Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an essay written by David Oshinsky, the George W. Littlefield Professor in American History and the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History.
No American politician of the 20th century is more reviled by historians and opinion makers than Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican whose 1950s anti-Communist crusade is synonymous with witch-hunting and repression. Actually, no politician even comes close. Herbert Hoover? True, the Great Depression occurred on his watch, goes the current wisdom, but Hoover can’t be blamed for a global catastrophe, and his economic programs paved the way for needed reforms. Richard Nixon? True, the Watergate scandal justified his resignation, but Nixon was a master statesman, we are reminded, whose initiatives produced détente with the Russians and an open door to China. For McCarthy, there’s been no such balancing act. Americans have learned to view him as the nation’s most dangerous modern demagogue. Pick up a dictionary and you’ll find the word “McCarthyism” defined as “the practice of publicizing accusations with insufficient regard to evidence” and “the use of unfair investigatory methods to suppress opposition.” To be labeled a McCarthyite is akin to being called a liar or a fraud. His loudest current admirer is Ann Coulter, a fact, I suspect, that even the senator would have found unsettling.
The New York Times
In the Heart of the Heart of Conspiracy