The Red Scare revisited: inside McCarthy files
WASHINGTON — Long-sealed transcripts of the Joseph McCarthy hearings, released on Monday, amplify much of what is already known about the most notorious investigation in congressional history: how witnesses were badgered - and lives ruined - by charges of communist subversion that proved to be largely groundless.
What is more striking in these transcripts is what the chairman failed to note: the lack of direction to his investigation, subpoena errors, and inept staff work. McCarthy also failed to recount how effectively many witnesses handled the heat.
Such printed testimony may not be as riveting as the 1954 televised Army-McCarthy hearings, watched by 20 million people. Nor is there a moment as seismic as the rebuke from Special Counsel Joseph Welch that marked McCarthy's downfall: "Have you no sense of decency?"
But until the release of these transcripts, many quiet voices of resistance had been largely unheard. They are surfacing as the nation again faces a search for enemies within - the less sensational hunt for terrorists. From secretaries to military brass, McCarthy's targets taunted, parried, even ridiculed their interrogators. Some just said "no." Most were never invited back to testify in public.
One witness the public never got to hear was Sherrod East, an archivist at the National Archives and a founding member of the town council of Greenbelt, Md., a planned town created during the New Deal. He was also one of the few members of the Army's loyalty screening board to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which McCarthy chaired (1953-54). McCarthy was sure that the board's loyalty files would prove his case that subversives were being protected in Army and State Department, and Mr. East looked to him like a communist sympathizer. The evidence: East once sponsored a lawn party at his home to raise funds for anti-fascist Spanish Loyalists.
At a closed session, Roy Cohn, the subcommittee's chief counsel, peppered East with questions: Do you have communist sympathies? Did you know that the doctor in the town's health association was a communist sympathizer? And then the punch line: Could someone "as fooled as you were by communists and communist sympathizers" be in a position to evaluate Army loyalty cases?
East never flinched, nor did he invoke constitutional protections. "I resent, if I may say so, the implication that I can't judge when a man's political complexion, if political is the right word, has a bearing on his duties," he said. The unflappable East was not called back for public testimony.
Despite McCarthy's constant reminders to witnesses that executive sessions are secret, he routinely gave the press his account of the day's events.
And while he informed the 395 witnesses of their right to constitutional protection, he described any attempt to do so as an admission of guilt - and encouraged employers to fire them. The hearings took on the tone of an inquisition. They ranged from investigations into the books in the State Department's overseas libraries, where more than 300 titles were then banned or burned, to allegations of subversion in defense plants, never substantiated.
Stanley Berinsky, a worker for the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J., was grilled about the political affiliations of his mother. "Did you ever ask her if she was a communist? ...When you went to see her, weren't you curious?" Some 42 engineers were suspended as a result of this investigation, and 40 were later offered their jobs back.
While the mantra of McCarthy's public hearings was the question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" the most recurring phrase in these executive sessions was: "In other words...," says Senate associate historian Donald Ritchie. This phrase always prefaced "the chairman's relentless rephrasing of witnesses' testimony into something with more sinister implications than they intended," he says.
By making these transcripts available, "we hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who currently chairs the subcommittee on investigations, as she released these documents Monday.
Senate historians also compared what McCarthy told the press with the transcript records. "In most cases, it was grossly exaggerated," says Mr. Ritchie, who directed the two-and-a-half year effort to transcribe and edit the stenographic transcripts.
The transcripts also show the full scope of the committee's blunders. Sometimes witnesses were summoned merely because their names resembled those of suspected communists. It produced exchanges such as: "Have you ever been known as Louis Kaplan?" Answer: No. And this question to the next witness: "Could you identify Louis Kaplan? ... Have you seen him today in the witness room? Answer: "No, I haven't seen him in years."
The transcripts confirm critical comments by Mr. Cohn and the assistant counsel, Robert Kennedy, who resigned from the committee and was rehired as minority counsel for the Democrats. "No real research was ever done," wrote Kennedy in his 1960 memoir, "The Enemy Within." Chief counsel Cohn describes his investigation into subversive books in State Department libraries abroad as "a colossal mistake."
Many of the authors of banned books produced some of the most memorable moments in the secret sessions.
Asked to shorten his responses, poet Langston Hughes replied: "I would much rather preserve my reputation and freedom than to save time." Writer Eslanda Goode Robeson invoked the protection both of the Fifth and the 15th Amendments. "I am a second-class citizen in this country and, therefore, feel the need of the Fifteenth. That is the reason I use it. I am not quite equal to the rest of the white people," she said.