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William F. Buckley, Jr. has been revered among American conservatives, and even some scholars of the field, for fathering what would come to be known as movement conservatism through his National Review. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, has not been so fondly remembered; he was best known for his paranoid style of politics and eventual censure in the Senate. While Buckley and McCarthy’s worlds clearly overlapped in the fervent anticommunist conservatism of the 1950s, few historians have recognized the extent to which McCarthy was a part of Buckley’s conservative movement, if it is to be acknowledged as such. A closer examination of the historical record, through Buckley’s published and private writings, reveals that Buckley considered McCarthy a friend, a political ally, and a singular, enlightened figure in American history.

Although Buckley’s legacy generally centers around his ideas and intellectual prowess, Buckley was a deft political strategist. In the early 1950s, after McCarthy had burst onto the national stage but before Buckley rose to prominence, Buckley tethered his fortunes to McCarthy, defending the senator publicly and working for him personally. McCarthy, however, earned a rare rebuke from his colleagues in December 1954 for continuing to attack the Eisenhower administration and, in particular, the Army. Shortly afterwards, a now-famous Buckley would found the National Review, and while he would remain a McCarthy devotee, Buckley understood that McCarthy was polarizing at best, and that lavishing praise on the senator would not help Buckley’s fledgling publication. Only after McCarthy’s death would Buckley and his National Review pivot toward a rehabilitative stance, even in the face of warnings from fellow conservatives. Ultimately, Buckley saw himself as a friendly critic, but even this much has been largely unexplored by historians. A fuller, more nuanced understanding of Buckley’s relationship to McCarthy, especially through the turbulent 1950s, sheds light on Buckley himself and the nature of American conservatism, in the postwar era and beyond.