The Book Club

William F. Buckley Barks Back

When I completed my novel on Joe McCarthy (The Redhunter) I knew that I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish which wasn’t the “resurrection” of McCarthy–odd word, by Ronald Radosh–and certainly not his rehabilitation. There’s stuff inimical to McCarthy in The Redhunter that other people didn’t know, and perspectives on his deterioration that only close observers could chronicle.

Although he claims that he writes not to seek a resurrection of old Joe, since he is candid about all of his warts and the eventual damage he did to the anti-communist cause, Buckley is of course arguing that despite his faults, McCarthy was ‘the historical vehicle in America … for an attitude about the Soviet Union I sympathized with.

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Let’s get Mr. Radosh out of the way here, and skate by the constitutional indecorum of presenting him as an advocate of my book to confront an advocate of Tony Hiss’ book–the editor didn’t intend an ambush, I am certain; but perhaps Mr. Radosh should have recused himself, on the grounds that nothing I wrote or said would make any difference whatever to Mr. Radosh’s judgments of the entire scene. He rushed to agree with Mr. Alterman’s caricature. “I agree with you about the merits of Buckley’s novel. It is a tough read, heavy and plodding, without any real juice to it. Not the kind of book you want to take to the beach while on vacation.” Not the kind of book anyone would want to take anywhere to read, if lockjaw on the general subject has set in. This heavy unreadable book is the same book, I pause to mention, about which Terry Teachout wrote, “I polished it off in a day … mainly because it is so wonderfully readable. … a witty, fast-moving yarn in the manner of his Blackford Oakes thrillers.” That Teachout wrote that in National Review will not, I hope, cause the reader to doubt the critical probity of a renowned critic whose work adorns a half-dozen American journals. And Lance Morrow wrote, in Time magazine, that The Redhunter “is an ingeniously symmetrical drama of the origins and psychology of communism and anticommunism.” And I don’t mind sharing with you Peregrine Worsthorne’s (in the–London– Spectator), “Simply and beautifully written, it springs from the author’s heart as well as his head, casting new light on the dark and squalid tale of McCarthy himself.”

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Here is Radosh’s judgment of the whole question of McCarthy, done in one example:

Buckley, I think, sees Joe McCarthy as having been on the right side of the anti-Communist struggle, even as one who was ahead of his time. So what if Owen Lattimore was never a Soviet agent, not to speak of having been the ‘top’ Soviet agent in America. … Buckley sees McCarthy’s charge as something of an excusable exaggeration, one that does not matter since Lattimore was, as he says in his interview, ‘on the other side in the cold war.’ But I think it does matter, and in fact, matters a great deal.

My book carefully records and unsparingly ponders the excesses of Joe McCarthy. But the book plants a quandary Radosh does not confront. It is of course, Why did McCarthy get the (qualified) support he got? And not only from fellow Irish brawlers, but from some very choosy Americans such as John Dos Passos and Max Eastman and James Burnham?

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That, dear Slate, is what my book is about, and there is no point in Radosh, burdened by his mindset, reading it because it would necessarily be uphill for him, as hard going as an impotent locked in all night with a whore.

The reason McCarthy soared is that he became however briefly the incarnation of the anti-Communist movement, which movement confronted the loss of Eastern Europe, of China, and of nuclear secrets as results of bad strategy, bad judgment, and maladministration. And McCarthy came on to charge that some of the people in government were on the other side, which Mr. Radosh, when loosed from any threat of association with my book, of course knows and beats Mr. Alterman over the head with.

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There are other matters that interest inquisitive readers. The matter, for instance, of overloading the Open Society model (no, us-guys insisted, the Communist Party simply wasn’tjust another political party). The novel explores with some finesse, some would agree, the hardhat intellectual insight that it’s clear and present objectionability.

And then the novel deals with McCarthy as a human being, which, careful research at personal and professional levels establishes, he in fact was. Terribly flawed, and no one (I am serious here: no one) paid a higher price than he did for his failings. But an examination of the McCarthy scene tells us things Radosh desperately wants not to think about. McCarthy’s suggestion that Communists were influential in writing U.S. foreign policy was–what? All those things. What about the complementary charges that McCarthy had brought about a reign of terror? The chief librarian at Berkeley said that the terror was such as to make him afraid to buy a foreign car. Bertrand Russell–yes, the author of Principia Mathematica– deduced that in America the terror was such as to make it dangerous for anyone to read Jefferson. One college president opined that it required an act of physical courage to give money to Harvard University. Nothing McCarthy did–and what he did do correctly resulted in his downfall–can compare with what his critics did; vide Alterman, who declares unestablished the guilt of Alger Hiss. Well, there were people around who pleaded the guilt of Dreyfuss; though not, I think, 50 long years after. But it’s too early to ask Alterman to grow up. He’s too young.

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Yes, when McCarthy called Lattimore the “top Soviet agent,” instead of calling him, as the McCarran Committee would pronounce, three years later (all senators, both parties, concurring) “a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy,” McCarthy was–all of those things. What, as we reflect back on the age of McCarthy, do we settle down to think about President Truman when he toured the country denouncing the “slave labor act”–the Taft-Hartley Act? It has been the law for 50 years leaving no scars on the American working force, by merciful contrast with the scars and corpses that piled up in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the years when the foreign policy of our leaders sat around at Yalta trying to figure it all out. Whose intoxication did more to create terror, theirs, or Joe McCarthy’s? We ran him out of town, after a while, and that’s a very, very interesting story, and I tell it in The Redhunter, in my engaging, characteristic way.

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