THE release this week, with great fanfare and media hoopla, of the so-called "secret" hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist investigations committee 50 years after the fact is hardly the great historical revelation it is being portrayed as.
The 5,000 pages of closed-door executive session testimony already are being cited by the left as further proof that the Wisconsin senator - whose name symbolizes an era Jimmy Carter would later naively call "America's inordinate fear of Communism" - conducted a wide-ranging "witch hunt" for nonexistent subversives.
"McCarthy had shopworn goods and fishing expeditions," said Don Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the same committee McCarthy once headed, insisted the documents "shed new light on a shameful chapter in American history." Meanwhile, ranking committee Democrat Carl Levin drew predictable parallels to the crackdown on civil liberties in the war on terrorism.
Once again, however, the left is looking to rewrite the history of this complex and misunderstood period.
For one thing, these "secret" sesssions were hardly the kind of star-chamber proceedings suggested in many news reports. Congressional committees have long used executive sessions to weed out witnesses and elicit information in advance; it was in executive session, for example, that the Senate Watergate Committee first learned of Richard Nixon's secret taping system.
But the ultimate falsehood remains the left's insistence on describing McCarthy's investigations as "witch hunts" - the presumption being that witches don't exist.
Yet growing historical evidence underscores that, whatever his rhetorical and investigative excesses - and they were substantial - McCarthy was a lot closer to the truth about Communism than were his foes.
Communists were well-organized, and they did manage to penetrate the highest levels of Washington, planting themselves into positions where they either significantly influenced U.S. policy or passed classified information to the Soviets, or both.
Cord Meyer, a top CIA official who would himself face unfounded charges he was a Communist sympathizer, wrote at the time that McCarthy "would never have achieved his national prominence unless there had in fact been serious Communist penetration and evidence available to the public of the government's failure to cope with it."
McCarthy was aided by much of the left's unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of Communist activity, especially espionage - the assumption being that anything a villain like McCarthy said had to be false, and anyone who opposed him was a patriot and a hero.
In a famous 1952 essay in Commentary, Irving Kristol excoriated the left for too often "joining hands with the Communists" and refusing to condemn Stalinist outrages.
"There is one thing that the American people know about Sen. McCarthy," wrote Kirstol. "He, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification."
Ironically, McCarthy himself had little to do with the excesses of anti-Communism. Blacklisting of celebrities had begun in 1947, three years before he even gave his first anti-Communist speech; the extensive system of loyalty reviews and security probes was instituted by President Harry Truman in the same year.
Moreover, the notion of the era as a reign of terror is profoundly misleading.
"In a reign of terror," wrote Irving Howe, "people turn silent, fear a knock on the door at four in the morning, flee in all directions. But they do not, because they cannot, talk endlessly in public about the outrage of terror" - as McCarthy's foes did.
Indeed, added Sidney Hook, "all the great organs of public opinion . . . were hostile to McCarthy; all the Luce magazines with the fabulous circulation damned him for his demagogy . . . To speak of a reign of terror, or a climate of fear, is to do the sort of thing which has come to be associated with McCarthy's name."
But McCarthy, with his whining voice, heavy jowls and often-bullying manner, writes historian Richard Gid Powers, "gave the enemies of anti-Communism what they had been looking for since the beginning of the Cold War: a contemporary name and face for their old stereotype of the anti-Communist fascist."
Not that McCarthy didn't give them plenty of ammunition. Arthur Herman, a sympathetic biographer, concedes that "when cornered or challenged, [McCarthy] preferred to exaggerate - even lie . . . [He] learned to bluff his way through, in hopes that subsequent research would confirm the bulk of it."
And because he became the symbol of that cause, many conservatives - who privately derided him as a bumbling amateur - would not publicly criticize him, even though they realized McCarthy was hurting the very cause he, and they, championed.
Yet the tide of history has largely turned in McCarthy's favor - in the basic truth of his accusations of widespread Communist influence, if not some of his specific targets or his methods.
The newly released transcripts reflect McCarthy's unwarranted belief that the ends justified his means. His goal, however, was far more on target than his critics even now will admit.