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July 15, 2020 4:36 am

Joe McCarthy and the Jews

avatar by Harold Brackman

Opinion

Roy Cohn, a top aide to Senator Joe McCarthy. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Larry Tye, a longtime Boston Globe reporter, writes fine popular biographies like his life of Robert F. Kennedy. His new book is Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. Republican Senator McCarthy attacked generations of liberals and progressives with “Big Lies” that the US government and American churches, universities, and Hollywood were honeycombed with communists. His right-wing specter still frightens many, including Tye — and reminds some of attacks today on the “deep state.”

Given the volumes of books about McCarthy and McCarthyism (his conspiracy-obsessed movement), it’s hard to write anything new. But Tye zeroes in on one question of perennial interest to Jews: was Senator Joseph McCarthy an antisemite? Consider these facts:

The antisemitic campaign by McCarthy, supported by rabid bigots, against the Truman administration’s appointment of Anna Rosenberg, a Jewish immigrant from Budapest, to a high Defense Department position, was a template for lurid McCarthyism.

McCarthy’s crusade against Jewish dentist Irving Peress at the Fort Monmouth, New Jersey signal corps involved security inquisitions almost entirely against Jews.

McCarthy didn’t denounce notorious Jew haters such as Gerald L.K. Smith and William Dudley Pelley, and even endorsed Smith.

McCarthy privately relished coarse jokes and jibes about “Hebes.”

McCarthy, early in his career, also defended the Wehrmacht perpetrators of the Malmedy Massacre of 84 captive American soldiers, slaughtered during Nazi Germany’s last-ditch attempt to win the Battle of the Bulge. German-American voters in Wisconsin cheered him on.

Tye taps revelations from private papers, medical records, FBI files, and fresh interviews. Tye has never been a social scientist. This may explain his scant attention to polling data on the ideological proclivities of McCarthy’s followers, first analyzed by illustrious, mostly Jewish scholars (Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Talcott Parsons, Richard Hofstadter, and Seymour Martin Lipset) in their compendium, The Radical Right. They concluded that McCarthy was a dangerous demagogue and that many of his fervent supporters were delusional paranoids, but that antisemitism — although present — was likely not an overwhelming motivation.

Nor does Tye much probe the psyches of McCarthy or his right-hand man, Roy Cohn. Cohn was the  hot-shot, 27 year-old chief counsel during 1954’s Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn played a large role in the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — and later admitted that he manipulated evidence and witnesses in order to send them to the electric chair. On that basis, and the recommendations of ultra-conservative Jewish and non-Jewish anti-communists, Cohn was hired partly to immunize McCarthy against imputations that he was antisemitic.

Joe McCarthy was an evil menace, but also a drunk and an ill-informed populist. He was not ideological enough to be an ideological antisemite like Hitler or Louis Farrakhan. Readers may discern for themselves this new book’s lessons, if any, for the Trump era and beyond.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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