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The Real McCarthy

The heart of liberalism almost stopped beating when in April 1996 the Washington Post asked, “Was McCarthy Right About the Left?” The piece was written by Nicholas von Hoffman, one of the foremost wits warring on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and on those who fought communist infiltration of the public and private sectors. His words, had they been written in the 1950s, would have meant instant excommunication by the liberal establishment and the Washington Post. A few quotes tell the tale.

“[W]here the dominant form of polite liberalism thrived,” wrote von Hoffman, “the accusers, who had named names and had pointed out the communist spies, were scorned as despicable vermin.” They “were dismissed as adventurers, opportunists, cats paws of reaction, psychos, creeps, blackmailers … . But in the last year, as though from a buried, toxic waste dump, poisons, moving with the slow capillary action of history long hidden, are hiccupping up a different truth.” He continued:

The materials that first made their way to the surface in the early 1990s … provided proof past peradventure that the Community Party of the United States was subsidized by the Soviet government and used as a base for extensive espionage … . 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.

But was McCarthy right? “This loutish, duplicitous bully … may have exaggerated the scope of the problem but not by much. The government was the workplace of perhaps 100 communist agents in 1943-45.” He was right, but he didn’t know what he was talking about.

But what in the record are facts? And what is smear?

Joe McCarthy’s genes were Irish and German, the sentimental and the stubborn. He had worked his way through college and law school, been a judge in Wisconsin, and had a distinguished combat record as a Marine in the Pacific. Many in the very press that cut him to pieces liked him. Murray Kempton of the New York Post, a world-class political maverick who savaged the Right as much as he goosed the Left, could ask his colleagues, “With whom would you prefer spending an evening on the town, Joe McCarthy or Dick Nixon?”

Color me red, white, or blue. I liked Joe from the start, and he liked and trusted me—though I gave him much private hell. He would turn on that kid’s grin, and we’d be back to square one. I could never forgive him Roy Cohn, a combination of weasel and skunk and the most reprehensible individual I have ever known personally. That came later. But when the State Department, the media, and the liberal establishment piled on Joe, I stood pat. Had he delivered his Feb. 9, 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia years earlier, it would have been reported back among the truss ads. But the Cold War, the Hiss case, the theft of the atomic bomb, and the Korean unpleasantness were stirring up the country—or at least that part that didn’t read the New York Times.

Joe McCarthy was one of a number of Republican senators sent out to arouse the citizenry with Lincoln’s Birthday rhetoric. He was armed with a speech, written by a Chicago Tribune correspondent, which he brandished more than read, getting some wire service pick-up. The Democrats and the State Department, worried by the Reds-in-government issue, decided that this would be a good time to polish it off. Joe McCarthy was small potatoes in the Senate, with no known expertise in the Communist issue. It would be easy.

Thus a barely noticed speech by what the striped-pants boys considered a minor-league senator became national news. Had McCarthy said, “I hold in my hand the names of 205 card-carrying Communists in the government”? At a later speech, now solidly reported, he inveighed against 57. That was the total case against Joe McCarthy at first, an alleged discrepancy that the Democrats and the State Department seized on. How could you believe him if he didn’t know the difference between 205 and 57?

The trouble was that no one could be found to verify the 205 figure, not even a Senate investigator sent to scour Wheeling and then fired because no one could testify to that number. Sen. Millard Tydings, point man in the war against McCarthy, claimed that he had a recording of the speech, but he wouldn’t play it for the press. Joe himself would later say privately to me, “Who the hell knows what number I used? The point is that there are Commies in government, but the State Department admits only that it fired 91 homosexuals.”

The fierceness of the attack on Joe gave him a national audience, and he pounded away at the issue. With each speech, the material he did not have in Wheeling poured in. It came from members of the House Un-American Activities Committee like Dick Nixon and Karl Mundt, from senatorial files, from newsmen, from a Georgetown priest, from anti-Communist individuals and organizations. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover surreptitiously slipped him documents. Getting an education in the public eye is hardly comfortable, but Joe McCarthy wasn’t fazed. He and his charges were becoming the nation’s biggest news.

As Newsweek’s expert on subversion, I was assigned to write the stories on the booming McCarthy controversy. From frustrated experience, I knew that it would be a bare-knuckled and dirty battle. Those whom McCarthy was exposing were deeply entrenched in the public and private sectors, and those who had guilty knowledge would fight as bitterly. But it soon became clear that Joe was too tough to be intimidated, and he was enjoying it all.

A Senate enrobed in its dignity set up a bipartisan committee under Senator Tydings ostensibly to investigate McCarthy’s charges. But it turned out to be a kangaroo court, determined to flatten McCarthy and the issue. Some of the cases were rock solid, others debatable. But all were uniformly dumped into a senatorial round file, and a report was drawn up that Republican members were not allowed to see before it was issued. The Tydings Committee report simply finessed the Communists-in-government issue, focusing its fire on McCarthy and anti-Communists in general.

In the uproar that followed, Joe was accused of having an “inglorious” war record, of claiming to have a half-pound of shrapnel in his leg, of having acted improperly as a judge in Wisconsin, of being both a leering homosexual and an uncontrollable heterosexual maniac, of having cheated on his income tax, of being both an “Irish Catholic bigot” and in bed with the KKK—all false. That my stories for Newsweek reported the truth won me no Pulitzer.

So it was that one Sunday afternoon John A. Clements, Hearst vice president and participant in a secret Marine Corps intelligence operation, called to invite me for “a couple of drinks” at his apartment. Instead I was ushered into the bedroom where Bill Hearst Jr. sat cross-legged on the bed, with what was obviously not his first drink in hand, alongside the junior senator from Wisconsin. Both gave the buddy-buddy greeting, and the discussion moved to the McCarthy campaign and the bad joke that the Tydings hearings had been.

“The Hearst papers are planning a series on Joe and his cases,” Bill said. “A 12-part series is what I have in mind, and Jack Clements here says you’re the right man to do it, and Joe agrees. He’ll open up his files, and Jack has some pretty potent stuff in his files. We’ll give you all the co-operation you need. Will you do it, Ralph?” I had a full-time job, and I knew that Newsweek would not be pleased. But with the help of my wife Nora, a top-notch researcher and custodian of my own files, I felt I could do it. “Sure,” I said, “if I can share the job and the byline with wife.” Though we didn’t talk about money, it was a guaranteed assignment, and I knew they would see to it that I would be adequately paid.

Joe McCarthy was doing his research on the fly, so the large carton of papers he sent up to New York was mostly chaff, though here and there were documents stamped “top secret.” But Nora already had a file drawer of material, and Clements’s files were invaluable. I made several trips to talk to Joe in Washington and to touch base with the FBI and other Washington sources. In a couple of weeks, we had the first six parts of the series completed. They were sent to Bill Hearst—and silence. When I finally got through to him, he said, “Yeah, Joe McCarthy thinks they’re great, but I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think the Hearst papers should be that close to Joe.” No real explanation, and not even expense money.

“That’s how Bill is destroying the Hearst papers,” Jack Clements said ruefully, and I chalked it up to experience. But I had gotten to know Joe, as well as Jean Kerr, his administrative assistant and wife-to-be—tall, attractive, generous-hearted, able, a straight arrow. On a vacation to Hawaii, Jean would fall from a collapsing hotel balcony and so damage her pelvis that she would never be able to have children—and the media whispered that it was really a mucked-up abortion. Willy-nilly, I had become Joe’s friend and his defender on radio and TV programs.

There is so much to remember, important and unimportant:

Joe, still with his kid’s grin, sometimes overstating the facts, beating away at the Commies, the press, and the Democrats, getting rougher and more stubborn in public, but a sentimental pushover in private, kicking his body harder than he kicked the opposition.

Joe at a TV studio, shortly before 8 p.m. when we were to go on: “Have you had dinner?” I asked. He reached into his pocket for a tin of bicarbonate, gulping some down. “Yes, this is it.”

Joe showing up for a gathering at Jack Clements’s apartment on a Thursday at about midnight. Stasha, Jack’s wife, who knew how he missed meals: “Joe, can I make you some ham and eggs?” Joe: “Just the eggs, it’s Friday.”

Joe at his wedding at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, looking like a truck driver in his cutaway and waving at the army of political leaders and socialites. Alice Longworth in her yard-wide hat on Vice President Nixon’s arm, taking Sherman Adams’s seat and forcing him to sit in the back row.

Joe and the Time cover story listing as anti-Communists Soviet agents he had named. Joe producing his research file from Time’s Washington bureau, documenting the exact opposite of the published story—and the anguished media cries that Joe’s disclosure of the file and his call on Time advertisers to cancel violated the First Amendment.

Joe calling, when Jean Kerr was up from Washington and visiting us: “I’ve got an important speech to make in a few weeks. Will you write it for me?” I agree, if he’ll send me the research. Two days before he’s to deliver the speech just before Election Day, a call: “Where’s my speech?” “Where’s my material?” “Oh, hell, I forgot to send it.” And Joe on nationwide TV, bombing with what he had dictated but never rehearsed, the “Alger—I mean Adlai” speech.

Early evening waiting in his office for Joe, then chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, Roy Cohn, sprawled in Joe’s chair, his feet on the desk, holding forth. Sitting in the corner a young man, hands folded on his lap and looking down as if in prayer: Bobby Kennedy. The wisecracks: Roy is a Jewish Bobby Kennedy, and Bobby is a Catholic Roy Cohn.

A Christmas Day gathering at columnist George Sokolsky’s. Roy Cohn showing up with a garment-center floozy and David Schine (on pass from the Army allegedly to do McCarthy Committee work) with Piper Laurie, all four having been up all night and on the way to another party.

Joe on “Author Meets the Critics” to discuss his book on General Marshall with Leo Cherne, millionaire head of the Research Institute of America. The two going at each other like Killkenny cats and moderator Faye Emerson hopelessly pleading, “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” the defending critic (myself) unable to get a word in edgewise.

Richard Rovere, formerly an editor of the Communist New Masses, later The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, at the National Press Club bar, holding forth on the hundreds of lives Joe McCarthy had destroyed. “Name one,” I ask. Silence, then, “Well, he’s shacking up with Roy Cohn, isn’t he? And how many spies has he caught?”

Spies? Joe could have scored a major point by putting his campaign in context. It was not spies he was after but giving chapter and verse on the Soviet infiltration of government—the solid cases he had amassed as the country moved toward the 1952 election. He had erred badly in his onslaught against General Marshall, for that dealt mainly with the failure of FDR and the military to anticipate the threat to Pearl Harbor.

With the election of General Eisenhower, for which Joe could take some credit, and the Republican control of the Senate, Joe became rash. As chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee and its powerful Permanent Investigation subcommittee, he was in the catbird seat. He had the authority and the subpoena power to get at the evidence that had been previously withheld. But against the advice of his strongest and most savvy allies, he passed up as counsel Robert Morris—highly knowledgeable, formerly of the Office of Naval Intelligence, thorough, and respected. McCarthy instead chose Roy Cohn—brash, unprincipled, and inexperienced.

With Roy at his side, Joe moved from disaster to disaster. “Twenty years of treason” had been his battle cry when the Democrats were in office, but now he confronted President Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, and his own Senate colleagues, at Roy’s incitement, with “21 years of treason.” Roy brought in David Schine, and they galumphed in Europe, presumably investigating United States Information Agency libraries but making fools not only of themselves but of McCarthy and the committee by their wild statements, noisy quarrels, and flamboyant behavior in public. Joe should have fired them, but Roy pointed to the handful of pro-Communist books they had found in USIA libraries—and Joe hurt himself by defending the two.

The careful and systematic investigations and hearings that Bob Morris would have conducted were instead shambles with little preparation or cohesion and inept examination of witnesses. New York Post editor Jimmy Wechsler, in his college days a leader of the Young Communist League, was called. Most of what he knew of Communist activity he had learned after he left the YCL, and he had, though selectively, fought the party. But he had attacked McCarthy, and he was on Roy’s drop-dead list. He was called and did much damage to McCarthy.

Repeatedly I intervened with Joe to withdraw subpoenas issued to ex-Communist intellectuals who could do no more than discourse on Marxism-Leninism but whose careers would be destroyed if they took the witness stand. Joe would argue, “But Roy says …” When I explained to him that Roy didn’t know what he was talking about, Joe would usually listen, and the subpoenas would be quashed.

Then Roy made a sensational discovery, the case of an Army dentist, a party member, who had been promoted from captain to major. “Who promoted Peress?” became the great issue, and in stormy executive hearings Joe impugned the patriotism of a general who resisted the McCarthy Committee’s investigation of the Army to solve the great question. In addition, Dave Schine had been drafted, and Roy shook the pillars of Fort Dix to get him relieved from duty to attend to “unfinished committee business.” English translation: to make the rounds of New York nightclubs with Roy.

The McCarthy Committee’s Army hearings were terrible. Joe had lost the support of Senate Republicans, smarting under his “21 years of treason” accusations, and the Democrats were on the warpath. I covered the Army-McCarthy hearings in anger and despair. Joe’s manner and his frequent “point of order” interruptions made him seem ridiculous—worse in politics than looking demonic. He could have weathered this. But he was brought down by his lies, some of which I knew firsthand to be so, to cover up for Roy, who in his own testimony was a veritable Pinocchio.

The Senate was poised to vote condemnation of Joseph R. McCarthy, but the few Republican senators still at his side softened that to censure. It took some doing, but Joe agreed to deliver a mollifying speech. We worked out an outline for him, but instead he launched a bitter and accusatory attack on the Senate, in effect ending his career.

When the Democrats took back the Senate, Joe McCarthy was a sick and despairing man seeking relief in the bottom of the bottle. Friends like myself, who had jeopardized their careers in supporting him, turned away.

After he died, his wife Jean asked me to write the definitive book about Joe. “You’re the only one I would trust to tell it straight, and Joe would have trusted you too,” she said. I did not have the heart to refuse. “Yes, but who would publish it?” I said. That was more a farewell than an answer. 


Ralph de Toledano is the author or editor of over 20 books, including Notes From the Underground: the Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960.

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