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The specter of the U.S. in the grip of a hysterical witch hunt, of the President cowering before McCarthy's power, bears only a specter's relation to reality. But it is the specter that flashes instantly to the British mind (and less vividly to the French and German) when America is mentioned. Americans can recognize the runaway inflation in the European myth of McCarthyism. But the myth itself was first pumped up in the U.S., and in the U.S. today McCarthyism is more myth than manbut not the less dangerous for that. The reputation of power, even an originally false reputation, begets power.
A Dubious Service. The aura of invincibility that now surrounds McCarthy owes something to Senator McCarthy himself, not a man to discourage reports of his own prowess. But the McCarthy myth was not created by parthenogenesis. It was busily fertilized not only by McCarthy, but by one notable group of McCarthy's enemies: the apologists for the New and Fair Deals.
Long before McCarthy was a national figure, evidence began to accumulate of how deeply the U.S. Government in the 1930s and '40s had been penetrated by Communists and their sympathizers. The scornful cartoons of the '30s, showing nervous "reactionaries" looking under the bed for Reds, lost their humor as one ex-Communist after another told his shocking story. There were, in sober truth, Reds under the bedand not only under it. Emerging and increasing evidence of this was politically embarrassing to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
When the McCarthy evangel began in 1950, the liberals saw in his distortions and exaggerations a chance to divert attention from the bedroom scene. They began to construct the myth of McCarthy's great power and his menace to liberty.
It was not easy to inflate McCarthy to his present proportions of a national and international figure. Unlike most demagogues, he has no glittering, positive program; he does not deal in promises. He is conspicuously devoid of organizing ability or any flair for latching on to existing organizations. It is still hard to find any significant McCarthy following, either in the Senate, or among political or business leaders, or among the people. A recent Gallup poll indicates that less than 22% of the U.S. public think that McCarthy does more good than harm. The rest either have no opinion or think that he does more harm than good.
The 22% who think he does more good than harm are indebted to McCarthy for helping them to keep up with the news. The evidence of Communist influence (95% of which was drawn out by investigators other than McCarthy) was not very difficult to understand. But apparently millions did not understand it until McCarthy restated it (and often misstated it) for them.
McCarthy's dubious service to the 22% who needed his tutelage accounts for less than half the McCarthy myth. The rest of it was supplied by the New and Fair Dealers who set out to prove that this cunning opportunist was the reincarnation of Torquemada, Huey Long and Hitler.
Origin of a Myth. His cooperative enemies concentrated their efforts to prove McCarthy's power in the Maryland senatorial election of 1950. Senator Millard Tydings had criticized McCarthy: Tydings, after 24 years in the Senate, was beaten; ergo, McCarthy the Mighty beat Tydings the Good.