Washington, May 6 (Reuters): Fifty years after Senator Joseph McCarthy’s scorched earth investigation into supposed Communist infiltration of America’s most sensitive institutions, secret transcripts released today add another layer of tarnish to his place in history.
The 5,000 pages from his closed-door hearings show no smoking guns, no uncovered spies, no verification of conspiracy theories on which he built his political career.
“McCarthy had shopworn goods and fishing expeditions,” said Don Ritchie, the Senate’s associate historian who began poring over the transcripts in 1976. He said the files won’t provide fodder for any revisionists arguing McCarthy was right.
No one McCarthy summoned went to jail — even the few who were convicted of contempt won on appeal. But his probes ruined lives and careers with unproven hints of Communist taint.
The documents were released in a joint venture authorised by Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Susan Collins of Maine, then respectively the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations, McCarthy’s platform.
McCarthy flourished during Cold War anxieties, with some parallels to today’s fear of terrorism. Levin said the hearings were a reminder of “tactics (that) can be used to quiet dissenters” and the need to resist “those who try to still voices of disagreement.”
Perusing the 1953-54 transcripts, released online (http://www.senate.gov/~gov_affairs/psi.htm) and in the Senate hearing room where McCarthy held forth, shows that McCarthy in private was like McCarthy in public.
His interrogation of an obscure engineer named Benjamin Zuckerman, who had worked briefly with the US army Signal Corps, was a good example of his brow-beating style.
Zuckerman testified that on his rare encounters — four in eight years — with a former college acquaintance later implicated in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case, the two young men had talked about women, audio equipment, and the best way to cook eggs. McCarthy snarled that he was “either the damnest liar” or “a case for a mental institution.”
“Did you ever tell anybody that you believed in Communism,” McCarthy’s lead lawyer Roy Cohn once asked a security guard named Francesco Palmiero, who had testified that he had walked past some Communist meetings near his housing project.
Composer Aaron Copland, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, and poet-playwright Langston Hughes are among the handful of celebrity witnesses who appear in these transcripts.
Hammett refused to answer many questions. Hughes sought to explain how racism shaped his political views. Copland, when McCarthy harshly pressed for his views of US-Finnish relations, calmly replied: “I spend my days writing symphonies, concerts, ballads and I am not a political thinker.”
But mostly McCarthy picked on the obscure and the expendable, file clerks, engineers, mid-level bureaucrats.
He questioned one former army engineer as to why he hadn’t known his mother was a Communist when he was a boy. He threateningly spoke of looming perjury charges when witnesses said they didn’t discern any future spies in their college classes 15 years earlier. He badgered a World War II veteran on whether he enlisted on the orders of the Communist Party.
“I know you are not as dumb as you are trying to make out,” he told a secretary named Doris Powell who had once worked for what she later discovered was a Leftist publication.
A Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy served in the Senate for only a decade and his headline-grabbing investigations lasted a mere two years. His final years, from his censure in 1954 until his death in 1957, he served in relative oblivion.