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M. Radulovich, 81; airman's case played key role in helping to end McCarthy era

November 21, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Milo Radulovich, an Air Force reservist caught in the net of 1950s communist hunters, whose case was championed by CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in a historic television program that led to the collapse of the McCarthy era, died Monday in Vallejo, Calif. He was 81.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his sister, Margaret Fishman.

In 1953 Radulovich was threatened with discharge from the Air Force Reserve because of allegations that he was a security risk.

What aggrieved him -- and eventually thousands of other Americans who learned of his plight -- was that his own loyalty was never questioned. He stood accused of politically incorrect ties -- namely, his "close and continuing association" with his Yugoslavian immigrant father, who subscribed to a Socialist newspaper from the old country, and his left-leaning activist sister, who had demonstrated against war and racial discrimination.

On Oct. 20, 1953, Murrow devoted an entire installment of his documentary show "See It Now" to Radulovich, who appears in a clip from the program in "Good Night, and Good Luck," the 2005 Oscar-nominated movie about the battles at CBS over whether Murrow should take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade.

That program, Murrow's producer Fred Friendly wrote in the foreword to Michael Ranville's 1997 book "To Strike at a King: The Turning Point in the McCarthy Witch-Hunts," "peeled back the wretched excess of communist witch-hunts" to reveal that one of its latest victims was no more and no less than a hardworking father of two who was studying on the GI Bill to become a meteorologist.

The show blew open the floodgates of public opinion -- for Radulovich and against the hysteria of the era and its main instigator, McCarthy.

Five months later, Murrow went after McCarthy himself in a show that, according to Friendly, could never have succeeded had they not first aired "The Case Against Lt. Milo Radulovich." McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, never recovered from the attack, destroyed by his own words and the power of television entering its golden age.

"The downfall of Joe McCarthy began with the Radulovich story as told by Murrow and Friendly," National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr, a former colleague of Murrow's, told The Times on Tuesday.

Radulovich's nightmare began with a knock on his door.

His wife was at work as a telephone operator and Radulovich, then 27, was at home in Dexter, Mich., baby-sitting their two small children. He was holding down two jobs and carrying a full load as a physics major at the University of Michigan.

He opened his door to two Air Force officers bearing a letter demanding that he forfeit his rank, pay and benefits as a lieutenant with 10 years of service and appear at a hearing to air charges against him.

When he learned what the charges were, he was incredulous.

"I had done nothing," he recalled in a 1994 CBS News interview. "I was related to people. And this stuff was happening in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany . . . guilt by blood, of all things."

Radulovich was born in Detroit and attended a high school for honors students. When he was 17 he joined the Air Force cadet program. In 1943 the Air Force sent him to a secret base in Greenland for a year.

His father was from Montenegro, which was part of Yugoslavia at various points in its history, and was as proud of his Yugoslav roots as he was of being a naturalized American. He worked in an auto plant in Detroit and barely spoke English, a fact that made Radulovich laugh years later when he told Ranville his story.

"He said if his old man was spreading communist propaganda, he was spreading it in Serbian and no one could understand him," Ranville said in an interview Tuesday. "The charges were so preposterous."

His father was no communist, but his sister was a radical. The activity that the Air Force focused on was her participation in a protest at a Detroit hotel that had refused to admit Paul Robeson, the African American singer, actor and activist who was pilloried for his pro-Soviet stands.

When Radulovich was accused of endangering the security of the nation, he tried to find a lawyer to represent him and was repeatedly turned away. One lawyer advised him that his best defense would be to disavow his father and sister, but that was unthinkable.

"My brother wasn't political," Fishman said, "but he was brought up in a home where honor and family were very important."

He finally found a lawyer named Charles Lockwood to take his case. Lockwood argued that their only chance for success was if they could get public opinion on his side. Radulovich agreed to talk with a reporter from the Detroit News, which ran a series of stories about him.

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