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Papers Show Sen. McCarthy Was Sizing Up His Victims

Transcripts reveal that some refused to bow to Red-baiting tactics in closed '50s hearings.

May 06, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday opened long-sealed transcripts of closed-door hearings conducted by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, removing a last layer of secrecy surrounding the tactics he employed during his infamous hunt for communists in the government 50 years ago.

The newly released documents are replete with examples of the abrasive style McCarthy and his aides, especially chief counsel Roy M. Cohn, used in interrogating witnesses about their political beliefs and those of their families, neighbors and co-workers. They also offer instances of witnesses holding their own.

For example, after composer Aaron Copland denied ever having been a communist, McCarthy hectored the composer, "You have what appears to be one of the longest communist-front records of anyone we have had here."

Copland replied, "I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads, and I am not a political thinker."

Copland was never called to appear at a public hearing.

Indeed, the 4,232 pages of testimony show that McCarthy used the closed-door hearings to help decide who to summon to a public session, said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian. "He didn't want the witness to outshine him," Ritchie said. "The people he chose not to call into public session were the ones who stood up to him the most" in private.

Another historian compared the private hearings to dress rehearsals for the public sessions. "Like putting the show on the road in Hartford [Conn.], where it could be tested before the Broadway opening," said Richard Fried, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written about McCarthy.

The ruthless search by the Republican from Wisconsin for communists made "McCarthyism" a synonym for witch hunts.

The Cold War was at its height and some of those investigated by McCarthy -- as well as by the House Un-American Activities Committee -- had been communists or had past links to the Communist Party. But the charges of widespread infiltration of the government by communists or their sympathizers did not pan out, and the newly released documents seem to add no credence to the allegations.

None of the witnesses who appeared before McCarthy at the private sessions was imprisoned for any statements related to their testimony. Many, however, lost their jobs for declining to answer questions.

The hearings by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that McCarthy headed were held in 1953 and 1954.

More than 500 witnesses were summoned to appear before the panel -- some famous, such as Copland, author Dashiell Hammett and poet Langston Hughes, but mostly unknown bureaucrats or soldiers. McCarthy frequently sought to intimidate the witnesses.

At a February 1954, hearing, an Army colonel refused to answer questions, citing a presidential order against the disclosure of Army personnel and security records. McCarthy chided him.

"I will listen to no Army officer protecting a communist, and you are going to answer these questions or your case will come before the Senate for contempt," McCarthy told the officer. "Any man in the uniform of his country who refuses to give information to a committee of the Senate ... that man is not fit to wear the uniform of his country."

But Lt. Col. Chester Brown said, "May I say, sir, as a soldier, it is my duty to obey my military superiors."

While McCarthy informed witnesses of their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, he portrayed any refusal to answer questions as an admission of guilt.

At one hearing, McCarthy told a Brooklyn teacher who had invoked the 5th Amendment: "You have an opportunity of saying you are or you are not a communist. If you are not, it is to your benefit to say so.... If you are, you should avail yourself of the 5th Amendment."

McCarthy also told the teacher that her refusal to cooperate would probably cause her to be fired.

Clarence Hiskey, a chemist summoned to a June 1953 hearing, told McCarthy, "I don't think you understand the whole purpose of the 5th Amendment, senator. That amendment was put into the Constitution to protect the innocent man from just this kind of star chamber proceeding you are carrying on."

McCarthy was censured by his colleagues in 1954 for conduct unbecoming a senator and his public stature quickly faded. A heavy drinker, he died at age 48 in 1957.

Under Senate rules, the records from closed Senate hearings are sealed for 50 years to protect the privacy of witnesses.

McCarthy, who rose from obscurity with his accusations of widespread communist influence in the government -- especially the State Department -- conducted 161 private hearings as head of the subcommitee.

The hearings also gave McCarthy an opportunity to put his own spin on events, historians said.

Ritchie said McCarthy could "control the story by stepping into the hall and giving his version to the press, and his version was often grossly distorted and exaggerated." An engineer, for example, broke down during one of the hearings.

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