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New look mccarthy hearings { May 6 2003 }

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A New Look At McCarthy
Transcripts of closed-door hearings shed light on zealot's hardball tactics
By Anne Q. Hoy

May 6, 2003


The Senate yesterday unsealed thousands of pages of testimony taken behind closed doors by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist crusade in the 1950s exploited a national mood of unease and transformed his name into his very own "ism" for witch-hunt.

More than 4,000 pages, the transcripts of the sessions in 1953 and 1954 of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Government Operations provide the first public look at McCarthy's hard-nosed tactics in 160 closed hearings that often weeded out witnesses who confronted him and left the more vulnerable for televised sessions.

Composer Aaron Copland, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes were among the 500 witnesses subjected to McCarthy's closed inquisitions, the latter two hauled back for a public hearing in March, 1953.

The documents lay bare the danger of unbridled power and the threat that such excesses pose to the civil liberties of Americans.

"In a very odd way, McCarthy made us aware of how fragile and how valuable our liberties are, and in some ways, that is really the legacy," said David Oshinsky, a professor at the University of Texas and author of an authoritative biography of McCarthy. Oshinsky reviewed the materials as they were being prepared for public release.

With Republicans narrowly in control of Congress, the closed-door hearings opened in 1953 with McCarthy at the height of his power hunting down alleged communist subversives. Republicans had just swept both the White House and Congress, charging Democrats were soft on communism. A year later, the tables were dramatically turned: McCarthy himself was the target of a probe on charges he sought favors for a staff aide.

The denouement of McCarthy's reign was his probe of communist infiltration of the Army that focused on the Army Signal Corps laboratories at Fort Monmouth, N.J., a radar research facility.- The Senate censured him in December, 1954.

In 35 secret sessions, McCarthy badgers and interrupts witnesses - predominantly Jewish engineers. He goads them to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination, something he says is tantamount to guilt and an act that often cost witnesses their jobs. The Wisconsin senator repeatedly distills testimony to its most damaging interpretation.

A former employee at the Signal Corps lab was Julius Rosenberg, who, along with his wife, Ethel, was executed for spying for the Soviet Union three months before McCarthy sensed the opportunity for big headlines and opened the corps investigation in October, 1953.

In other investigations included in the transcripts, McCarthy hunted for communist spies at the State Department and Government Printing Office. He hauled in witness to explain what he said was the poor location of radio transmitting towers for the Voice of America, the government radio that broadcast into the Soviet Union. Briefly, McCarthy probed gays as security risks. He examined how books were selected for U.S. libraries abroad and how speakers and scholars were chosen for exchange programs such as Fulbright scholarships.

Many of the hearings were held away from Washington, at New York's Federal Courthouse in Foley Square and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, for example. They were called on short notice, and McCarthy often was the only senator present.

McCarthy saw sinister motives in how the State Department's information libraries chose books for its collections overseas and selected lecturers. Instead of bringing in those responsible, he called the writers and speakers such as Hammett, Hughes and Copland.

"I have believed in the entire philosophies of the left at one period of my life," Hughes parried to the persistent prodding of Roy Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel. "All isms have influenced me one way or another, and I cannot answer to any specific ism because I am not familiar with the details of them and have not read their literature."

Cohn said Hughes' poetry "calls for everybody to get up and sing the Internationale," and he asked Hughes if those poems should be in the nation's libraries overseas. "Yes, sir, I think they should, because it indicates freedom of press in our country, which is a thing we are proud of," Hughes said.

Copland's experience mirrored that of many witnesses. He got a telegram compelling his testimony with just three days' notice. If he refused to appear, he faced contempt charges and a possible jail term. "You have what appears to be one of the longest Communist-front records of anyone we have had here," McCarthy told Copland.

A deft witness who was not called later for public testimony,Copland answered questions about his links to more than two dozen groups by saying he was driven by music, not politics.

"My employment as a lecturer had nothing to do with anything but music," he said.

Hammett, who fought in both world wars, had joined the Communist Party in 1937, and he served a jail term for contempt of court in a separate case rather than identify contributors to a civil rights bail fund. In the McCarthy hearings, when Cohn asked whether he was currently a member of the party, Hammett took the Fifth.

Despite the charged language of the closed hearings and McCarthy's promises to the reporters waiting outside the door, not one person went to jail as a result of McCarthy's investigations.

Yet the volumes are littered with hundreds of witnesses whose lives were shattered by their compelled appearances. The Army Signal Corps investigation resulted in 42 civilians losing their jobs; all but two would get them back after McCarthy exited the national stage. One man threw himself in front of a truck in Cambridge, Mass., fearful of being called to testify in connection with the Voice of America probe.

Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian, said the materials show how concern over national security in McCarthy's day led to infringements of civil liberties that the Supreme Court eventually reversed.

In 1957, the high court expanded protections for witnesses hauled before congressional inquiries and curbed the ability of federal prosecutors to use the Smith Act, a 1940s version of today's anti-terrorism Patriot Act that gave the government broad prosecutorial power over subversives.

Ritchie edited the hearings into the five volumes that were retrieved from stenographic notes on 9,675 pages of onion-skin typing paper and housed for more than 50 years in the National Archives. They join transcripts of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that the National Archives has been making available without fanfare to the public over the last dozen years.

Ellen Schrecker, a McCarthy scholar with Yeshiva University and author of a book about the period, said focusing only on McCarthy misses the larger point that he worked in tandem with the executive branch, particularly the FBI.

The hearings opened just as the real threat posed by Soviet espionage to U.S. security was beginning to abate, Oshinsky said. Soviet infiltrations at the State and Treasury departments and the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, had been exposed years before.

Still, they unfolded at a time when the political climate was primed for McCarthy to take advantage of his contention that U.S. foreign policy was faltering under communist subversives salted through the government, particularly the State Department.

"Today, by providing broad public access to the transcripts of this era, we hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). She and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman and ranking minority member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, ordered the documents released once the 50-year seal had expired.
Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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