We are late linking to the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Bulletin for Spring, 2004. However, we would urge our readers to check out the article on McCarthy and McCarthyism. Nathan Glazer and Anthony Lewis contribute two not very rocking speeches in commemoration of the McCarthy-Army hearings, fifty years ago – but Sam Tannenhaus, one of the right’s best up and coming intellectuals, contributes a pretty sterling piece, especially considering that it remains under the 2,000 word mark.
For Tannenhaus, the problem posed by McCarthy is a part of a larger historical conundrum: how did the American right move from isolationist in the thirties to the interventionist anti-communism of the Cold War era?
“One of the mysteries to me, as I write about American conservatism, is how quickly and seamlessly the American Right moved from an isolationist, anti-interventionist position leading up to Pearl Harbor to an extreme interventionist position afterwards, particularly when it came to the Soviet Union. Why was it that, suddenly, conservatives wanted to fght the “great war” they hadn’t wanted to fght before?The answer is that most of them didn’t. Robert Taft and Joe McCarthy both opposed the Korean War initially. Yet some of us remember that when Douglas MacArthur wanted to take the war to China, Harry Truman fired him, and MacArthur became a martyr to the Right. In fact, the American conservative movement opposed almost all those interventions early on, and McCarthy identifed the perfect surrogate enemy. McCarthy’s approach was, in its
crude way, a very clever formulation. Basically, he said, “Why send American soldiers to die in Korea when all the Communists we have to fear are here at home? If we can get Dean Acheson and George Marshall and all the other bad guys out of the State Department, they won’t lure us into these death traps overseas.”
In other words, isolationism never really went away; it remained one of the submerged themes in American foreign policy that is still evident today. Isolationism was reborn as unilateralism. In fact, the two consort fairly easily. In the years leading up to World War II, the antiwar argument from the Right was that we did not want to involve ourselves in European wars. It actually doesn’t take a great leap from that to say we, alone, will fight the Cold War: We’ll oppose nato and the Marshall Plan as, again, the conservatives did and we’ll make it our single crusade against the enemy. And we are seeing this again in the war in Iraq.”
This, we think, is a fairly profound thesis. And Tannenhaus adds to it the fact that McCarthyism captured a very anti-elitist populism that was, in the 30s, the property of the left. In fact, Glazer and Lewis unconsciously underline Tannanhaus’ point: their speeches are larded with “respected” figures, like the President of GE and Walter Lippman, who opposed McCarthy. That opposition isn’t contemptible – far from it, we should all be grateful to the Liberal elite that tore McCarthy down -- but its language is revealing. The liberal elite had forged a culture that was quite comfortable with the state of affairs in the country, the balance between public and private power, because they dominated both spheres. It is interesting – as we have noted before – that conservative movements have depended so heavily on oil money. Much of that money comes from an entirely different sphere than that moved in by the president of GE, or by Eisenhower.
That sphere, we think, was and is caught up with Iraq as an intervention of another kind – one that brings democracy, one that builds a Marshall Plan. This rhetorical dressing is almost irresistible to the John Kerrys of the world – even though the Kerrys know, in their gut, that oil wealth doesn’t mean it when they say, Marshall Plan, or democracy. But the meaninglessness of these phrases is hard to get across in a campaing that is all phrases. And – discouragingly – that credibility gap will not disturb their constituencies at all. Nobody on the Right has even for a moment objected to the fact that the Bush administration’s announcement of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan was followed by (unbelievably enough) a budget that proposed zero dollars for the country. Do people in Waycross, Georgia, planting their Bush signs in their front lawns really want to put their tax dollars towards a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan? Hell no. But they do like the ring of the idea. Similarly, the war party in the media is compulsively scornful of those people who “would have left Saddam Hussein in power” in Iraq, instead of supporting democracy – but they are absolutely uninterested in whether, indeed, the mechanisms of democracy are really being set up in Iraq. Tannenhaus throws a little light on the roots of this schizoid response.