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Senate releases McCarthy transcripts

Americans interrogated for alleged communist ties

From Jonathan Karl
CNN Washington Bureau

Joseph McCarthy, left, and his counsel Roy Cohn at a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee March 10, 1954.
Joseph McCarthy, left, and his counsel Roy Cohn at a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee March 10, 1954.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Returning to a dark chapter in the nation's history, the Senate released thousands of pages of transcripts Monday from closed-door, anti-communist hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

The hearings reveal a new side to McCarthy's 1953-1954 crusade, conducted at the peak of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Some of the hearings were public and some televised, but 395 Americans were interrogated in secret hearings, facing accusations from McCarthy and his staff about their alleged involvement in communist activities.

"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," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at a news conference.

"And by making these transcripts [available] -- not just to scholars who go to the archives, but to everyone who wishes to see them -- we hope to further educate the young people of today about this very unfortunate chapter in American history."

Collins is chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. McCarthy chaired that committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to pursue his anti-communist crusade, which was later widely discredited as a witch hunt.

The transcripts were released Monday because a 50-year seal that applied to the hearings expired. Collins spoke to reporters in the very room where some of the hearings were held.

The Americans interrogated in private included the ordinary, the famous, and some who wore the uniform of the U.S. military.

David Oshinsky, a McCarthy biographer, said the transcripts shed light on "Joe McCarthy in private, surrounded by his henchmen, running a one-man operation in which hundreds of witnesses are being interrogated."

Exercising Fifth Amendment rights in these secret hearings was risky. In one hearing, McCarthy -- a Republican from Wisconsin elected to the Senate in 1946 -- threatened a New York City teacher who refused to answer all his questions.

According to the transcript, McCarthy asked an aide to transmit the testimony to the city's board of education.

"I assume with this testimony they will discharge this man," McCarthy said. He turned to the teacher and added, "I may say your wife's testimony is being transmitted to the board of education also. I assume she will be discharged too."

Many of McCarthy's secret hearings took place at the federal courthouse in New York City. At one hearing, a man who was suspended from the Army Signal Corps because his mother had been a communist was grilled by McCarthy.

"Well, did you ever ask her if she was a communist?" McCarthy demanded to know.

"No, sir," the man replied.

"When you went to see her, weren't you curious?" McCarthy said. "If somebody told me my mother was a communist, I'd get on the phone and say, 'Mother, is this true?'"

Some, however, refused to be intimidated, including noted composer Aaron Copland.

Said McCarthy: "You have what appears to be one of the longest communist-front records of any one we have had here."

Composer Aaron Copland, among the witnesses in the McCarthy transcripts, at his New York home June 28, 1956.
Composer Aaron Copland, among the witnesses in the McCarthy transcripts, at his New York home June 28, 1956.

Copland replied: "I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads, and I am not a political thinker."

Copland -- who later was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- conceded that he had worked with many musicians over the years and that some of them may have been communists. But Copland described himself as a "loyal American."

The five volumes of transcripts include interrogations by McCarthy's staff, including sidekick Roy Cohn and, for several months, a 27-year-old future attorney general -- Robert F. Kennedy.

Early in his political career Kennedy, who later was a U.S. senator from New York and a Democratic presidential candidate, was an ardent anti-communist and was sympathetic to McCarthy's goals.

"Robert Kennedy quits the committee in the summer of 1953," said Donald Ritchie, the U.S. Senate historian. "He actually has a fist fight with Roy Cohn. ... It's clear that it wasn't McCarthy that Kennedy couldn't get along with. It was Roy Cohn he couldn't get along with, and they became bitter enemies for the rest of their lives."

While McCarthy enjoyed public attention and initially advanced his career with the start of the hearings, the tide turned. His downfall followed his harsh treatment of Army officers in the secret hearings.

After Lt. Col. Chester T. Brown refused to answer questions, McCarthy said, "Any man in the uniform of his country who refused to give information to a committee of the Senate which represents the American people, that man is not fit to wear the uniform of his country."

Such attacks infuriated President Eisenhower, who as an Army general was Allied supreme commander in Europe in World War II, and felt McCarthy had finally gone too far. McCarthy soon found himself on the receiving end of tough questions.

"I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Joseph Welsh, the counsel for the U.S. Army told McCarthy. "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

At Monday's news conference, senators pointed to one legacy of the McCarthy era.

"McCarthyism now stands for an approach to life which people want to avoid," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan.

"To attack people personally for their political beliefs and to browbeat them for asserting their rights, is no longer something which people are willingly engaged in, or want to be labeled ad engaging in. That label 'McCarthyism' now is a deterrent."

McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954 and faded into obscurity before his death in 1957. And for all the publicity and ruined lives stemming from the McCarthy's interrogations, not one person who appeared before his hearings went to jail.

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