Thirty years ago on Feb. 9, 1950, in the Colonnade Room of the mcClure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia, an obscure first-term Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph R. McCarthy made a statement before the Ohio County Women's Republican Club, that caused more turmoil than any other utterance in America in the next five years.
Only one newspaper reported it, and the tape on which it was recorded was immediately erased.
The speaker charged that the State Department was infiltrated by known Communists and that they were setting American foreign policy.
Frank Desmond, a reporter of the Wheeling Intelligencer, recalled the statement:
". . .I have here in my hand a list of 205 known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and still working and shaping the policy of the State Department."
The speaker waved a paper which he did not read and which he subsequently threw away. The figure is uncertain: in two subsequent political speeches on this Lincoln's Birthday weekend he used varying figures: "57 card-carrying Communist" at Salt Lake City plus 205 "bad risks"; at Reno the number "205" was scratched from the rough draft, and "57" written in place.
So Joseph McCarthy entered history. Most condemn him today; a few are still loyal. Many ask how such a thing happened, could it happen again; what does it teach? Before the Senate finally censured him, 67-22, on Dec. 2, 1954, these things had happened:
* He held two presidents "captive." In the words of Richard H. Rovere, Truman and Eisenhower, 1950-1954, could never act in foreign affairs "without weighing the effect of their plans upon McCarthy. . ."
* As chairman of the Government Operations Committee, he assumed almost unfettered authority to attack institutions, and to destroy individuals, under a glare of publicity.
* He helped defeat half a dozen senators including Partician Millard Tydings (D) of Md., chairman of a subcommitte which investigated the McCarthy State Department charges and unanimously declared them "a fraud and a hoax."
* He cause such concern abraod that Sir Winston Chruchill wrote an eloquent anti-McCathy passage into Elizabeth II's coronation speech.
* He cowed the Hollywood amusement and publicity industries into establishing arbitrary black lists.
* He branded General of the Army George Catlett Marshall "a man steeped in falsehood. . .who has recourse to lie whenever it suits his convenience. . ."
* He raised imputations of subversion in all directions: a staff member, J.B. Matthews, in the American Mercury charged widespread subverion among the Protestant clergy.
* He made journalism rethink its choice between spot-news and interpretive coverage in reporting a challenge like McCarthy's.
* He gave new eponym to the language, as did Captain Boycott in Ireland, and William Lynch of Virginia.
* And finally, after five years, Senator McCarthy disappeared from the scene almost as suddenly as he emerged, for he had aroused the counter forces that help protect American democracy -- fair-play, common sense, instituional balance , the Constitution, the great tradition of Anglo-Sazon law.
The Supreme Court took judicial notice of some of the holes McCarthy was making in individual liberties and repaired them in a series of decisions that make this one of its finest hours.
Individual senators were roused: William Fulbirght (D) of Arkansas cast the single nay vote in February, 1954, against a continuing appropriation for McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee of Investigation. Margaret Chase Smith (R) of Maine, drew up "a Declaration of Conscience," signed by five others, attacking the "political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and tolerance." That courtly conservative, Sen. Ralph E. Flanders (R) of Vermont, found he could no longer stomach McCarthy tactics and introduced a resolution which ultimately led to censure, the fourth in 163 years.
The culminating McCarthy investigation held the nation enthralled. Audiences estimated at 20 million wathced it on television. It developed out of a draft card. Roy M. Cohn was McCarthy's chief committee counsel and was closely attached to his assistant, G. David Schine, 26, a multimillionaire. Schine was drafted, and it seemed like a plot to Cohn to damage the committee's work. He devoted himself to ameliorating camp service for his friend and to making it rough for the Army.
At the moment, the technical point before the committee was who had granted a routine promotion, from captain to major, of a left-wing army dentist named Irving Peress, serving at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. He admitted to being a member of the American Labor Party, then tantamount to being a Communist. When he refused to answer questions he was discharged. But who picked him in the first place -- promoted him?
By now Senator McCarthy had turned his wrath from Truman to Eisenhower. On Dec. 3, 1953, as Eisenhower left to confer with Chruchill in Bermuda, McCarthy took to the air to denounce Britain for trading with Peking while America was fighting in Korea. The White House acknowledged it got 50,000 letters attacking it.
It became fashionable about this time to call McCarthy the second most powerful man in Washington. He had firm supporters. Columnist William F. Buckley Jr. hailed McCarthyism "as movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks." Millions agreed.
But the personal side became bizarre. Once, for example, Roy Cohn telephoned Amherst College, where John G. Adams, counselor for the Department of the Army was speaking, in an effort to get David Schine removed from KP duty the following day. Details appeared in columns.
The McCarthy attitude itself toward the Army was hardening. At a hearing in New York on the Peress promotion he told the unfortunate Brig. Gen. Ralph W. Zwicker, hero of the Bulge and commanding officer at Camp Kilmer, that he was "not fit to wear that uniform." Secretary Stevens protested, vacillated, then capitualted. Finally a Senate invetigation was ordered of Mr. McCarthy himself.
It was an extraordinary episode. A whole generation of the '50s and '60s knew what the short, staccato cry meant -"a point of order,Mr. Chairman!" It was Joe McCarthy interrupting to attack critics and to give his version of Communist penetration, crouching over the microphone, tense and swarthy.
The Army-McCarthy hearings lasted 36 days with TV audiences breaking records. The Army's special counsel, Joseph N. Welsh, a proper Bostonian, at first treated McCarthy with almost comic courtliness but then gradually heightened his attack. McCarthy struck back. In one crucial exchange he revealed that a member of Welch's own law firm had, as a young man, belonged to the Lawyers Guild, a proscribed organization. It is hard to understand today that few thing worse could happen to a man than to be identified over national television as a subversive. With histrionic timing, Welch paused and waited as he centered attention on his response made directly to the Senator:
"Little did I dream that you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do injury to that lad," he said.
McCarthy sought to shape a reply, and Welch asked in disdain: "Have you no sense of decency, at long last?. . .Have you no sense of decency. . .?"
By this time polls began to show opinion veering against McCarthy. They had been as high as 50 percent on his side before. Now as the exchange in the flood-lit Senate causus room ended, the press surged from its tables and rushed for the door; the audience applauded Welch. McCarthy sat alone. He stretched out his palms in wonder after a while. "What did I do?" he asked.
What changed opinion? Perhaps because Senator McCarthy seemed to be attacking everbody. Critics became more vocal. CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow -- noted for steady, level-headed understatement -- broke through media self-imposed censorship on the subject of the victims of the loyalty investigations. He challenged the country: (March 9, 1954):
"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent ," he said. "We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape respondiblity for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities."
Other forces in the democracy were asserting themselves. Senator Flanders intorduced his censure resolution. The subcommittee unanimously condemned McCarthy on two counts: refusal to appear before a Senate body when ordered, and vilification of General Zwicker. The Senate, after an intense contest voted to censure, and the 83rd Congress adjourned. (Senator McCarthy could not live outside the spotlight: he was finished, and knwew it. His end came in 1957.)
What made the strange episode possible? Young people cannot understand it; could it happen again?
Thirty years ago a strange, anxious world was dawning. There was the nuclear bomb. It was discovered that the secret of the device had reached Russia, helped by the spy Klaus Emil Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. A jury on Jan. 21, 1950, found Alger Hiss guilty of prevaricating under oath. The new congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon, said that he thought there were other high members of the State Department who were unreliable. Joseph and Stewart Alsop reported in the New York Herald-Tribune, Jan. 2 and 4, that the US Government was studying the feasiblity of building a hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima weapon, to cost $2 billion to $4 billion. There was bitter, almost savage partisanship. After Roosevelt and Truman, Republicans sensed coming victory.
While Mr. Truman pledged to seek "internationa cooperation," Sen. Robert A. Taft, May 16, charged the adminstration with "pro-Communist policies," which had made Russia "a threat to the world" and "permitted it to take over all China." Indeed, China had been "lost"; many believed men in the State Department wanted it that way. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was violently attacked. McCarthy charged Owen Lattimore, a professor of Johns Hopkins University with being a spy , an employee of the State Department and a Communist; he was none of these things but it hardly mattered in the excitement.
It seems unlikely that another McCarthy will appear at just such a moment in history. "The world of mass entertainment," as Richard Rovere wrote of the affair, "Hollywood, television, and much of the press cracked badly." But other institutions resisted stoutly. "McCarthy offered a powerful challenge to freedom , and showed us to be more vulnerable than many of us had guessed to a seditious demagogy -- as well as less vulnerable than some of us feared."
No one can be wholly impartial in these matters. On page 12352 of the Congressional Record, Aug. 2, 1954, in Senator Flander's bill of particulars against Senator McCarthy he records:
"Eleventh, he has used distortion and innuendo to attack the reputations of the following citizens: Former President Truman Gen. George Marshall Attroney General Brownell Hohn J. McCloy Senator Raymond Baldwin Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Anna Rosenberg Phillip Jessup Marquis Childs Richard L. Strout of The Chistian Science Monitor Gen. Telford Taylor, and three national press associations."
Not a bad list to be on.