Wes Vernon
November 29, 2007
McCarthy Part 7--now live from Washington, the Army-McCarthy hearings! Follow the script, please
By Wes Vernon

(See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11)

In the spring of 1954, Americans sat glued with fascination to the black and white screens of the brand new entertainment medium: "Movies" piped into in your own home. Television — restricted to a few metropolitan areas in the early post-war years — had finally been given the green light to spread its availability everywhere.

Just in time for the big show

What awaited Americans in their living rooms was their first nationwide televised day-in/day-out true-to-life political drama played out in the ornate environs of the main hearing room of the Senate Office Building. (There was only one such building then.) The Army-McCarthy hearings were to play day after day for audiences whose numbers would put soap operas to shame.

To set the stage

As told in detail by M. Stanton Evans in his book Blacklisted by History, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — chaired by Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisc.) — had in previous months held hearings (some behind closed doors, some in public) relating to security problems in the U.S. Army, with heaviest emphasis on the remnants of the Rosenberg spy ring, still in operation following the demise of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg themselves.

What followed was non-stop pressure by the Eisenhower administration to bring McCarthy's hearings to a halt. Like the Democrat Truman administration before them, Ike and the Republicans surrounding him viewed the exposé of Communists in government as a problem to be managed, rather than solved. Cover-up was the order of the day. Some of new GOP administration's agencies did go after the Communist nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and revealed information on the late Communist Harry Dexter White — but those matters were pursued mainly because they knew McCarthy was focused on both cases and they intended to beat him to the punch.

The carrot and the stick

Army Secretary Robert Stevens and his counsel John Adams at first tried to butter up McCarthy and his staff. When that didn't work, Adams in particular turned his focus to the cover-up and full-fledged smear aimed at discrediting McCarthy. (See Part 6, wherein we recount the saga of the administration's punishment of one general for cooperating with the committee and its rich reward to another general for lying under oath in a committee session.)

The smear

What ignited spring-1954's Army-McCarthy hearings were leaks to the media that Senator McCarthy and committee counsel Roy Cohn had applied undue pressure on the Army to accord special treatment to a former committee staffer — Army inductee G. David Schine. As developed in the hearings, the truth was quite the reverse — that the Army was trying to use Schine as leverage to get McCarthy to ease up on his investigation of spies at Ft. Monmouth and at Camp Kilmer — both in New Jersey.

Cohn — and to a lesser extent McCarthy — believed Schine, who'd previously worked in Army Transport and was 4F because of a slipped disc in his back, had been drafted precisely because he worked for McCarthy. Cohn's resentment was exacerbated by the fact that the 26-year old Schine had been inducted as a result of persistent public prodding by hate columnist Drew Pearson. However, there is no credible indication that McCarthy exerted pressure to get Schine out of the Army or to give him a soft assignment. The Army did give the young man some time to wrap up his unfinished committee business.

There is not enough space here to do real justice to the Army-McCarthy hearings. (For that, this column highly recommends you read Stan Evans' Blacklisted by History — Never a dull moment, trust me.) But the story is a classic example of the lengths to which Washington can manufacture the proverbial mountain out of a barely perceptible molehill.

Stevens admits

In the witness chair, Secretary Stevens acknowledged that he wanted the McCarthy probe of spies in the Army halted. Evans labels that admission "a ten-strike for McCarthy." The secretary also was to testify he had "no personal complaint" about actions by McCarthy or his staff.

Adams had contended that in a December 1953 Manhattan car ride, Cohn had harangued him about Schine. Witnesses told a different story — i.e., that in that ride, Cohn had delivered of himself a monologue objecting to the treatment of General Lawton for cooperating with the committee. It was Adams who repeatedly said, "Let's talk about Schine" — to which Cohn responded, "I don't want to talk about Schine. Let's talk about Lawton."

For every drama, an actor: Enter Joseph Welch

Representing the Army in this fracas was Joseph Welch, a Boston lawyer with a talent for dramatic effect.

For example, he tried to make a big deal out of a memo Senator McCarthy had received the previous year from an Army intelligence officer relating to the breakdown of security at Ft. Monmouth. It was a condensation of an earlier fifteen-page letter sent to Army intelligence by the FBI relating to problems with Aaron Coleman and others. (See Part. 5 or better yet Evans' Blacklisted by History.)

Instead of focusing on the security — or lack thereof — on the part of the Army, Welch raised at the hearing the question of how McCarthy got his hands on the intelligence document (which — at the behest of Eisenhower's Justice Department and some committee members — was not made part of the record).

He badgered McCarthy until Senator Karl Mundt (R-S.D.) who was chairing the session, told Welch (in so many words) it was none of his business — that investigating senators get inside information from government whistle-blowers all the time.

Then Welch switched from implying he had to know the source of the document to deriding it as "a carbon copy of nothing," since it was a condensed version of the original. Then from being a "nothing," the memo was suddenly too hot to handle, and the Bostonian self-righteously proclaimed that he — the proper barrister (tagged by Evans in our interview as a "self-righteous hypocrite") — would not stoop so low as to lay eyes on it. With all that classified information there, he implied, even possessing the piece of paper was criminal.

To which McCarthy calmly replied that he himself had indeed read it — that all information on FBI sources and other "hot" data had been deleted. Thus, through Welch's oratorical gymnastics, the memo had gone from being "a perfect phony" to "a carbon copy of nothing" to something explosive that would violate security regulations.

The proper Bostonian berates his own "indecency" (when practiced by others)

The high, or low, mark of the hearing — the phony Welchean hat trick that, though it lacked substance, turned the tide against McCarthy — came when the Army's legal thespian badgered Roy Cohn, suggesting that if he had any information on Communists at Monmouth or anywhere else, he should have gone rushing to the Army secretary's office with such a list and said, "Sic'em, Stevens!"

Comment: "Sic'em, Stevens" is somewhat ironic given that Welch's client had tried to pressure the brass at Monmouth to cover up the scandal and turn a blind eye to the penetration there. Sic'em, Stevens indeed!

But as a result of this badgering tomfoolery, McCarthy broke in and raised the issue of a young lawyer in Welch's firm, Fred Fisher, who had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild — a "bulwark" of the Communist Party, so branded by a House committee — and "a legal mouthpiece" of the communist Party, so branded by Ike's own Attorney General, Herbert Brownell. (Sic'em, anyone?)

Welch took this as his cue to turn on the tears.

"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never fully grasped your cruelty or your recklessness." And he went on to charge McCarthy with ruining "this lad" and his future professional prospects.

Phony from the get-go

On page 568 of Blacklisted by History, M. Stanton Evans reprints a story in The New York Times of April 16, 1954, wherein Welch himself had already outed Fisher, telling the world through Times Square's own liberal headquarters that because Fred Fisher had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, he would not — as originally planned — be aiding Welch in his work at the Army-McCarthy hearings. Fisher's picture was included. So for all his tears — for which the theatre audience applauded his matinee performance — Welch himself had outed "this lad" on the front page of The New York Times. It was part of "all the news that's fit to print" (the Times motto) — but when McCarthy said it, it was heinous.

Ruined his life?

Columnist Ann Coulter did some digging to find out if "this lad" had met his predicted doom. In her 2003 book Treason, Coulter reported that on the occasion of Fisher's death in December 1987, his New York Times obituary carried the notation that he had become "a [full] partner at Boston's prestigious Hale and Dorr [Welch's firm] and president of the Massachusetts Bar Association." Not bad for a "lad" whose life was "ruined."

A performer checks for the reviews

After the lights were out in the theatre, the performer walked out into the corridor, around the corner — away from public view — and then turned dry-eyed to his assistant, James St. Clair, and asked, "How did I do?"

But perception is often reality

Sad to say, truth often takes a back seat to the most adept performer. That was especially the case in the spring of 1954, as the new medium of television held millions in its sway. And the Wisconsin farm boy with the five o'clock shadow was no match for the slick matinee idol from Boston. (To be continued)

© Wes Vernon

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

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