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Last Updated: Monday, 5 May, 2003, 20:28 GMT 21:28 UK
Secret McCarthy papers released
Senator Joseph McCarthy holding Senate hearings
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Senator Joseph McCarthy at Senate hearings, l953
Senator McCarthy browbeat witnesses he accused of subversion

Fifty years after Senator Joseph McCarthy began a communist witch hunt, the Senate has released transcripts of the secret hearings he held to try to intimidate witnesses before they appeared in public.

More than 500 witnesses were called before Senator McCarthy's permanent investigations subcommittee in the 1950s.

Many had only tenuous connections with communists - through family members, or book clubs where Karl Marx was read, or unions with left-wing leaders.

If somebody told me my mother was a Communist, I would get on the phone
Senator Joseph McCarthy, 1953

Nevertheless, an accusation by McCarthy could cost someone his job, his reputation, and (in one case of suicide), his life.

The new documents paint a picture of a senator out of control, summoning witnesses at short notice and browbeating them with the threat of imprisonment or public disgrace.

But it was noticeable that those he could not intimidate in private were often not called in public session.

"McCarthy was only interested in the people he could browbeat publicly," said Senate historian David Ritchie, who supervised the release of the papers.


At the height of the Cold War, the senator's subcommittee was granted almost unlimited powers to investigate alledged communist subversion in the government, following similar investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI.

Senator McCarthy was judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent all in one
Erwin Griswold,
Harvard Law School dean

Senator McCarthy's tactics included wild accusations. For example, he said that there were 205 card-carrying communists working in the state department, launched simultaneous investigations into several subjects, and held secret hearings which he then leaked to the press.

He often was the only member of his committee present at the hearings which were held not only in Washington but in Boston and New York.

Despite the lack of committee preparation, he told witnesses to tell the truth or face jail.

"They thought they were smarter than our investigators. They will end up in jail. This is not a threat, it is just friendly advice I am giving you," he warned those who testified before him.

According to Mr Ritchie, the private hearings were more of a inquisition, using circumstantial evidence, hearsay and intimidation to force people to acknowledge his point of view.

And those who refused to answer on the grounds of self-incrimination were then cited by McCarthy as disloyal, and he urged their dismissal from their jobs.

Composer Aaron Copland
Copland stood firm against the questioning

Among those who were brought before the McCarthy committee were famous writers and artists like Aaron Copland, Dashiell Hammett, and the wife of singer Paul Robeson.

But there were also many humble government employees and army engineers, including Annie Lee Moss, a black cafeteria worker at the Pentagon whose husband had once received copies of the Daily Worker, a communist newspaper.

In another case, McCarthy relentlessly questioned an employee of the Army signal corps about the political beliefs of his mother, who had once been a member of the Communist party but had resigned years before.

The senator wanted to know why the young soldier did not investigate his mother's political past, and told him he should have been more curious.

"If somebody told me my mother was a Communist, I would get on the phone and say 'Mother, is this true?'" the transcript reveals McCarthy as saying.


McCarthy's downfall came when he began to attack one of the most revered US institutions, the Army.

His insistence that Army loyalty officers must appear before his Senate committee gained him the ire of the new Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, a former Army general.

President Dwight D Eisenhower
Eisenhower helped bring McCarthy down

In a classic confrontation, in public and private, he accused Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker of promoting an army dentist suspected of communist leanings to the rank of major, and fumed when he refused to reveal who had approved it.

"Any man who has been promoted to general and... who protected communists is not fit to wear that uniform," McCarthy said.

The Secretary of the Army, Robert T Stephens, and his lawyer, John G Adams, then appeared in a televised hearing and asked the senator, "Have you no sense of decency?"

In December, 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy by a vote of 67-22.

Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that witnesses to legislative hearings retained their full constitutional rights, and could not be held in contempt if the hearings had no legislative purpose.

No witnesses called by McCarthy ever went to jail for refusing to answer his questions.


Speaking in the same room in which McCarthy held many of his public hearings, Republican Senator Susan Collins, head of the governmental affairs committee, said: "I hope these will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations... it is really chilling."

And Senator Carl Levin said he hoped that the lessons had been learned, especially the need to permit dissent and vigorous debate.

"It was a bad time for America, but some good came out of it," he said.


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