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McCarthy targeted--again. (Cover Story: History).

Media spin aside, newly released transcripts from Senator Joseph McCarthy's closed committee hearings validate his efforts to expose subversive forces in our government.

It was a dark and shameful period in our nation's history. Law-abiding private citizens, whose only "offense" was to express unpopular political opinions, were publicly demonized and falsely accused of working on behalf of a hostile foreign power. They came under the invasive scrutiny of the federal government, which used self-appointed spies to infiltrate legal political gatherings to collect personal information on those in attendance.

The campaign of suppression culminated in a high-profile official inquest targeting a handful of prominent dissidents as a way of terrorizing others into chastened silence. But the public soon grew disgusted with this spectacle, and the press pilloried the figure leading the charge as a ruthless, unprincipled inquisitor. The juggernaut ground to a halt -- but not before great damage had been done to the lives, livelihoods, and reputations of decent, patriotic Americans who had been unfairly maligned as traitors.

Is this is a thumbnail sketch of the McCarthy era? No -- it is a brief description of the efforts undertaken by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to suppress, and ultimately imprison, its critics, particularly those who opposed U.S. entry into World War II. (See article on page 17.)

Isn't it interesting, then, that FDR enjoys hero status in our history books while Senator Joseph McCarthy has earned nothing but scorn and derision, despite mounting evidence proving he was right? This mounting evidence includes the 4,232 previously sealed pages released on May 5th. Taken from McCarthy's closed-door hearings in 1953-54, these pages predictably caught the attention of the dominant media, which misrepresented the documents' meaning and used the occasion to denigrate McCarthy anew.

Media Spin

The day the documents were released NBC news reader Tom Brokaw described Senator McCarthy as "a demagogue with a sneer [who] launched a personal publicity crusade to ferret out Communists in the government Although he could not possibly have read the more than 4,000 pages in a single day, Brokaw insisted that the newly released transcripts "show him [McCarthy] for the bully he was." These comments set up a segment by NBC correspondent Pete Williams that also largely ignored the transcripts. Williams instead retailed the familiar caricature of the McCarthy era as a time when America was plagued by a "climate of fear, built on McCarthy's relentless, overbearing style."

Referring to the same period as our nation's "Darkest Days," the ABC News report on the McCarthy transcripts depicted the senator's inquiry as a threat to "average citizens ... [who were] called before the committee on the basis of uncorroborated information or, quite often, the mere suspicion of Communist sympathies." McCarthy himself, of course, was depicted as an opportunistic demagogue willing to ruin lives in "aggressive pursuit of evidence to support his theories, few of which bore fruit."

Both NBC and ABC, as well as major newspapers and wire services, emphasized that the closed-door "executive sessions" conducted by McCarthy took testimony from prominent private citizens such as composer Aaron Copland and novelist Dashiell Hammett. The reports carefully followed a script suggested by Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie, who edited the transcripts. According to Ritchie, Senator McCarthy used the executive sessions to "audition" potential victims for the public hearings.

"Anybody who stood up to McCarthy in closed session, and did so articulately, tended not to get called up into the public session," Ritchie told the Associated Press. "McCarthy was only interested in the people he could browbeat publicly."

In a May 7th editorial, the New York Times artfully embroidered Ritchie's views. "McCarthy, it turns out, preferred preliminary, secret committee vettings of hundreds of Americans he was prepared to accuse of high treason on behalf of communism," fulminated the Times editorial. "This allowed him to weed out the more resilient and articulate witnesses, who in public could give as tough as they got from the senator and Roy Cohn, his dedicated counsel. The least gifted in speaking their own defense, whether mumbling in shock or invoking the constitutional right not to answer the senator's baiting questions, were ordered back for the big show: the open hearings where the senator conducted a thunderous witch hunt that both mesmerized and polarized the nation in exploiting cold war fear."

The Reality

Transcripts editor Donald Ritchie labored diligently to convince the public that the closed-door sessions were McCarthy's malicious invention. But as Ritchie himself points out in the preface to the transcripts, the use of closed-door executive sessions by Senate investigative committees was established long before Joseph McCarthy took the reins of the Senate Government Operations Committee's subcommittee for investigations in 1953.

"By hearing witnesses privately, the permanent subcommittee could avoid incidents of misidentification and could determine how forthcoming witnesses were likely to be in public," comments Ritchie. McCarthy's executive sessions thus carried out a function similar to a grand jury. This arrangement protected the privacy of those called into the closed-door hearings, many of whom were called as material witnesses, not suspects. Roughly one-third of those called to the 1953 closed-door hearings weren't called back later for public hearings, and many of them remained entirely anonymous until the transcripts were unsealed 50 years later.

"Inclusion as a witness in these volumes in no way suggests a measure of guilt," Ritchie emphasizes. Although Ritchie may be loath to admit as much, Senator McCarthy displayed at least as much concern to protect the privacy of the innocent. Shortly after he began his inquiry into Communist subversion of the State Department, Senator McCarthy was challenged to "name names." The senator was a former judge who had earned a reputation for being both expeditious and scrupulously fair regarding the rights of the accused. True to form, he replied that "if I were to give all the names involved, it might leave a wrong impression. If we should label one man a Communist when he is not a Communist, I think it would be too bad." Senator McCarthy's conduct during both the closed sessions and the open hearings reflected his commitment to due process, even when dealing with people strongly suspected of undermining our national security.

Release of the 50-year-old transcripts offered McCarthy's detractors another opportunity to invoke the myth of a "reign of terror" in which practically any citizen could be subpoenaed, interrogated, defamed, and ruined. Once again, Donald Ritchie -- who did a great deal to cultivate that impression -- offers a remarkably different view in the preface to the transcripts.

"In their hunt for subversion and espionage, Senator McCarthy and chief counsel [Roy] Cohn conducted hearings on the State Department, the Voice of America, the U.S. overseas libraries, the Government Printing Office, and the Army Signal Corps." That was it. McCarthy did not conduct a free-floating, open-ended fishing expedition, trawling heedlessly through American institutions in search of a few harmless leftists he could browbeat in front of television cameras. Instead, the senator and his investigative staff conducted a limited, specific inquiry, mandated by law and conducted under long-established procedural guidelines.

Ritchie insists that Senator McCarthy and his staff considered "any method justifiable in combating an international conspiracy...." What did "any method" mean? Did it include summary imprisonment? Blackmail? Torture? Threats against family members of those who defied the committee? IRS audits? Well ... not exactly. Ritchie complains that McCarthy was occasionally "abrasive" with witnesses, that he "grilled witnesses intensely ... [and] showed little patience for due process and defined witnesses' constitutional rights narrowly."

Of course, this is an unwitting admission that Senator McCarthy, the supposed inquisitor, respected the constitutionally protected rights of witnesses. Ritchie makes additional admissions of this type. "Senator McCarthy regularly informed witnesses of their right to decline to answer if they felt an answer might incriminate them," admits Ritchie, hastily insisting that McCarthy "interpreted their refusal to answer a question as an admission of guilt." However, in the very same paragraph Ritchie records that McCarthy "pointed out that membership in the Communist Party was not a crime." This means that while McCarthy took contempt of Congress seriously, he was not seeking to imprison people on the basis of their political beliefs or associations, however loathsome those beliefs or corrupt those associations.

An "Abusive" Investigator?

The infamous parade of "Fifth Amendment" pleaders before McCarthy's committee has often been cited as evidence that the senator practiced a policy of guilt-by association. Once again, Ritchie -- despite his obvious intentions -- throws useful light on this subject. He points out: "Some witnesses wanted to argue that the subcommittee had no right to question their political beliefs, but their attorneys advised them that it would be more prudent to decline to answer."

The Justice Department specifically advised Senator McCarthy "that it was his right as a congressional investigator to order witnesses to answer questions about whether they know any Communists who might be working in the government or in defense plants," Ritchie observes. He also acted with the strength of the 1927 Supreme Court decision McGrain v. Daugherty holding that "a committee could subpoena anyone to testify, including private citizens who were neither government officials nor employees." Once again, McCarthy used these powers for the specific, narrowly defined purpose of exposing Communist infiltrators and espionage agents within the federal government.

The transcripts released on May 5th offer little evidence of McCarthy's reported penchant for browbeating witnesses. And there are many useful counter-examples on record, displaying the senator's solicitude toward even potentially hostile witnesses (a quality Ritchie admits). An example of this is McCarthy's treatment of Edward Rothschild, a witness questioned during an investigation of the Government Printing Office. Rothschild's attorney, Charles E. Ford, was impressed with McCarthy's handling of his client, commenting: "I think the committee session at this day and in this place is most admirable and most American."

Although Peter Gragis, who appeared before the McCarthy Committee on March 10, 1954, had been led by press accounts to expect a show trial, he found that McCarthy treated him politely -- despite the witness' unsavory background. The press "had pointed out that you were very abusive, that you were crucifying people," remarked Gragis during the hearing. "My experience has been quite the contrary. I have, I think, been very understandingly treated. I have been, I think, highly respected despite the fact that for some 20 years I had been more or less an active communist."

However "abrasive" McCarthy may have appeared at times, he scrupulously followed established due process guidelines. In Joseph McCarthy: Re-examining the Life and Work of America's Most Hated Senator, Professor Arthur Herman of George Mason University points out that during the so-called "McCarthy Period" -- roughly 1947-1954 -- "no American citizens were interrogated without benefit of legal counsel, none was arrested or detained without duejudicial process, and no one went to jail without trial. All through the 'worst' of the McCarthy period, the Communist Party itself was never outlawed, membership in the party was never declared a crime...."

Internal security investigations such as those conducted by McCarthy were intended to remove from the Executive Branch people of dubious or divided loyalty. While it was never a crime to be a Communist, it's also true that service in sensitive government posts has never been a right. As Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson put it: "The First Amendment requires that one be permitted to believe what he will. It does not require that he be permitted to be the keeper of the arsenal."

Recall also that between August 1939 -- when Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany entered a non-aggression pact -- and June 1941 -- when Hitler double-crossed Stalin by invading Russia -- American Communist Party members actively supported Adolf Hitler's aggression in Europe. Regarding the question of U.S. involvement in the European war, American Communists dutifully supported Soviet interests: They were "isolationists" when Hitler and Stalin were allies, but became instant interventionists when the Soviet Union was attacked.

Such people obviously had no business receiving paychecks from American taxpayers, much less access to sensitive military and diplomatic posts. Yet the State Department absorbed hundreds of Communists and Communist fellow travelers in 1945. As Professor Herman points out, those individuals were "handling sensitive documents, assigning staff positions, and preparing reports, even while proof of their unfitness was mired in red tape...." Somebody had to hack through the red tape protecting the Red infiltrators -- and Joseph McCarthy, to his everlasting credit, was willing to assume that thankless but vital task.

Having abetted the notion that McCarthy presided over a reign of terror, Ritchie grudgingly admits that this wasn't the case -- even as he tries to dismiss the senator's investigative work as pointless. "In the end," he writes "no witness who appeared before the subcommittee during [McCarthy's] chairmanship was imprisoned for perjury, contempt, espionage, or subversion."

McCarthy Was Right

This means that McCarthy was mindlessly pursuing a Marxist mirage, correct? Not at all. As intelligence archives in both the U.S. and Russia have been opened over the past decade, the resulting avalanche of evidence has validated the senator's work. Ditto for the recently released transcripts of McCarthy's closed-door hearings (see pages 14-15).

"The Age of McCarthyism, it turns out, was not the simple witch hunt of the innocent by the malevolent as two generations of high school and college students have been taught," admitted Washington Post columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman in an April 14, 1996 essay.

ABC correspondent and syndicated columnist Jeff Greenfield offered a similar reluctant endorsement: "The problem [during the McCarthy era], of course, was that there were real witches -- not in Salem, but in America. That is, there were people who believed that communism was the one true cause ... and believed that in serving Moscow by spying on the United States they were serving a 'higher good."'

Quite in spite of himself, Victor Navasky, the veteran Marxist agitator who publishes The Nation magazine, made essentially the same point in an essay marking the release of the transcripts from McCarthy's executive sessions. "The inquisitorial committees of the 1950s were wrong not because they so often got the wrong guy but because they occasionally got the right one," complained Navasky in the May 26th issue of his leftist tabloid. McCarthy's effort to expose Soviet agents within the U.S. government, insists Navasky, was "misguided" because, "in the name of national security and national safety, it inhibited, marginalized, attacked and attempted to decimate dissent."

But the targets of those official investigations weren't engaged in harmless "dissent"; they actively promoted the interests of a murderous, aggressive foreign power. In 1995, the National Security Agency declassified the records of telegraphic communication between Moscow and its intelligence assets in the United States. Those intercepted communications, known as the "Venona" documents, proved irrefutably that the Soviet intelligence network included such top government officials as Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and Harry Hopkins, as well as nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. "Venona" also documented, in damning detail, that the U.S. Communist Party was a wholly owned and controlled subsidiary of the Kremlin.

As Herbert Rommerstein, a one-time investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the late Eric Breindel note in their study The Venona Secrets: "[T]he Communists did not represent just another political party. Their loyalty was to a foreign power, the Soviet Union, and their goal was nothing less than the subversion and destruction of American [constitutional government]. To advance that goal, the leadership of the Communist Party conscripted whichever of its members were capable of espionage to assist the Soviet intelligence service."

These recruitment efforts focused heavily on people in key government positions. With the arrival of FDR's "New Deal" in 1933, hundreds or even thousands of individuals broadly sympathetic to Marxism arrived in Washington. Among that number were many who could be "pitched" by Soviet talent scouts -- or snagged as assets through bribes, enticement, or blackmail.

In his 1989 book Loyalties, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein unwittingly confirmed the extent to which Soviet intelligence had penetrated the U.S. government. One of Bernstein's first interview subjects was his own father, Alfred, who had represented hundreds of government employees in loyalty security hearings and appeared five times before congressional committees. When Carl interviewed him for the book, Alfred Bernstein urged his son not to mention the Communist Party membership. Why? Alfred's reason: "You're going to prove McCarthy right, because all he was saying was that the system was loaded with Communists. And he was right."

In the 1946 congressional elections, notes Professor Herman, Republicans "ran an aggressively antistatist, anti-New Deal campaign, asserting that 'the welfare state' leads to 'the police state.'... Republicans campaigned against big government, big labor, big regulation, and the New Deal's links to communism." Because "the Democrats' rapid expansion of the federal government had also spurred the expansion of Soviet espionage activities," notes Herman, "the executive branch sat on a political time bomb, waiting to go off once anyone discovered the truth."

Senator McCarthy was the one who discovered the truth and set off the bomb. Unfortunately for him, pre-Communist elements within the Eisenhower executive branch, working with like-minded people in the media and academe, managed to redirect the blast.

That ritual denunciations of McCarthy continue today -- nearly five decades after his death -- illustrates that the forces against which he fought occupy positions of influence even now. It wasn't enough to destroy McCarthy's reputation; by using the major media to equate his very name with all that is vile and opportunistic, those forces seek to discourage honest people from carrying out the thankless task McCarthy bravely assumed: exposing efforts to subvert and destroy our constitutional system.
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 16, 2003
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