Because novelist and literary critic Mary McCarthy was “a premature anti-Stalinist,” when the intellectual fashion in the 1930s was pro-Stalinist, one could assume from that moment on she saw through the various forms of communism.
But this is not the case.
In the early 1930s, McCarthy was a fellow-traveler of American communists, but this was lukewarm at best, as she confessed to finding them odd. McCarthy did not really have a sense of where she stood regarding communism until the Moscow Purge Trials began in 1936.
The Trials were presented to the world as an effort by Josef Stalin to prevent a fascist takeover of the Soviet Union. According to the Party faithful, this conspiracy was a joint effort by Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik leader exiled by a jealous Stalin, and his co-conspirator, Adolf Hitler.
In reality, the Trials were a frame-up designed for Stalin to murder off his opposition and consolidate his power.
It is estimated by historians today that between 600,000 and 3 million were murdered by the Soviet government during the period.
Overseas communist parties peddled the version given by Stalin and denounced anyone who questioned the Trials.
Into this maelstrom came McCarthy, who quite by accident became an anti-communist.
Questioned by one of the Party faithful at a social gathering as to whether Trotsky, exiled to Mexico, deserved a fair trial and asylum, she unknowingly stumbled into anti-Stalinism when she answered yes to both questions.
McCarthy saw the questions as unbelievable:
“The right of asylum! I looked for someone to share my amusement—were we in ancient Greece or the Middle Ages?”
Within days the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, an effort lead by philosopher John Dewey and peopled by anti-Stalinists, put her name on their letterhead. Outraged, she was on the verge of demanding her name be taken off the list when she suddenly began to receive hectoring phone calls from the Party faithful.
Of these calls, McCarthy saw the “Party wheeling its forces into would-be disciplined formations, like a fleet or an army maneuvering…” it was “a systematic telephone campaign “to “dislodge members from the Committee.”
Primarily to defend her position, she began to read the transcripts of the Trials and concluded they were “a monstrous frame-up.” She was now a member of anticommunism, but a version she defined as the liberal wing of it that entailed “a certain doubt of orthodoxy and independence of mass opinion.”
From there, McCarthy went to war with American defenders of Stalin, most famously attacking the 800 literary and artistic figures who gathered in 1949 at the Waldorf calling for peace at any price with Stalin. Along with anti-communist liberals and socialists such as Sidney Hook and Dwight MacDonald, McCarthy formed the Committee of Cultural Freedom and crashed the conference, bombarding the Party faithful (among them playwright Lillian Hellman who McCarthy would later be sued by for asserting that Hellman was a liar) with embarrassing questions.
Hence, one would assume that such passion made McCarthy immune to any form of communism.
But fast-forward to the Vietnam era and McCarthy was a fellow-traveler of the Vietcong.
On two well-publicized trips to the Vietnam conflict, the McCarthy of old who retained “a certain doubt of orthodoxy” succumbed to the fashionable left-wing horde in America.
Before she even stepped off the plane she had made her mind up—that the Americans were monsters and the Viet Cong admirable. She confessed that the whole purpose of her trip to South Vietnam was to find “material damaging to the American interest.”
Unlike her old comrade from anti-Stalinist days, Dwight MacDonald, who, although opposed to the war nevertheless refused to laud the Vietcong, McCarthy fell hard for the North Vietnamese.
She viewed the Vietcong as free from any communist orthodoxy; compared to the American “propaganda “machine, she regarded the North as “speaking quite plainly.”
Such was her enthusiasm for the Vietcong that she went against her previous opposition to world communism. In response to the possibility of “World Communism” coming to “power,” she preferred it to American anticommunism:
“Never mind. Some sort of life will continue, as Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn…”have discovered.”
The girl who was proud to be on the letterhead of the Trotsky Defense Committee now did not mind appearing on a communist one rather than the anticommunist group she helped found:
“I would rather be on their letterhead, if they would allow me, than on that of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom…”
Even though she defended her previous ant-Stalinism till her death, McCarthy never regretted her championship of Vietnam, even after the mass executions the North visited on the South after the American withdrawal, and the emergence of the genocidal Pol Pott in Cambodia.