A blogger posting on a community news weblog for West Berkshire has been inspired by reading The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh to pronounce her assessment of Waugh’s life and work (Penny Post, 29 Sept-9 Oct). After declaring Waugh a monster, based on his correspondence with Mitford, the blogger compiles a catalogue of his misdeeds. Included in this list is the charge that Waugh “supported the McCarthy witch-hunts amongst other dubious causes.” This conclusion would be based on several joking references in these letters which appear to make light of McCarthy’s actions and even make the ironic suggestion that similar actions should be undertaken in Britain. Waugh was playing on Mitford’s leftist views and insinuating that she had something to fear from the McCarthyites if she travelled to the US.
In fact, Waugh saw through McCarthy from the beginning. Even though Waugh was staunchly anti-Communist himself (as witnessed by his unflinching campaign against Marshall Tito) and despite support for McCarthy by Roman Catholic establishment figures in the US such as Archbishop Spellman, Waugh spoke out clearly in favor of McCarthy’s opponents. This was in a review of the 1959 book Senator Joe McCarthy by Richard Rovere, an outspoken critic of McCarthy. Waugh endorsed Rovere’s assessment that McCarthy is
totally insincere. He had certain likeable, rascally qualities; a gambler and drunkard who was unshakably loyal to his cronies and often magnanimous to his enemies. He was devoid of patriotism and political principle. He was a man of no outstanding abilities who came to the top, or very near it, by representing a prevalent mood of frustration and dismay among his countrymen and by fantastically exaggerating suspicions that were not without some foundation. He had the essential demagogue’s gift of identifying the scapegoat and performing public sacrifice.
Evelyn Waugh, “McCarthy,” Spectator, 5 February 1960, p. 185. The full review is available online. A drawing of McCarthy was on the cover of that issue.
After the review appeared, Waugh was approached by right wing commentator William F Buckley Jr who urged him to revise his position after reviewing books by Buckley and other apologists for McCarthy. Waugh replied, first asking Buckley to send the books he mentioned, and then later politely thanking Buckley for the books but declining to change his views on McCarthy:
McCarthy is certainly regarded by most Englishmen as a regrettable figure and your McCarthy and His Enemies, being written before his later extravagances, will not go far to clear his reputation. I have no doubt that you were sent a lot of prejudiced information six years ago. Your book makes plain that there was a need for investigation ten years ago. It does not, I am afraid supply me with the information that would convince me that McCarthy was a suitable man to undertake it.
Waugh’s letter, dated 4 April 1960, is reprinted in Letters, p. 536. Both sides of their correspondence, as well as some related letters and comments, are reproduced in Buckley’s Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription (2007), pp. 144 ff. Buckley was upset that the letters included in Mark Amory’s collection made him appear in an unflattering light. So far as your correspondent is aware, however, he never renounced his support for Senator McCarthy, which was the real cause of his embarrassment.