The Red Hunter – A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy
William F. Buckley Jr.
Little, Brown and Company, 1999, 421 PP
It is a unique distinction for a person to have their name immortalized by having it attached to a memorable period in history. The "Elizabethan" and "Victorian" eras refer to memorable periods in British history. However, in American history, the "McCarthy Era" has a more sinister connotation and is associated with period in the early 1950s when the country was beginning to come to grips with the realities of the Cold War and realizing the extent to which communists had infiltrated the government and other major institutions.
The ideals preached by Marxist-Leninism appealed to many especially those in professions like journalism and academia. The appeal was so great that many not only turned a blind eye to the evils that were being perpetuated by the communists in the Soviet Union but also vehemently denounced and demonized anyone who dared to expose the true nature of Marxist-Leninism in action. Senator Joseph "Joe" McCarthy of Wisconsin was one of those who dared to expose the activities of communists, Americans who were allied with and often paid agents of the Soviet Union, in high positions in the U.S. government. For this he has been attacked to such an extent that most Americans have been conditioned to think of one of the darkest times in American history at the mere mention of the terms "McCarthy Era" or "McCarthyism".
In this novel, William F. Buckley Jr., who knew Senator Joseph McCarthy personally, tells the story of Henry Bontecou, a recent college graduate who goes to work for Senator McCarthy and is at his side as McCarthy's star burned bright.
The book opens in London in 1991 with Bontecou, recently widowed and on a pre-retirement sabbatical from his post as professor of history at the University of Connecticut, meeting with the eighty-six year old British historian, Lord Herrendon. Herrendon is writing a book about the post World War II clash in the West between communist sympathizers and their anti-communist opponents. Herrendon invites Bontecou ostensibly to interview him about his experiences as a nineteen year old Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in "Operation Keelhaul" which involved the forced repatriation of Soviet soldiers, recently liberated from German POW camps, back to Stalinist Russia where most of them were brutally murdered. But the real reason for Herrendon's invitation was to interview Bontecou about his experiences as an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy, something Bontecou had never discussed with anyone.
As Bontecou recounts his experiences from Operation Keelhaul to the early death and funeral of Senator McCarthy in 1957 the reader is given a view of the era from the perspective of the anti-communist right. As a student at Columbia University, Bontecou leads the conservative anti-communist opposition against the communist backed progressives on campus. The reader gets a first hand look at Gus Hall, leader of the Communist Party of the USA and the presidential campaign of former Vice President Henry Wallace running as the candidate of the Progressive party which is secretly backed and bankrolled by the Communist Party of the USA. We also see Joe McCarthy first as a young Wisconsin farm boy dropping out of school at age fifteen to work, then his return to school, college, law school, election as Judge and volunteering for service in the Army Air Corps in World War II. Following the war, McCarthy becomes the youngest man elected to the U.S. Senate. Popular, very likable and very loyal to friends, McCarthy also possessed great determination and energy.
In 1950 Senator McCarthy was assigned by the Republican Party to give a Lincoln Day dinner speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. An aide prepared two speeches for him, one on public housing and one on communists in the government. McCarthy did not have much passion for either speech or their topics and decided to give the housing speech in Wheeling and the communist speech in Reno, Nevada a few days later. But the local party chairman in Wheeling talked him in to giving the communist speech in Wheeling. McCarthy was surprised the next day to find that what he had considered a forgettable after dinner speech, had made national headlines and rocketed him to national prominence in a matter of days.
The reader gets to see the human side, both the virtues and vices, of the namesake of an era, but also a broad view of the other people and events that shaped that era. As seen through the eyes of Buckley's fictional Harry Bontecou, Joseph "Joe" McCarthy is neither hero nor villain but rather a man of great potential who was destroyed by his unchecked ambition. The same ambition and tenacity that had enabled him rapidly advance from youthful poverty to law school, World War II hero and United States Senator resulted in his even more rapid downfall.
This report prepared by Chuck Nugent