Interesting book review in the most recent New Republic. Devils in America by Harvey Klehr reveals just how difficult it seems for historians to write balanced and informed books about one of America’s most controversial figures: Joseph McCarthy.
Klehr, a historian and co-author of In Denial: Historians, Communism, & Espionage, is reviewing Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America by Ted Morgan. What Klehr finds is that Morgan does a credible job of balancing the real threat of communism and McCarthy’s bullying and lies but undermines his argument by over-doing the details and ending with an out of place rant.
I find this so interesting because it reveals two frequent weaknesses of history writing: the temptation to over-write and the controversial ending. The first comes from trying to fit every piece of evidence and research you dug up into your work. You fear leaving out any important context. But this over-burdening of books is what makes so many history books unreadable. Why in the world must Morgan write a 685 page book? He doesn’t even get to McCarthy until page 325! Perhaps a better question is” where was his editor? This is an interesting subject and a controversial one. If Morgan could have slimed the volume down and cut out some extraneous detail perhaps the book might have caught on with the general public. Instead we are left with an unwieldy tome few will read. I am fascinated by this subject but I don’t have time to slog through 685 pages.
The second problem might counter the first. In a effort to tie the issue of McCarthyism to the present, Morgan apparently goes off on a rant counter to the precise history he has just laid out:
Had Morgan ended his book with McCarthy’s downfall, it would have been a useful corrective to the hysterical accounts of a McCarthyite reign of terror and the equally blustering defenses of a thug and a liar. Instead, Morgan suddenly redefines McCarthyism at the end of Reds as “the use of false information in the irrational pursuit of a fictitious enemy,” as if he had not just written a few hundred pages about communist spies and subversion. He then draws a direct line between McCarthy and Richard Nixon’s plumbers, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, and the war in Iraq, even though the premise of his entire book is that McCarthyism was a response to the very real and specific issue of communism and the particular dangers that it presented. Morgan asserts, with dubious analogies, that in the aftermath of September 11, a “McCarthyite strain in American political life reemerged with a vengeance–the politics of fear, the politics of insult and the politics of deceit.”
I find it almost funny that Morgan couldn’t help but attempt to tie McCarthy to President Bush. He simply couldn’t resist the cultural bandwagon ad leave his history to speak for itself. I realize historians often like to end their works with a little spice and little speculation to avoid an abrupt ending, but surely you could come up with one that didn’t run counter to the evidence in the body of your work.
McCarthy is a cultural marker, a sort of Rorschach test, and few on the left or the right can come to a balanced view of him. I think Klehr’s view is a good one: “vile as his methods were, he was right about a significant threat to American life.”