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March 12th 2014 print

Steven Kates

No Sense of Decency, Mr McDonald?

Film reviewer Neil McDonald has raised the hackles of fellow Quadrant contributor Steve Kates with his account of Senator Joe McCarthy's downfall -- a re-telling of the familiar story, complete with crusading media heroes and a villain from Central Casting. It's the standard text, says Kates, and deeply, grossly and offensively wrong

This month Quadrant film reviewer Neil McDonald has decided to enter into left-wing politics at its most straightforward with a column, “Trial by Television: The Downfall of Joseph McCarthy“. Given the title, this could, of course, have been an article written by myself. But had it been by me, it would have been a very different article, being about how the media was corrupted in its coverage of McCarthy and how it covered up the extent to which the US government was infiltrated by Stalinist agents.

McDonald, instead, devoted his article to showing how exemplary the media had been in bringing McCarthy down. And he makes no bones about whether this is an article about movies or about politics. It is an out-and-out political article in which he makes very clear which side he is on. The opening words of the opening paragraph:

“My first reaction on reading about recent attempts to rehabilitate Senator Joseph McCarthy by the likes of M. Stanton Evans in his new book [actually 2007 but what does he know?] Blacklisted by History, and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, was to echo the words of the senator’s nemesis, Joseph N. Welch, ‘Have you no sense of decency?’ McCarthy’s wild accusations . . . polluted public debate in America, and to an extent here, for over ten years. Certainly communism had to be debated [!] and its tactics exposed; but not with lies, false accusations and innuendo.”

And so with that we are into a wild ride of the usual kind on the left, about how McCarthy peddled a series of untruths about the role and influence of communists in the American political hierarchy while ruining innocent lives in the process, one after another. That there had actually been communists and major agents of influence in the American state department and at the very highest level of the American government is hardly controversial on the right. It is therefore with a great deal of dismay to find an article attacking McCarthy, but of more significance, to find an article arguing the toss over whether such communist influence actually existed, mattered and needed to be countered, published at all some sixty year later. But to see such an argument finding its way onto the pages of Quadrant is a major worry. But a valuable piece all the same for what it reveals.

But having said that, McDonald provides a quite interesting take on the events of the 1950s — if you start with the recognition about who we are dealing with. It is, as I say, really disturbing that Quadrant should publish material such as this. But if you begin from the premise that McDonald is of the left – a probable Labor voter, if not a Green – and that his specific intention in writing his article is to further blacken the McCarthy name and advance one of the sacred causes of the left, then it is quite an instructive article. Because what it does is actually underscore the extent to which McCarthy was undone by the left in the US using the new medium of television, which was just arriving on the scene in the 1950s.

But let me first further establish McDonald’s credentials as a man whose views are not to be trusted, an apologist for those who continue to argue that the largest scandal in the US at the start of the 1950s was the attempt by Joe McCarthy to expose communist infiltration, not that infiltration itself. That the US government was riddled with communists, whose first allegiance was to Stalin’s Russia, ought to be non-controversial in the pages of Quadrant. Where there is controversy is over the extent to which these agents were able to manipulate American foreign policy on Stalin’s behalf. That they were able to do so to an extraordinary extent was demonstrated to all but the willfully blind in Diana West’s American Betrayal, which I reviewed in Quadrant in January-February in an article titled, “America, the Big Dumb Ox”.

So it is instructive to look at McDonald’s treatment of Alger Hiss, the one no-longer-deniable-even-by-the-left Stalinist agent in the White House. Because of the Statute of Limitations, by the time Whitaker Chambers had brought evidence against him, Hiss could no longer be tried for espionage. But when Hiss sued Chambers for libel after being called a communist agent and then lied about his relationship with Chambers in the communist underground during the 1930s, he was indicted and convicted of perjury. Thus when McDonald writes, “Hiss, who had been convicted of perjury, in dubious circumstances”, he is showing either his biases or his ignorance and possibly both.

And there is the deplorable although not unusual ignorance in the statement, “McCarthy, as chairman of the sub-committee of the House Un-American Activities Committee” (p91), where a Senator is seen to be chairing a committee in the House of Representatives. Not a trivial error — although one made often enough — but interesting since it betrays McDonald’s superficial understanding of any of the political issues at play at the time. HUAC, by the way, was chaired and run by Democrats and was the instrument of whatever oppression there might have been of the community in general. McCarthy was interested in the State Department and the top officials in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, not schoolteachers in Brooklyn.

McCarthy and Media Manipulation

But the value in reading McDonald’s depiction of the events is that he demonstrates the ways in which McCarthy was undermined by media manipulation for which he was the first to suffer under what has now become a common practice on the left. If you would like to understand the origins of the ways in which the left has structured the evidence to ruin, as best it can, the careers of those individuals brave enough to stand up for the liberal and humane values of the right, this is a very good place to start.

And when in the rest of this note the names of various American newspersons from the 1950s are raised, just think of them as impartial as if they were from ABC News today. That is, they would have little regard for the truth other than to the extent it allowed them to defend their ideological mates on the same side of politics. And always recall that in what they wrote and said, material recovered since those days from the Venona transcripts, Soviet archives and other sources, have more than demonstrated that McCarthy has been right in at least 95% of everything he said and almost certainly understated the problem that existed at the time.

The hero of McDonald’s account is Edward R. Murrow, who I remember for that Walter Cronkite-style delivery that conveyed a sense of depth and profound seriousness. Murrow had been the CBS reporter in London during the blitz so had the authority a decade later of the man who brought the news as it was.  Murrow’s collaborator at CBS news was Fred Friendly on an early news magazine-type program of the name See it Now. And as McDonald states:

“Murrow and Friendly were expert at the new art of assembling film clips to create a story. These were the ‘weapons’ See it Now directed at McCarthy. The idea was to collect a series of clips that were representative of his activities and destroy him in his own words.”

How representative they might have been of the way in which McCarthy would have himself put material from his own work together need hardly be mentioned. Agreeing with the desirability of a hatchet job on McCarthy, whom he describes as the “loathsome” (p91) and “a vicious demagogue” (p93), McDonald subscribes to the deluded notion that the final story was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Journalists assembling film clips to create a story is hardly a statement to make one feel the certain impartiality of the process.

More marvelous still is his description of the efforts made by another documentary maker, Emile de Antonio, who put together a documentary on the Army-McCarthy hearings. No doubt as unbiased and fair-minded as McDonald himself, this is how the process is described:

“According to de Antonio, he bought the kinescopes of the live broadcasts [of the hearings] that had gone out daily on the American ABC network. Then he cut some 200 hours of footage to make an eighty-eight minute film.”

A “Hollywood” producer uses 0.7% of the actual footage of the hearings to portray McCarthy and this is intended to demonstrate just how fairly McCarthy was being presented. What it does, of course, is demonstrate just how naïve McDonald is in expecting any of us to take such statements seriously. But still he manages to go even beyond that in what is a truly bizarre passage. How is this for evidence that McCarthy was treated fairly by the media?

“There was a former Soviet agent reporting the hearings a few feet from the Committee room. It was Michael Straight, the only American among the Cambridge spies of the 1930s, who was to write Trial by Television, an excellent account of the hearings and from whom I have borrowed the title of this article.” (p92-93 – my bolding)

Thus we have a former Cambridge spy, a Stalinist agent in the West, being quoted favourably against Joe McCarthy. Just a few weeks ago there was an outpouring of indignation at the time of the death of folksinger Pete Seeger, who had been a communist all his life, and therefore a Stalinist back in the 1950s, but who had never been a traitor, had never betrayed his country and had never handed over secrets to the Soviet Union. Now, right on the pages of Quadrant, we have an actual Stalinist agent, identified as such, being used as an authority against Joe McCarthy, one of the few people brave enough to stand up to Stalinists right then and there, at a time when it really mattered. That the left continues to pile on is merely part of the tactical advantage it believes it can still achieve in flogging the Joe McCarthy horse. And as long as there are people on the right who remain defensive about McCarthy, this is a tactic that will continue till the end of time.

That the mainstream media was as far to the left in the 1950s as it is today should be seen as one of the facts of life that we on the non-totalitarian right have had to deal with. I will quote here the same statement quoted by McDonald. This was by the “CBS boss Bill Paley”:

“When the record is finally written .  .  . it will answer the question, who has helped the communist cause and who has served this country better, Senator McCarthy or I? I would like to be remembered for the answer to that question.” (p92)

Well, Bill, be my guest. You and your kind have done the totalitarian cause yeoman service, as your latter-day minions continue to do.

And for those who read this and know little about the times and the issues, you cannot do better than read M. Stanton Evans Blacklisted by History. And when you have done with that, you should go on and read Diana West’s American Betrayal. What they write is not restricted in its relevance to the 1950s and is by no means a closed book with no significance today. It is an up-to-the-minute story of now, and its immediacy is crucial to defending the values of the West.