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The demagogue

Joseph McCarthy made a name for himself by accusing innocent people of treason. How did Yalies respond?

Larry Tye’s new book, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), is based on newly released personal and professional records of McCarthy’s.

Senator William Benton had had enough. He’d watched for 18 months as his Red-baiting colleague Joe McCarthy slung  unsustainable charges of subversion against not just the State Department but the White House.

To Benton, such fearmongering violated everything he held sacred. As he explained to colleagues and constituents, he had to stand up and sound off—no matter the battering ram he knew would come at him. So, in August 1951, he offered a resolution not only to investigate McCarthy but also to expel him from the Senate.

“There is one act of hypocrisy which most offends the deepest convictions of the Christian conscience and also the American spirit of justice and fair play,” Benton testified in the investigation that followed. “That act is to put the brand of guilt on an innocent man. I submit that there is no one who has erred more recklessly and maliciously in this respect than Senator Joseph McCarthy.”

Words like those may seem tame today, but Benton, Yale College Class of 1921, knew the risk they carried. In just a year he would face Connecticut voters, and few Americans had the fortitude to defend accused Communists. Indeed, even as his fellow senators were probing McCarthy, Joe pushed them to simultaneously probe Benton for what McCarthy said were his Communist sympathies and financial improprieties. In a TV interview, the ex-pugilist tried to cut his new rival down to size by dubbing him “Little Willie Benton, Connecticut’s mental midget.”

Few were distracted, as it was apparent that McCarthy, not Benton, was on trial for the reckless crusade he’d unleashed in February 1950. In a headline-grabbing speech in West Virginia, the little-known senator from Grand Chute, Wisconsin, had charged without proof that the State Department was riddled with Soviet spies. He followed up with equally incendiary and unsubstantiated blasts against the Voice of America, the Government Printing Office, and the White House itself. Now, finally, it seemed that the Senate and the nation were recoiling from McCarthy’s barrage of guilt by association and political double-dealing. Or at least Benton hoped that was so.

The Benton-McCarthy face-off featured two men who represented not just opposite political poles but different universes. Benton had attended a buttoned-down military academy before entering college, and went on to become a marketing wunderkind and, later, publisher of Encyclopædia Britannica and an assistant secretary of state. McCarthy had spent his teenage years proving himself the boy tycoon of the poultry kingdom; he didn’t enroll in high school until the ripe age of 20, but he finished four years’ worth of work in a single breakneck year. His pre-Senate résumé included serving in the Marines, sitting on the bench as a circuit judge, and unseating Senate titan Robert La Follette Jr. in a bruising and often underhanded campaign in 1946.

Now, five years after McCarthy’s arrival in Washington, the subcommittee investigating the anti-Communist and anti-gay senator wanted him to defend himself in person. McCarthy never actually said he wouldn’t testify—but the only time he showed up before his colleagues was to blast Benton. He preferred to mount his defense through a series of blistering letters to the subcommittee chairman. In one of those missives, he charged that the only reason he was being investigated was because he was investigating Communism. He added, “It is an evil and dishonest thing for the Subcommittee to allow itself to be used for an evil purpose.” In another, he made fun of the fact that his persecutors’ “star witness” had been committed to “an institution for the criminally insane.” (The witness, Robert Byers Sr., wasn’t in fact a star, and while he’d apparently had a breakdown, he wasn’t judged criminally insane.) Asked repeatedly why he himself refused to testify, Joe explained: “I don’t answer charges, I make them.”

That was just part of the backstage madness surrounding the subcommittee. Benton was convinced that his phones were tapped, his tax records had been leaked, and his personal safety was imperiled—enough so that he ordered his chauffeur, an ex-prizefighter, to ensure nobody was following him. It wasn’t pure paranoia. McCarthy’s office records establish that his staffers were poring over every bill Benton had ever filed and speech he’d made, along with unsupported gossip about his sexual preferences. Joe’s media friends and pals at the House Un-American Activities Committee were scouring their files, too. It was war, and ex-Marine McCarthy was enlisting every available ally and weapon. Unable to disprove the message, Joe went after the messenger.

During their back-and-forth with the subcommittee, Benton borrowed a page from the McCarthy playbook to tease him. He offered to waive his senatorial immunity and dared Joe to sue over any of the accusations made during Benton’s 30,000 words of anti-McCarthy testimony. Having painted himself into a corner, Joe filed a $2 million libel suit against his Connecticut colleague, the first time anyone could remember one senator suing another. “I consider this lawsuit as a means of pinpointing the contest between America and the Communist Party,” he wrote his adversary. When he eventually dropped the claim, McCarthy said it was because his lawyer had been unable to discover a single person in the whole United States who believed Benton’s charges. Benton and his backers again called McCarthy’s bluff, running newspaper ads under the banner, “We Believe Benton,” and generating 1,400 signed responses of people willing to testify.

The Senate investigators, meanwhile, lacked Benton’s stomach for taking on McCarthy. They didn’t unveil their report until after the 1952 elections (when McCarthy was on the ballot, as well as Benton). When they did, it was vintage Senate-speak. It dug deep into McCarthy’s past to raise troubling questions on everything from his misuse of donations to his Red-hunting campaigns—always stopping half a step shy of damning him. It zeroed in on his torment of Senate colleagues, saying he “deliberately set out to thwart any investigation”; but although that behavior broke with Senate norms, it didn’t break any statutes. Instead of pursuing its findings to their logical conclusion, which could have included the banishment Benton had asked for, the subcommittee passed the buck to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the full Senate.

Joe had once again managed to duck any consequences for his actions. Wisconsin voters cast their ballots without seeing the Senate report. Joe took his seat in the 83rd Congress unchallenged. And it was Benton, not McCarthy, who was voted out of the Senate in 1952—although he would get his revenge two years later, when the Senate dusted off his original resolution and made it the foundation for McCarthy’s downfall.

What delighted Joe was seeing Benton ousted from the Senate. The scoreboard at Wisconsin’s Hotel Appleton, where the McCarthy team was celebrating on election night, carried this pronouncement: “Benton went to hell at 8:30.” And the next morning, the Appleton newspaper said that the phrase heard most often among McCarthy partisans was “Joe won in Connecticut.”

Benton wasn’t the only Yale graduate to tangle with America’s most controversial figure in the Red Scare. While the proportions are difficult to quantify, it seems that more alumni of Yale than of any other university took leading or supporting roles—whether as enemies or enablers of Joe McCarthy.

Among the first to feel McCarthy’s malice was Walter Kohler Jr. ’25, son of a former Wisconsin governor, scion of the plumbing-products empire, and Navy veteran. It was 1946, and he had recently gotten divorced, which in that era was considered shameful if not outright shocking. At the time, McCarthy was a lowly circuit court judge, hell-bent on earning the Republican nomination for senator from Wisconsin. Kohler was his mightiest potential rival. It would be unpleasant, Joe advised Walter, to see his failed marriage splayed across the front pages during a campaign. “Who would do a thing like that?” Kohler asked. McCarthy: “I would.” When Joe told that story to journalists, Kohler, who was later elected governor, denied it, although he never did challenge McCarthy for the nomination. “McCarthy was a very devious character,” Kohler said, looking back.

McCarthy’s bare-knuckled tactics alarmed at least one fellow Republican. Prescott Bush ’17, an investment banker running for a Senate seat in Connecticut, appeared with Joe at a rally in Bridgeport in 1952. “I never saw such a wild bunch of monkeys in any meeting that I’ve ever attended,” recalled Bush, a member of the Yale Corporation (as well as the grandson of a Yalie and the patriarch of three generations of Yale Bushes after). At the time, Bush told the standing-room-only crowd that “I must in all candor say that some of us—while we admire his objectives in his fight against Communism—we have very considerable reservations sometimes concerning the methods which he employs.” That was too much for McCarthy’s fans: “The roof went off with boos and hisses and catcalls and ‘Throw him out.’” Joe, however, crossed the stage to shake hands with Bush, who won that race and launched a dynasty that would see his son and grandson make it to the White House. Over dinner that night McCarthy was even more amiable, signing autographs for fellow diners and leaning over to ask the buttoned-down Bush, “Now, Pres, what can I do for you? . . . Do you need any money?”

During his five-year reign of repression, McCarthy singled out two other Yale graduates. He dubbed Dean Acheson ’15, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, “Red Dean.” And he slammed William Bundy ’39, a senior CIA official, as a Commie-sympathizing liberal Democrat who had a brother who helped run evil Harvard, a father who’d worked in the left-leaning Roosevelt administration, and a suspect father-in-law—the same man he’d slandered as Red Dean.

Not all the Elis McCarthy interacted with were targets. Some were among his staunchest defenders, including two prominent conservatives who had been best friends in college and eventually became brothers-in-law. William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 and L. Brent Bozell Jr. ’50, ’53LLB, coauthored a book-length defense of the man they called their favorite senator. “It is clear that he has been guilty of a number of exaggerations, some of them reckless,” they wrote, but “McCarthy’s record is nevertheless not only much better than his critics allege but, given his métier, extremely good.” The 425-page book, McCarthy and His Enemies, was published in 1954. “As long as McCarthyism fixes its goal with its present precision,” the authors argued, “it is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.”

Two other Yale men couldn’t decide where they stood on McCarthy and McCarthyism. Senator Robert A. Taft ’10, an Ohio Republican and unchallenged leader of his party’s conservative wing, loathed McCarthy’s boorish defiance of every norm sacred to the Senate. Taft confided to one friend that McCarthy “doesn’t check his statements very carefully and is not disposed to take any advice so that it makes him a hard man for anybody to work with, or restrain.” To others, he called the Wisconsinite’s performance “perfectly reckless.”

But there was a reason Taft was called “Mr. Republican,” and he found a stream of rationalizations for his rights-bashing colleague. Although Joe hadn’t unmasked any Communists yet, Taft said, he ought to “keep talking and if one case doesn’t work out, he should proceed with another one.” When President Truman vilified Joe, Taft accused the president of “libeling . . . a fighting Marine.” Taft’s prevaricating was perhaps best explained by a Washington acquaintance: “McCarthyism is a kind of liquor for Taft. He knows it’s bad stuff, and he keeps taking the pledge. But every so often he falls off the wagon. Don’t ask me why. I only know that he doesn’t like it and can’t stay away from it.”

Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens ’21 exhibited the same push-pull in his relations with McCarthy. In their early days, when McCarthy was investigating supposed Communist influence within Stevens’s ranks, he told a newspaper reporter he was dissatisfied with the First Army Headquarters. So the secretary sent the senator a telegram: “am returning washington tuesday morning and will call your office to offer my services in trying to assist you to correct anything that may be wrong . . . you may be sure i will oppose communist infiltration of army to limit of my ability.

Later, the two sat down to a meal at which Stevens had intended to stand up to McCarthy but which turned out, in Vice President Richard Nixon’s words, to be “one of the most controversial repasts of the 1950s.” History would remember it not for its peas, French-fried potatoes, or hearts of lettuce, but as “the chicken lunch”—a reference less to the fried chicken served than to the Army secretary, who emerged looking like a coward. A memo of understanding the two inked made clear who was the winner and who the loser. Stevens agreed to root out Communists in his ranks and feed the senator the witnesses he wanted to grill. While McCarthy said he would treat military witnesses more politely, that wasn’t in the text or reporters’ stories, and he denied any softening. “Stevens couldn’t have surrendered more if he crawled on his hands and knees,” Joe told one reporter. The senator kidded with Bill Lawrence of the New York Times that “I’m running the Army now”—would Lawrence like to be a general?

Later, in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings that would finally bring Joe down, Senator Stuart Symington ’23 of Missouri quietly advised Stevens how to deal with the recalcitrant Wisconsin lawmaker. “I would never get near him if I could help it. . . . This fellow might be sick, you know,” said Symington, unaware that an Army stenographer was listening in and that his transcripts would later be made public. “If you are going to play with McCarthy,” Symington added, “you have got to forget about any of those Queensberry rules.” In other words: it’s a wrestling match, so expect choking, punching, and even biting.

One last Yale graduate whose name figures in McCarthy’s history is Wisconsin senator William Proxmire ’38. Proxmire, a Democrat, would spend more than 30 years in the Senate, beginning when he won a special election to finish McCarthy’s term after Joe died in 1957. When the new senator assumed his seat, he declined to pay the traditional tribute to his predecessor. Instead, Proxmire called McCarthy a “disgrace to Wisconsin, to the senate, and to America.” 

2 comments

  • Michael L. Lazare '53
    Michael L. Lazare '53, 12:28pm September 07 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Several Wisconsin students lived in the same Branford courtyard as I did. In the fall of my senior year, 1952, they posted signs soliciting votes for Joe McCarthy's opponent, Thomas Fairchild. Back then voters had to be 21 years old, but virtually all of us gave Fairchild our moral and vocal support. I just looked up the election: Fairchild 45%, McCarthy 54%. Close, but no cigar. Eventually McCarthy's colleagues could not stomach him any more and he was censured. He died while still a U.S. Senator. Pity.

  • Rod Fonda, ‘73
    Rod Fonda, ‘73, 3:51pm September 19 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Good article to remind us all that Trump did not set the low bar for lack of decency in the public arena (although he certainly brought it to the Presidency). Also a good reminder that standing up to the demagogue often brings political consequences; no matter how awful they are the indecent leaders have followers.

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