How Senate Historian Botched Data on McCarthy

The more we learn about the executive hearings on subversion held 50 years ago by Sen. Joe McCarthy (R.-Wis.), unveiled this month for public viewing, the more bizarre the tale becomes.

Though mostly covering the same terrain as did public probes run by McCarthy in ’53 and ’54, these 4,000-plus pages of closed-door sessions contain a lot of added information and should be a great resource for scholars. Assuming, that is, that anyone actually bothers to read them-rather than relying on the gloss supplied by Senate historian Donald Ritchie, who edited them for publication.

Ritchie penned an introduction to the hearings, plus editorial notes along the way, that variously slam McCarthy and/or stack the deck against him. In addition, he has been remarkably free with negative statements on McCarthy in dealing with the media, who have with few exceptions taken these as gospel. However, when the data are examined, the gap between Ritchie’s comments and demonstrable facts of record is astounding. Following are a few examples.

As already noted in these pages, one of the more famous episodes discussed by Ritchie is the case of Annie Lee Moss, portrayed in most treatments of McCarthy as an innocent victim of his bluster. This version is essentially recapped by Ritchie-with a bare minimum of hedging-footnoting his account to three biographies of McCarthy. (When I asked Ritchie in a phone interview if he had looked at the primary documents on the case, he abruptly ended our conversation. [See "Senate Historian Clams Up When Queried on McCarthy," HUMAN EVENTS, May 12, 2003].)

In a nutshell, the facts about the matter are these: Mrs. Moss had been identified by FBI undercover operative Mary Markward as a member of the Communist Party in the District of Columbia, based on party records Markward said she had handled. This information was provided not only to the FBI, but also the Civil Service Commission and the Army. Despite this, Mrs. Moss had been hired as a code clerk by the Army, and had been cleared to do this work as of the early 1950s.

When Markward and Moss appeared before McCarthy in the winter of ’54, Markward repeated her story, naming not only Mrs. Moss but several others as members of the D.C. party. Mrs. Moss, seeming frail and bewildered, denied all, saying she was not a Communist and suggesting there was some other Annie Lee Moss out there with whom she was being confused. This mistaken-identity theme was stressed as well by Democratic members of the panel.

The hearing containing these exchanges and related bits of by-play was shown on TV and thereafter re-broadcast in part by Edward R. Murrow on his CBS program, "See It Now." The thrust of this reportage was that Mrs. Moss was a pitiful, dazed and harried victim smeared by the nefarious McCarthy. Such also is the standard version of the matter found in countless histories of the era.

Unfortunately for the standard version, and for Mrs. Moss, she gave herself away in testifying-volunteering one of the addresses where she had lived as 72 R St., S.W., in the District of Columbia. This went to the question of whether she was the individual named by Markward, who had seen the Communist Party records but not Mrs. Moss in person. The question would be resolved four years later when the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) obtained the records of the D.C. party-and there found an Annie Lee Moss, of 72 R St. S.W., listed as a party member in the middle ’40s.

Proof Positive on Moss

These records made the matter quite open and shut, rendering moot attempts to discredit Mrs. Markward, argue that there were three different Annie Lee Mosses in the phonebook, and other such rhetorical smokescreens. Whether Mrs. Moss was as befuddled as she appeared, or had been recruited into the party without knowing what she was doing, are debatable issues. What isn’t debatable is that this particular Annie Lee Moss, and no other, had been listed in official Communist records as a party member. The Markward testimony to McCarthy was 100% on target.

Senate historian Ritchie’s take on all of this is of interest, as he is the authority everyone else is quoting. In a fairly lengthy discussion of the case, he throws in a 24-word reference to the findings of the SACB, but so handled as to becloud them. He says the board confirmed Markward’s identification of Moss, but immediately adds that "the board conducted no further investigation of Moss" and that thereafter it had said "Markward’s testimony should be assayed with caution." These comments can only suggest to readers that there is some serious doubt about the Moss case-the more so as Ritchie follows up with an extended eulogy to Moss offered by a liberal writer, attesting to her blameless nature.

These comments, however, are thoroughly misleading. For one thing, the point of this particular SACB inquiry wasn’t to investigate Moss, but to gauge the credibility of Markward. There was no intent or reason for the SACB to investigate Moss beyond the acquisition of the Communist Party records, so Ritchie’s gratuitous comment about "no further investigation" is a red herring. No such further investigation of Moss had been in prospect.

Likewise, the SACB comment about viewing Markward’s evidence with caution pertained to other matters entirely (her report of a Communist bigwig’s speech, compensation by the FBI), and specifically did not pertain to Moss, as the board would stress in frequent comments. (E.g., "the Communist Party’s charge that Markward gave perjurious testimony was not substantiated. Consequently, Mrs. Markward’s credibility is in no way impaired by the Annie Lee Moss matter.")

In short, while the Communist Party had sought to raise doubts about Markward’s accuracy and expertise, the Moss case was repeatedly cited by the SACB as a clear instance in which Markward obviously knew whereof she spoke, thus bolstering her credibility. (See box, page 18.) Nobody could possibly figure this out from the account supplied by Ritchie.

The most charitable explanation of all this is that the Senate historian indeed hasn’t read the primary sources, but instead seems to have lifted his discussion of the matter primarily from Thomas Reeves, author of a widely cited book about McCarthy. As Reeves’ convoluted wrap-up on Moss is itself misleading, so must be any treatment premised on it.

I have dwelt on this episode, perhaps unduly, because it was the only one I got to discuss with Ritchie before he cut me off, and also because it is one of the more famous of McCarthy’s cases. Given the prominence of the matter in the mythology about Joe McCarthy, it is important that the facts about it be set forth clearly in the record. However, numerous other comments by Ritchie are equally unhelpful.

For example, Ritchie suggests that McCarthy haled witnesses indiscriminately before his committee for the flimsiest of reasons, including people who had relatives who were Communists, had belonged to certain unions, and so forth. One McCarthy failing alleged by Ritchie, echoing the Moss dispute, was that he called up people "out of mistaken identity," a charge reiterated by the historian as subpoenaing someone who "simply had the same name as a Communist." As it happens, there is one conspicuous case in the record that fits this description, and it is most instructive.

This involved two people connected to activities at Fort Monmouth, a sensitive U.S. Army installation being investigated by McCarthy, both named Louis Kaplan. One of them had been identified as a Communist (and took the 5th Amendment when asked about it), while the other emphatically denied any such affiliation. As the second Louis Kaplan complained, he had been dogged constantly by the mix-up, and had all kinds of trouble with security types dating back to the early ’40s.

This unfortunate confusion was in no way the work of the McCarthy probe, as it had existed for many years before the investigation ever started. Moreover, rather than compounding the error, the committee sought to correct it. The exchanges on this between McCarthy staffers G. David Schine and Roy Cohn and the second Kaplan read in part as follows:

SCHINE: "Mr. Kaplan, of course our committee is interested in obtaining information on government departments and agencies’ efficiency; that means efficiency in both directions. Therefore, we would be just as much concerned with the firing of a capable person unjustly as we would be interested in the retention of one who was a security risk."

KAPLAN: "If you want to build some morale, check my case rapidly. I think it will help considerably."

SCHINE: "You have our assurance that we will get Mr. Adams, counselor to the department of Army, to check on this matter and it is going to be resolved very quickly."

KAPLAN: [some minutes later] "Mr. Cohn, I feel a whole lot better right now. . . ."

Thus there was indeed a mistaken identity in this case, but instead of creating the problem the McCarthy committee set out to fix it. Of course, to know the facts about the matter, one actually has to read the hearings, rather than relying on Ritchie’s comments.

Concerning the larger issue at Fort Monmouth, Ritchie’s introductory statements are also intriguing. The public McCarthy hearings of 50 years ago made it quite clear, and these executive hearings confirm, that Monmouth was a security sieve. This was a matter of great importance, as the complex of laboratories there and related industrial outfits were engaged in top-secret projects involving radar, air defenses, and protection against guided missiles. Security should have been tight in such a set-up, but all too obviously it wasn’t.

As the McCarthy sessions showed, there had long been no effective system for keeping track of confidential papers, and people had been routinely allowed to take such documents off the premises. These conditions were the more disturbing as Monmouth and related labs had been a scene of action for convicted Communist agents Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell, and there were still a phenomenal number of people there who had been associates of this duo in one fashion or another.

A poster child for all these troubles was a high-ranking Monmouth employee named Aaron Coleman, who admitted to having attended a Young Communist League meeting with Rosenberg when they were in college, had dealings with Sobell up through the latter ’40’s, and also had a habit of taking documents from the office. In 1946, Army security agents had searched his apartment and found 43 confidential papers there-a security breach for which he had received a 10-day suspension.

On all of which, the comments of Ritchie in his introduction are telling. Recounting McCarthy’s interrogation of Coleman’s roommate about the papers in their apartment, the historian quotes an exchange in which McCarthy said security agents had "raided" the place, to which the roommate objected, saying it was merely "searched." McCarthy thought this a quibble, and accused the roommate of covering for Coleman. Ritchie cites this as an instance of McCarthy’s "use of inappropriate or inflammatory words to characterize [witnesses’] testimony. He took their objections as a sign they were covering up for something."

In this discussion, Ritchie says not a word about the confidential documents in question, the security breach Coleman committed, the Rosenberg-Sobell connection, or anything of comparable substance. No, the issue to be highlighted is that McCarthy used the word "raided" when he should have used the more neutral "searched"-at least according to Donald Ritchie and Aaron Coleman’s roommate.

Nor is this Ritchie’s only effort to trivialize what had been going on at Monmouth. He notes that "the Soviet Union had been an ally during the Second World War, and during that time had openly designated representatives at the laboratories, making espionage there superfluous." This ignores the generally acknowledged fact, known to most historians, that World War II ended in 1945, and that the activities that concerned McCarthy had continued up through the early ’50s.

Instances of such treatment of substantive matters by Ritchie might be multiplied indefinitely. He says, for example, that "the subcommittee’s dragnet included a number of perplexed witnesses who had signed a nominating petition years earlier. . . ." Neglected in this bland assertion is that the petitions referred to were petitions for the Communist Party, which explicitly said "I intend to support at the ensuing election" the Communist nominee for office. One might suppose an employee at a sensitive defense-related lab who had signed such a petition would be a legitimate subject for inquiry, or that a historian discussing the matter might trouble to note that the petitions were of this nature.

‘Union’ Activities

Likewise Ritchie informs us that various people named as Communists at Monmouth had been involved with union issues, and that witnesses who referred to them "invariably described union activities, and none corroborated any claims of subversion and espionage." In fact, the foremost union activist featured in the hearings was a man named Harry Hyman, who had worked for many years at a Monmouth-connected telecommunications lab and was in continuing contact with its employees. Some of the questions and answers involving this union leader went as follows:

McCARTHY: "Have you ever discussed the subject of espionage with any members of the Communist Party?"

HYMAN: "I decline to answer for all the reasons previously given."

* * *

McCARTHY: "Have you ever discussed any classified material with individuals whom you knew to be espionage agents, or individuals you had reason to believe were espionage agents?"

HYMAN: "I decline to answer for the reasons given."

* * *

McCARTHY: "Have you ever turned government secrets over to anyone known to you to be an espionage agent?"

HYMAN: "I decline to answer on the same grounds."

* * *

McCARTHY: "Did you make 76 calls to the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory at Lodi, N.J., between January 24, 1953, and October 21, 1953, for the purpose of getting classified information and for the purpose of then turning that over to an espionage agent or agents?"

HYMAN: "I decline to answer on the same grounds."

And so forth and so on at some length-suggesting that the "union activities" of this particular labor leader were perhaps not confined to wages and hours. Again, however, one needs to learn something of the investigation, rather than Ritchie’s summary of it, to know what the relevant facts were. (Actually, these data on Hyman have been available for decades-the exchanges just quoted having appeared in the original public hearings.)

As above suggested, further examples in this vein appearing in historian Ritchie’s comments are legion, but the cases that have been cited are perhaps enough to show the nature of the problem, and have doubtless taxed the reader’s patience already. Nor, by the way, do these observations even begin to show the stunning contrast between the conduct of McCarthy and his staffers and the usual image of false and reckless charges conveyed not only by Donald Ritchie, but by a host of others like him.

More detailed analysis of such matters must await another day. For the moment suffice it to note that what historian Ritchie has provided is "history" only in the sense that one might accord this label to musings of the ACLU, or a lead article in The Nation. How such material could have been given the imprimatur of the U.S. Senate, and printed in an official document of record, is a mystery that needs some looking into.