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The Real Story on Joe McCarthy

Ronald Kessler By Monday, 07 April 2008 10:45 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

A dangerous movement has been growing among conservative writers to vindicate the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his campaign to expose Soviet spies in the U.S. government.

The FBI agents who were actually chasing those spies have told me that McCarthy hurt their efforts because he trumped up charges, unfairly besmirched honorable Americans, and gave hunting spies a bad name.

To be sure, intercepts of secret Soviet communications that were part of the VENONA program eventually revealed that Soviet espionage operatives in the government numbered in the hundreds—far more than was thought in the 1950s. In that sense, McCarthy was right, but so were dozens of other anti-Communists of the time like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The problem was that the people McCarthy tarnished as Communists or Communist sympathizers were not the real spies. Often, the information McCarthy used came from FBI files, which were full of rumor and third-hand accounts.

Several months before he died, I interviewed Robert J. Lamphere who participated in all the FBI’s major spy cases during the McCarthy period. Beginning in 1948, Lamphere also was the FBI liaison to the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service’s VENONA program and used leads from the intercepts to work cases involving Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby.

For my book “The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI,” Lamphere told me that agents who worked counterintelligence were aghast that Hoover initially supported McCarthy. [Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]

“McCarthyism did all kinds of harm because he was pushing something that wasn’t so,” Lamphere told me. The VENONA intercepts showed that over several decades, “There were a lot of spies in the government, but not all in the State Department,” Lamphere said. However, “The problem was that McCarthy lied about his information and figures. He made charges against people that weren’t true. McCarthyism harmed the counterintelligence effort against the Soviet threat because of the revulsion it caused. All along, Hoover was helping him.”

The McCarthy era began on February 9, 1950 when the obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin gave a speech to 275 members of the local Republican women’s club at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia.

“While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were known to the secretary of State and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy of the State Department,” McCarthy said, holding up a scrap of paper.

By the time McCarthy got to Salt Lake City, another stop on his speech itinerary, McCarthy—an alcoholic—could not remember the number he had cited. He told his audience there that the number of Communists was 57.

The conservative Chicago Tribune had been running a series on the Communist threat. The day after McCarthy’s speech in West Virginia, Willard Edwards, the author of the articles, urgently asked Walter Trohan, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, to come speak with him in Edward’s office at the Albee Building at 15th and G Streets NW in Washington.

Trohan related to me that Edwards then confided to him that just before McCarthy delivered his speech, he asked Edwards about the number of Communists in the State Department. Edwards said he gave McCarthy the figure of 205. Now he realized his mistake.

“Edwards said it was more or less a rumor. It was just a piece of gossip,” Trohan said. “Edwards was afraid that McCarthy was going to blame him for it.”

As for McCarthy, besides being an alcoholic, the senator was “crazy about girls about eighteen,” Trohan said. “I always thought if the Commies wanted to get him, all they had to do was supply him with a girl.”

“Joe McCarthy was into the booze,” Roy L. Elson, the administrative assistant to the powerful Senator Carl T. Hayden, told me. “He was a sad case.”

Bogus figures or not, McCarthy soon became a national figure. Returning from his tour, McCarthy called his friend Hoover and told him his speech was getting a lot of attention, according to a memo Hoover wrote after the call. There was only one problem: McCarthy said he had “made up the numbers as he talked.”

In the future, Hoover advised him, he should not give specific numbers. McCarthy asked if the FBI would give him information to back up his charges.

“Review the files and get anything you can for him” was Hoover’s order.

“We didn’t have enough evidence to show there was a single Communist in the State Department, let alone 57 cases,” said William Sullivan, who became the number three man in the bureau. Nevertheless, FBI agents spent hundreds of hours reading files and making abstracts for McCarthy.

Lou Nichols, who headed FBI public relations, cautioned McCarthy not to use the phrase “card-carrying Communists” because that could not be proven. Instead, he should refer to “Communist sympathizers” or “loyalty risks.”

The phrases were as fuzzy as Hoover’s files. While Hoover built a great organization, he confused political beliefs that were critical of the government with violations of criminal law. Using material from the FBI, McCarthy instilled fear in anyone who might have looked at a Communist.

It’s true that McCarthy’s witch-hunts have been confused with those of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Because of pressure from HUAC investigations, Hollywood studios blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman because her lover, mystery-writer Dashiell Hammett, was one. John Melby, a State Department officer with impeccable anti-Communist credentials, was fired for having had an affair with her.

But as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy’s approach was similar. Having studied the transcripts of McCarthy’s hearings, Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate, has pinpointed his tactics. Typically, McCarthy held hearings in executive session first.

“The executive sessions were like a dress rehearsal,” Ritchie tells me. “For the most part, he didn’t really have hard evidence against the people that he was interrogating, so he was hoping just to get them to contradict themselves or to take the Fifth Amendment, or to confess. And he would badger them in these closed sessions and winnow out the ones he wanted to testify in public. He interviewed about 500 people in closed session; he called about 300 people to public session.”

In the meantime, “After they’d testified in closed session, he’d go out in the hall, and he’d tell the waiting press what had just happened,” Ritchie says. “We looked at both the New York Times’ and the Chicago Tribune’s accounts and then we compared that to what actually went on inside the hearings. What he told the press grossly exaggerated what took place when compared to the transcripts.”

While McCarthy said he would protect the names of witnesses, their names were leaked to the press, Ritchie says. Only half a dozen of the witnesses turned up in the VENONA intercepts, all minor figures in McCarthy’s investigations, he notes.

In the end, says Ritchie, “Not one of the 500 witnesses went to jail for perjury or contempt of Congress, whereas a lot of people who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security subcommittee were investigated, prosecuted and convicted, and served jail time. Yet McCarthy was constantly accusing people of having committed perjury and urging the Justice Department to prosecute them.”

McCarthy eventually made the mistake of turning his sights on President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A former Army general who had led allied forces to victory during World War II, Eisenhower was as American as apple pie.

As McCarthy began accusing Eisenhower of being soft on Communists, Hoover realized he would have to distance himself from the senator. Just before what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings started on April 22, 1954, Hoover ordered the bureau to cease helping him. That would contribute to the senator’s downfall.

During the hearings, McCarthy failed to substantiate his claims that the Communists had penetrated the Army, which had hired a shrewd Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, to represent it. McCarthy noted that Fred Fischer, a young lawyer in Welch’s firm, had been a member while at Harvard Law School of the National Lawyers Guild, described by the attorney general as the “legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.” Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg had also been a member of the group.

Upon hearing this accusation, Welch responded, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” When McCarthy continued to hound Fischer, Welch said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

After two months, the hearings were over, and so was McCarthy’s career. Watching the hearings on television, millions of Americans had seen how he bullied witnesses and what an unsavory character he was. Behind the scenes, Eisenhower pushed fellow Republicans to censure McCarthy.

In August 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate the senator. On September 27, the committee issued a unanimous report calling McCarthy’s behavior as a committee chairman “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” and “vulgar and insulting.”

On December 2, 1954, the Senate voted 67 to 22 to censure him. After that, when he rose to speak, senators left the Senate chamber. Reporters no longer attended his press conferences. On May 2, 1957, McCarthy died at the age of forty-eight of acute hepatitis, widely believed to be a result of his alcoholism, a point generally overlooked by the revisionists.

As chief of Justice Department spy prosecutions for nearly 25 years, John L. Martin prosecuted 76 spies, including CIA officers Aldrich Ames and Harold J. Nicholson, Navy warrant officer John A. Walker Jr., and Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard.

With his unlimited clearances, Martin read many of the FBI’s most secret raw files on historic espionage cases, including the files on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Judith Coplon, Alger Hiss, and Rudolph Abel. No one knows as much about catching spies and the legal ramifications that go with it than Martin.

“While VENONA later confirmed and expanded upon what the FBI knew about Soviet operations in the U.S., McCarthy was acting on suspicions and myths rather than adequate investigations,” Martin tells me.

McCarthy used “the umbrella of national security to justify his outrageous practice of besmirching reputations of loyal Americans,” Martin adds.

Efforts to vindicate McCarthy by people who have never caught a spy ignore the fact that rather than helping the cause of dealing with the spy threat, he harmed it.

By sanctioning McCarthy’s intimidating tactics and dishonest charges against innocent Americans, revisionists dangerously invite history to be repeated, imperiling all of us.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
e-mail. Go here now.

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A dangerous movement has been growing among conservative writers to vindicate the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his campaign to expose Soviet spies in the U.S. government. The FBI agents who were actually chasing those spies have told me that McCarthy hurt their efforts...
Monday, 07 April 2008 10:45 PM
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