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Enemies of the State

Newly disclosed transcripts indicate once again that Sen. McCarthy was among those overly zealous officials who subvert democracy.

May 06, 2003

History's image of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy has defied all attempts at rehabilitation. The Senate's release Monday of secret transcripts of executive sessions that McCarthy held in 1953-54 won't change that. What the 4,232 pages will do is once again remind the United States that even as this democracy was successfully countering the Soviet Union's Marxist totalitarianism, it was itself flirting with oppression.

In the early 1950s, McCarthy and his aides, 26-year-old counsel Roy Cohn and unpaid "chief consultant" G. David Schine, transfixed the nation with the claim that secret traitors were operating with impunity in the government and elsewhere.

As chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, the Wisconsin Republican conducted numerous and sensational inquiries into alleged communist subversion.

McCarthy's hearings on supposed communists in the State Department and other government agencies flip-flopped the presumption of innocence while simultaneously insinuating pervasive deception, making it almost impossible for the accused to disprove any accusations.

McCarthy's notorious downfall came when he tried to intimidate the Army on national television and ended up being censured for misconduct by the Senate in December 1954. Less well known are the closed-door interrogations that McCarthy chaired.

The documents' most significant lesson is their sheer tedium. They reveal nothing approaching the massive communist conspiracy that McCarthy alleged was fatally undermining the will and capability of the U.S. to defeat the Kremlin. What they do show is a petty tyrant who reveled in browbeating bureaucrats, file clerks and engineers.

The committee dragnet snared even witnesses who had once dated a communist or who belonged to a Great Books club that happened to have read Karl Marx. Witnesses, obscure or not, sometimes lost their jobs. Indeed, McCarthy encouraged their employers to fire them.

With more famous witnesses such as the late novelist Howard Fast, a member of the American Communist Party, the sessions became a sparring game. When McCarthy asked Fast whether he had a reputation as a communist writer, Fast replied, "I think you would be more suited to answer that question than I would, don't you?"

What McCarthy's papers show isn't evidence of foreign subversion but a more resilient and dangerous threat: democracy's paradoxical tendency every now and then to create a person who "protects" freedom by resorting to totalitarian tactics.

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