Senate Historian Clams Up When Queried On McCarthy

In a key step toward unravelling the secret history of the Cold War, the U. S. Senate last week released 50-year-old executive hearings on subversion and internal security matters conducted by Sen. Joe McCarthy (R.-Wis.).

Running to more than 4,000 pages, these hearings are crammed with backstage data on a host of once-torrid issues-including controversial McCarthy sessions on the Voice of America, United States Information Agency libraries, State Department personnel, and the Army Signal Corps installation at Fort Monmouth, N.J., to name a few. The last is of special interest as it was the prelude to the famous Army-McCarthy fracas in the spring of 1954, the event most people are probably aware of, if only dimly, when they think about McCarthy.

Having these documents available for study will be a major boon for scholars.

Unfortunately, the send-off they have been given by Senators Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) and Susan Collins (R.-Me.), and Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian who edited the hearings, has stirred up an orgy of media disinformation. All three have made invidious comments about McCarthy, putting a huge negative spin on the story. As most media types don’t read much further than summaries and press releases, these initial statements from the Senate sponsors can only serve to darken counsel.

Levin and Collins got the honor of releasing the hearings, under the 50-year Senate rule relating to such records, because they were chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the previous Congress. (This was the panel headed by McCarthy that conducted the executive hearings.) In a preface to the massive five-volume set, Levin and Collins zestfully bash McCarthy, setting the tone for media coverage. However, to judge from further inquiry on the matter, neither of them knows anything about it.

In their preface, Levin-Collins assert that "Sen. McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed the careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government." Similar statements have been made by Senate Historian Ritchie in comments to the press, and numerous stories have repeated these charges as uncontested fact. But when asked to back up this sweeping and inflammatory statement, neither Senate office could do so.

Trying to check the matter out, I called the offices of both Levin and Collins and asked if they could provide me with the names of any innocent victims of McCarthy whose careers had been ruined in this manner. Neither office could provide me with a single name.

Who’s Running the Senate?

I also addressed the same question to a reporter for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, whose story happened to be the first one I read about the hearings and who made such assertions on his own. I got essentially the same non-answer, except that he mentioned in his story the case of an employee of VOA who had committed suicide-allegedly from fear of McCarthy.

Similar conversations ensued with reporters from the Washington Post and Reuters, both of whom got very testy when I asked them if they could back up anti-McCarthy comments in their stories with information on specific cases. Ken Ringle of the Post said write us a letter, and Joanne Kenen of Reuters was much too busy to discuss the matter with me.

In these press conversations, the people I talked to said the individual with all the answers was Senate historian Ritchie, who contributed his own introduction to the hearings slamming McCarthy, in slightly more subtle terms than those used by Levin-Collins. However, when I finally got Ritchie on the phone, he wasn’t much more helpful, giving me lots of generalities, but little by way of hard specifics. (It’s a big subject, and so forth).

As to McCarthy’s browbeating tactics, said Ritchie, they were apparent throughout the hearings, particularly those pertaining to Fort Monmouth. I told him I had read a fair amount of these (plus the long-available public hearings conducted by McCarthy) and personally I didn’t see it. A matter of interpretation, I suppose, but hardly justification for the venomous slurs that are being thrown around so freely.

I then tried to narrow things down to a specific case I have studied in some detail: Alleged McCarthy victim Annie Lee Moss, who worked in a code room for the Army and was called before his subcommittee.

In the standard treatment of Moss, she was a dazed and helpless woman falsely accused of being a Communist by the heartless and irresponsible McCarthy. This image is reinforced at some length by Ritchie in his editorial comments, citing as authority for his statements three books about McCarthy by academics. I noted that these were secondary sources and asked him if he had looked at the official, primary documents on the case, and whether he was aware that these conclusively prove Mrs. Moss was, indeed, a member of the Communist Party in the District of Columbia.

At this point historian Ritchie became very irked with me, and declined my offer to capsule these data for him. "I am," he said, "growing very tired of this conversation." He said he had been doing many media appearances on the McCarthy hearings, didn’t want to talk about the subject with me anymore, but that if I wanted to send something to him he would look at it. End of discussion.

Questions abound: How does it happen that Senators Levin and Collins make categorical statements in a Senate report that their offices cannot back up with a single specific? Why was historian Ritchie so unwilling to discuss with me well-documented facts about one of the more publicized McCarthy cases-though he has been prolific with disparaging comments on McCarthy to anyone who will listen? What ever happened to fact-based reporting? And, who, by the way, is running the Senate?

P.S. On the VOA employee allegedly driven to suicide by McCarthy: As the record shows, this employee was a potentially friendly witness for McCarthy, had views on the question at issue that would have backed McCarthy’s position, and was anxious to testify in the McCarthy hearings. Whatever drove this employee to suicide, if that is what in fact occurred, fear of Joe McCarthy is the least likely of all explanations. The reporter I spoke to on this knew nothing at all about these matters.

Related reading: “McCarthyism: Waging the Cold War in America”