Not many people get to lend their name to both an era and a mindset. In the case of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a key figure in the Army-McCarthy hearings that began 60 years ago this week -- and which precipitated the downfall of the anticommunist crusader -- the honor is dubious at best. But the legacy of McCarthyism is still surrounded by myths and controversies across the political spectrum.
In popular consciousness and mainstream popular culture, McCarthy's activities are treated as a sweeping, malicious witch hunt against dissenters, people stigmatized solely for their political beliefs, and bystanders caught up in the dragnet of anticommunist paranoia. (McCarthy's role is often conflated with that of the House Un-American Activities Committee, to which he had no formal connection.) The 1954 hearings, related to claims of communist infiltration of the Army, are best remembered for chief Army counsel Joseph Welch's stinging rebuke of McCarthy over a character attack on one of his aides: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"It has become an iconic moment of the triumph of good over evil.
But while there is no question that McCarthy was a grandstanding bully, this black-and-white picture is not entirely accurate. The witch-hunt metaphor somewhat obscures the fact that, unlike witchcraft, communist infiltration and espionage in the United States were a real phenomenon. Based on documents made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. Library of Congress historian John Earl Haynes concluded that of the 159 people identified as subversives on lists cited by McCarthy, nine had almost definitely aided in Soviet espionage (and many others could be considered security risks for various reasons).
Moreover, while many American leftists targeted in the McCarthy era were not Soviet spies, they were not merely unfairly maligned champions of social justice, but active supporters of one of history's most evil regimes: Stalinist Soviet Russia. The American Communist Party was a tool of the Kremlin and tolerated no dissent or individualism within its ranks.
While conservatives have offered a useful corrective to the simplistic standard view of McCarthyism, some have gone further in a quest to reclaim McCarthy as a good guy. The best-known champion of the "McCarthy was right" countermyth is right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter, whose book "Treason" proclaimed that McCarthy was a true hero in the struggle against communism, that no innocent people were victimized, and that the only unjust persecution was that of McCarthy by his left-wing enemies. The same themes were echoed last year in "American Betrayal" by Diana West, which caused some ferocious polemics in the conservative media.
Coulter and West have been harshly criticized by many conservatives and anticommunists, who point out that McCarthyism's excesses damaged not only American democracy but also the anticommunist cause. However, the McCarthy rehabilitation project has plenty of admirers on the right -- ones inclined to believe that modern-day American liberals, including President Barack Obama, are communists in disguise if not outright traitors. Meanwhile, many on the left, such as Yeshiva University historian Ellen Schrecker, continue to treat McCarthy-era communists as misunderstood idealists. Modern-day perceptions of McCarthyism remain colored by our own ideological polarization.
In some ways, the battle between the American left and McCarthyite anticommunism 60 years ago parallels many of today's political conflicts. Each camp ends up hurting its own cause more than its opponents' by descending into groupthink, demonization of "the enemy" and shrill demagoguery.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.