ended Lattimore’s career as a consultant for the CIA and the American government.  Ultimately, he left Johns Hopkins and moved to Leeds University in England, perhaps for obvious reasons.

But very little of this is in Nash’s book.  The quote from the Subcommittee above is, and then he goes on to note how the right then used the report of the Subcommittee and quoted it “from one end of the country to the other” and of the impact of the report and its supporting documents.  There is not a single mention of Lattimore’s innocence.  At all.  And all throughout Nash’s discussion of McCarthyism and its import for the American Right in the 1950s, he conveniently avoids mentioning all the lives that were destroyed by Communist witch hunts.

To me this is intellectual dishonesty.  Nash completely avoids the implications of the arguments made by the conservative intellectuals of the 1950s he studies.  He decontextualises these implications.  One could read this chapter in Nash’s book and have absolutely no clue of the excesses and dangers of McCarthy, an ill-educated bully who ranted and raved about names he had listed on what were actually completely blank pieces of paper.

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§ 2 Responses to Joseph McCarthy and Intellectual Dishonesty

  • Brian Bixby says:

    The recent efforts to use the Venona decryptions to justify McCarthyism are of a similar nature.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I missed that bit of vileness, happily, I think. But, of course, those were part of the initial witch hunt, too. I just find it stupefying that anyone could justify having supported McCarthy after the fact, like these men Nash studies (and, clearly, Nash himself), like William F. Buckley, etc.

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