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Transcripts detail secret questioning { May 6 2003 }

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May 6, 2003
Transcripts Detail Secret Questioning in 50's by McCarthy

WASHINGTON, May 5 Aaron Copland, the composer, fiercely defended himself, declaring, "I have not been a Communist in the past and I am not now a Communist." Langston Hughes, the poet, protested that he had not read much about Marxism "beyond the introduction of the Communist Manifesto." Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer, invoked the Fifth Amendment.

They and nearly 500 others were summoned to testify in secret before Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican whose dogged efforts to root out Communist sympathizers shocked and riveted the nation 50 years ago. Today, the transcripts of those closed-door sessions of the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations were made public, shedding new light on a contentious chapter in American history.

All of the senators involved, and most of the witnesses a list that included mundane civil servants and Army engineers as well as prominent personalities like Copland and James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times are now dead. Historians who have reviewed the documents say they do not support McCarthy's theories that, in the 1950's, Communist spies were operating at the highest levels of government.

Instead, the papers, which chronicle 161 private sessions in 1953 and 1954, when the infamous lawmaker was chairman of the subcommittee, reveal how he used secret proceedings to weed out witnesses who could adequately defend themselves against his browbeating. Only those who looked weak or confused, or who cast suspicion on themselves by asserting their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, were later called to testify in public.

"What these transcripts show, above all, is someone who is desperately trying to push a conspiracy theory, using all the badgering, bullying tactics in private that he was known for in public," said David Oshinksy, a McCarthy biographer and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin who has reviewed excerpts of the papers. "There is no smoking gun here, and there is really nothing that will do McCarthy or his advocates any good."

Yet there are some nuggets of news. The papers reveal, for instance, that G. David Schine, the independently wealthy, unpaid consultant who worked for the committee because of his close relationship with its chief counsel, Roy M. Cohn, was involved in interrogating witnesses a fact that surprised several historians.

"Oh my," said Thomas C. Reeves, another McCarthy biographer, upon learning of Mr. Schine's role. "I never heard of that."

The documents also provide an eerie foreshadowing of the moment that proved to be McCarthy's downfall. On Feb. 18, 1954, while investigating charges of espionage within the Army, the senator lashed out at Gen. Ralph Zwicker, a decorated World War II hero, branding him as "unfit to wear the uniform" for his refusal to provide classified information about an army dentist who was under surveillance as a suspected member of the Communist Party.

That exchange, which occurred in private but was subsequently made public, enraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many historians say it signaled the beginning of the end of McCarthy's career.

But what historians did not know, until now, was that just before General Zwicker testified, one of his subordinates, Lt. Col. Chester T. Brown, received very similar treatment. Colonel Brown, who never appeared in public, also refused to provide information about the dentist, prompting McCarthy to explode in rage.

"I will listen to Communists refuse to answer," the senator declared. "I will listen to no army officer protecting a Communist. And you're going to answer these questions or your case will come before the Senate for contempt, and I intend to shove it all the way through. I am sick of this, sick and tired of it."

Elected in 1946, McCarthy first made headlines in February 1950, when he publicly blamed failures in American foreign policy on Communist infiltration of the government, particularly the State Department. A Senate investigation later dismissed the charges as "a fraud and a hoax." But several events, including the conviction on perjury charges of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, and the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, helped McCarthy inflame fears during the "Red Scare."

In 1953, with Republicans having taken control of the Senate and the White House, McCarthy was given the chairmanship of the investigations subcommittee and quickly stepped up the pace of its hearings. In 1952, the committee held six executive, or closed, sessions; in 1953, McCarthy held 117. The following year, the televised Army-McCarthy hearings gripped the attention of the nation for 36 days.

The transcripts released today were kept sealed in the National Archives until 2001, when the Senate historian's office received permission from the subcommittee to begin preparing them for release. Experts say they portray McCarthy as a man increasingly given to believing the conspiracy theories he set out to investigate.

"You get to watch McCarthy trying to build his case," said Donald A. Ritchie, the associate historian of the Senate, who spent more than two years reviewing and editing the documents in the five-volume set made public today. "He's convinced he's going to find subversion and espionage. He just has to keep digging far enough."

Though he is perhaps best known for the Army-McCarthy hearings, the senator also investigated government centers of information like the Voice of America radio network and the Government Printing Office. He subpoenaed famous writers and artists who represented the United States abroad, including Hughes and Hammett, who testified in public, and Copland, who did not.

The subcommittee also called journalists, among them James Aronson who left The New York Times in 1948 to start the National Guardian, a leftist publication and Reston, who was summoned because he had written a story contradicting testimony that Robert Stevens, then secretary of the Army, had given the panel.

After insisting he would not disclose "the source of my information," Reston asked to go "off the record" so that he could repeat his source's remarks, an off-color joke. Cohn, the chief questioner, obliged.

The secret sessions were often conducted on short notice, and often in cities outside Washington, so that witnesses had no time to prepare and other senators could not arrange their schedules to attend.

At one point, Democratic senators on the committee grew so fed up with "the chairman" as McCarthy is called throughout the transcripts that they boycotted the hearings for six months until they got their own counsel, Robert F. Kennedy.

After each proceeding, McCarthy, a master at manipulating the news media, gave his version of events to the press. As part of his research, Dr. Ritchie compared the transcripts with the news accounts of the day.

"The pattern is that he tended to grossly exaggerate what was going on," Dr. Ritchie said. "And that would be the story for the next day, because the reporters wouldn't get to hear the witnesses until days or weeks later."

At a news conference this morning in the Senate Russell Building, in the room where the Army-McCarthy hearings were conducted, Dr. Ritchie stood by the two senators, Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, who oversaw the project. The senators served together on the investigations subcommittee for years.

"By providing broad public access to the transcripts from this era, we hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale to future generations," said Senator Collins, who is now chairwoman of the committee that oversees the investigations panel. She said the documents "shed new light on a shameful chapter in American history."

Despite McCarthy's repeated threats that people who did not cooperate would serve jail time for perjury, none of the witnesses ever did, Dr. Ritchie said. But dozens of people, including 42 army engineers, lost their jobs after testifying, although 40 of the engineers were eventually hired back. One witness lost a Fulbright scholarship. Another potential witness killed himself to avoid testifying; the transcripts include his suicide note.

As for McCarthy, he was censured by the Senate in December 1954, amid public outrage over his conduct during the Army-McCarthy hearings. He was by this time drinking heavily, historians say, and died three years later, of liver disease, at age 48.

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