Do we need another book about Joseph R. McCarthy, the Republican senator (1947-1957) whose name marks a fearsome era in American history? Tom Wicker, a former editor at the New York Times, thinks so. McCarthy is best understood in the context of the Cold War, which began about the time he arrived in Washington. The Soviet Union, partner in the allied victory, had claimed sovereignty over eastern Europe. Mao Tse-Tung overran Chiang Kai-Shek's nationalists and China had gone communist. It seemed that the red star was on the rise.
Gifted with energy, intelligence and pugnacity, McCarthy now saw a wondrous opportunity: anti-communism. His baseless charge of 205 communists in the State Department, made in February 1950, catapulted him to fame. For the next four years, he investigated communists wherever he imagined them the executive branch, the Democratic Party and, finally, the military. His goal was simply personal aggrandizement. In Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy, Wicker writes, He never uncovered much less sent to jail a single communist, in or out of government. Still, colleagues, presidents and press lords quailed before his popularity in the polls.
Wicker relates the familiar story of how McCarthy's attack on the Army brought him down. It began with the efforts by his chief aide, Roy Cohn, to gain favor for Cohn's homosexual lover, Pvt. G. David Schine. And it ended with the magnificent words of chief counsel to the Army, Joseph Welch, whose law partner McCarthy had smeared: Have you at long last, sir, no decency? The hearings were televised. As long as print covered the senator, he remained a popular idol; when people saw his sneer and heard his vicious words, he plummeted in esteem. Wicker's book adds few facts to what's known about McCarthy, but it provides a valuable analysis of how his popularity presented dilemmas for both parties in the early 1950s. And he acknowledges McCarthy's genuine gifts, which, tragically, were used only to seek renown. James Summerville lives and writes in Dickson, Tennessee.