Closed-Door McCarthy Transcripts Unsealed

By FREDERIC J. FROMMER, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Pushing an anti-communist crusade that riveted America a half century ago, Joseph McCarthy manipulated his Senate hearings by calling witnesses he could intimidate and ignoring those likely to oppose him, newly released transcripts show.

Among the nearly 500 witnesses covered in transcripts of closed door meetings, made public Monday by the Senate, are composer Aaron Copland, New York Times journalist James Reston and Eslanda Goode Robeson, the wife of blacklisted singer-actor Paul Robeson. Some 4,000 pages of newly released documents also show that McCarthy was convinced that many writers, government officials and secretaries had access to classified information.

McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, chaired the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953 and 1954 at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His investigation into communists in the U.S. government, denounced by critics as a witch hunt, spawned the term "McCarthyism" to describe smear attacks.

The senators who oversaw the project, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., unveiled the transcripts Monday in the very room that McCarthy used to hold some of his hearings.

"We hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations," Collins said. Levin recalled organizing an anti-McCarthy petition as a student at Swarthmore College.

Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie, who assembled the volumes, said McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, used the closed-door sessions like grand jury proceedings.

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

Copland, brought before the subcommittee because he had been hired by the State Department to lecture overseas, was one of those never called back for a public session.

When McCarthy asked whether he had ever been a communist sympathizer, Copland replied, "I am not sure I would be able to say what you mean by the word 'sympathizer.'"

"These executive sessions are really trolling sessions," said David M. Oshinsky, author of a McCarthy biography, "A Conspiracy So Immense," and a history professor at the University of Texas.

"McCarthy is looking for people who either have a spectacular story to tell, or people he thinks he can break in public, or people he was certain will take the Fifth Amendment" against self-incrimination, Oshinsky said.

McCarthy was angered when Eslanda Goode Robeson cited the 15th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, as well as the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer whether she was a member of the Communist Party.

"The 15th Amendment has nothing to do with it," said McCarthy.

Robeson replied: "(Y)ou see, I am a second-class citizen in this country and, therefore, feel the need of the 15th. ... I am not quite equal to the rest of the white people."

Robeson finally said a truthful answer would incriminate her. McCarthy brought her back to testify in public.

"McCarthy thrived on the Fifth Amendment," Oshinsky said. "He liked nothing better than to ask people very pointed questions, and they would take the Fifth, so he could call them 'Fifth Amendment communists' and talk about a larger conspiracy."

The tide began to turn against McCarthy in 1954, when he looked for subversives in the Army. President Eisenhower, a retired Army general, worked to get the hearings televised so the public could see McCarthy's bullying tactics, Oshinsky said.

Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, a freshman Republican who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said in a statement that McCarthy had "an obligation to use his authority in a way to make America safer, and determine the influence of communism, if it existed, in American policy."

"Instead, he used his position to threaten, to intimidate and to destroy the lives of Americans," Coleman said.

The volumes show McCarthy often held hearings in New York City and Boston, subpoenaing witnesses on short notice, and would be the only senator to attend.

Sometimes even McCarthy wouldn't attend, Ritchie said. The 26-year-old Cohn would question witnesses, and his buddy, G. David Schine, who served as unpaid consultant to the committee, would preside. Cohn addressed Schine as "Mr. Chairman."

Oshinsky said communists had indeed infiltrated the government during the 1930s and 1940s, but by the time McCarthy launched his investigation that had pretty much been stamped out.

Still, Republicans succeeded in portraying Democrats as soft on communism, riding that message to political gains in 1952. The GOP won the White House and Congress that year, making McCarthy chairman of the investigations subcommittee.

McCarthy continued hunting for communists in the State Department, Voice of America, U.S. overseas libraries, Government Printing Office and Army Signal Corps. Republicans began to turn on him when he set his sights on the Eisenhower administration.

The Senate censured McCarthy in December 1954, and he lost his chairmanship the following month after Democrats regained the majority. Discredited and broken, McCarthy died in 1957 at 47.

That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that witnesses don't lose their constitutional rights when they testify in a congressional investigation. Some historians say that ruling is McCarthy's most important legacy.