Wes Vernon
November 6, 2005
Murrow, McCarthy, and enduring myths--Part 1
By Wes Vernon

The movie "Good Night and Good Luck" enshrines with a vengeance the myth that the late Edward R. Murrow was a White Knight who came to the rescue of an America engulfed in fear and hysteria, thanks to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his investigations of Communist influence (in and out of government) in the United States.

The fact is that, far from making "wild accusations," McCarthy really didn't know the half of it. Information from Soviet archives and the "Venona (military decripts), publicized after the fall of the Soviet Union, clearly showed that the U.S. government and many of our non-governmental institutions were infiltrated by Communists prior to and at the time of congressional investigations of subversive activity in the thirties, Forties and Fifties.

Imagine what a field day McCarthy would have had, for example, had he known that Harry Hopkins (a top aide who was so close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he actually lived in the White House) had been a Soviet agent.

The Murrow hatchet job on McCarthy on the CBS TV Network in 1954 was widely criticized at the time and not merely by the senator's followers of which there were millions notwithstanding modern-day political ax-grinders posing as "historians." (Remember, "History" is written by the winners of a given event. That does not necessarily make what passes for "history" accurate.)

As Arthur Herman writes in his 2000 book, "Joseph McCarthy: Re-examining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator," Murrow's show on the anti-communist lawmaker "was not a report at all, but a full-scale assault, employing exactly the same techniques of partial truth, innuendo that critics accused McCarthy of using."

In a classic case of "What goes around comes around," John Cogley, McCarthy's most hostile Catholic critic chided Murrow for a distorted use of video clips. As if he had foreseen what would happen 50 years later at CBS when the Rathergate forged documents report on President Bush's National Guard service brought down another leading anchorman and led to demotions and/or exits of producers and management, Cogley issued this warning of where Murrow-style half-truth editing could ultimately lead: "Television is dynamite. Combined with selectivity, it could explode in any person's or group's face."

Hollywood, of course, is free to do whatever it wants to do with history and quite often manages to mangle it beyond recognition. Thus, "Good Night and Good Luck" leaves the unsuspecting movie-goer with the impression it was Murrow who brought McCarthy down; that code-clerk Annie Lee Moss was an innocent victim of McCarthy's "witch-hunts"; that the Wisconsin senator had unfairly castigated the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and that Alger Hiss was guilty of nothing worse than perjury. The biggest distortion of all is the clear implication that McCarthy never nailed any powerful person as being pro-Communist.

Let's go down the list:

1 It was Murrow who brought McCarthy down.

Not really. The seeds for bringing down McCarthy and his committee were planted well before that, very carefully nurtured and strategized by some of the most powerful figures in the nation.

The story is told in some detail not by a member of the "vast

right-wing conspiracy," but by a left-wing journalist named Kai Bird, author of the 1992 book, "The Chairman: John J. McCloy. The Making of the American Establishment." At the time he wrote the book, Bird was a contributing editor of "The Nation."

In case anyone has doubts about that publication's leanings, let it

be noted that its longtime leading light, Victor Navasky, once said if Alger Hiss himself had made a full confession of his treason, he Navasky would continue to insist on his innocence.

The book shows that John J. McCloy, Wall Street lawyer, confidante of captains of industry and ultimately of eight presidents, picked up the phone one day and made an appointment with President Eisenhower to plead that something be done to stop McCarthy and his investigations.

This was not done on impulse as if the Eastern Establishment titan had nothing else to do. After Germany's defeat in World War 2, McCloy was appointed High Commissioner to Occupied Germany (HICOG) to rule the conquered country in the transition from Nazism to a European democracy.

Space will not permit a detailed retelling of Bird's explanation of exactly what happened. To make a long story short, McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had found people working for HICOG who had questionable qualifications from a security standpoint.

The transcripts of executive session testimony before the committee that were released in 2003 after a 50 year embargo, offer a glimpse of what the problem was at HICOG under McCloy.

Testifying in April, 1953 was one Theodore Kaghan, acting deputy chief of public relations for HICOG. In questioning before the panel in closed session, it was developed that Kaghan had knowingly signed a nominating petition for and promised to support a Communist Party candidate for public office in New York City; had written plays containing such propaganda as that the Communist Party would "unite all workers" in the "struggle" against "the decadent system of capitalism"; that his play Hello Franco was produced by a Communist-controlled theatre company; that he had been hired on at the New York Herald Tribune by the notorious Communist Joseph Barnes (so identified under oath by several witnesses); that he roomed for several months with a man he knew to be a Communist, but did not think to share the information with the FBI; that Kaghan had been sent an "interrogatory" by his employers, apparently concerned about his past, with a follow-up investigation by the FBI.

It is and was not a crime to sign a Communist Party petition or write plays containing communist propaganda or to be hired by a Communist or to room with a Communist. Even failure to report a Communist to the FBI was often excused (often wrongly in this writer's view)) on the basis of ignorance as to the threat it posed. The question that comes to mind is whether people with that kind of background in the composite, should have been serving in the U.S. government in that position at that place at a time when post-war Germany especially when East and West Germany were being created, was at the nerve center of the Cold War fight between the Soviet Union and the Western World.

Several days later, Kaghan appeared before the committee in public session. With his future in doubt, the State Department announced that 137 Americans and 700 Germans were being stricken from the U.S. government payroll.

McCloy worked on Eisenhower to take action against McCarthy. He registered his pleas in several venues, including a stag party at the White House. That was a major factor leading to the Army-McCarthy hearings. Murrow's broadcast had nothing to do with it. McCloy had every reason to believe that McCarthy was on his case that ultimately the senator would call him to testify and explain how and why so many questionable people had ended up working at HICOG's direction. Poor judgment is a legitimate concern for congressional oversight.

2 Code-clerk Annie Lee Moss was an innocent victim of McCarthy's "witch-hunts."

Here we have a classic example of the "I-don't-care-what-the evidence-shows, I'll-write-my-own-history" school of thought.

Murrow made a big to-do about this case, which takes up a part of "Good Night and Good Luck." He used the story as a sequel to his original hatchet job on McCarthy's investigations.

In 1951, the FBI offered the Army Signal Corps information from one of its informants Mary Stalcup Markward. The young 5 foot -1 mother and homemaker from nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, had joined the Washington D.C. Communist Party for a 7-year stint in undercover at the behest of the FBI.

She testified before McCarthy's committee and identified Annie Lee Moss as one who had been listed on the party's membership rolls when she (Markward) was the party's membership director.

McCarthy was focused on a bewildering circumstance. Not only had the Army ignored the FBI's warning, but had reassigned Moss, a worker at the signal Corps cafeteria, to the far more sensitive position as a Pentagon code clerk.

Murrow's selective editing showed the whole thing backfiring at McCarthy when Moss appeared before the committee as a befuddled woman who said she had been confused with another Annie Lee Moss.

Four years later, after McCarthy was dead and buried, the Subversive Activities Control Board presented the Justice Department with solid evidence of Markward's truthfulness, including the allegation in the Annie Lee Moss case.

McCarthy and his committee counsel, Roy Cohn, had been vindicated. But of course, George Clooney, producer of "Good Night and Good Luck" did not bestir himself to include that little factoid in his rewriting of history. Also, the Army-McCarthy hearings may have distracted the senator from finding out exactly why the Army had ignored FBI warnings about a Communist being shifted from cafeteria worker to code clerk.

There is more to this unraveling of distorted and twisted history. We'll finish the list in a follow-up. Later.

© Wes Vernon

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

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