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McCarthy Communist Investigation Transcripts Made Available to Public

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg


Aaron Copland, the composer, fiercely defended himself, declaring, “I have not been a Communist in the past and I am not now a Communist.” Langston Hughes, the poet, protested that he had not read much about Marxism “beyond the introduction of the Communist manifesto.” Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer, invoked the Fifth Amendment.

They and nearly 500 others were summoned to testify in secret before Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican whose dogged efforts to root out Communist sympathizers shocked and riveted the nation 50 years ago. On Monday, the transcripts of those closed-door sessions of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations were made public, shedding new light on a contentious chapter in American history.

All of the senators involved, and most of the witnesses -- a list that included mundane civil servants and Army engineers as well as prominent personalities like Copland and James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times -- are now dead. And historians who have reviewed the documents say they do not support McCarthy’s theories that, in the 1950s, Communist spies were operating at the highest levels of government.

Instead, the papers, which chronicle 161 private sessions during 1953 and 1954, when the infamous lawmaker was chairman of the subcommittee, reveal how he used secret proceedings to weed out witnesses who could adequately defend themselves against his browbeating. Only those who looked weak or confused, or who cast suspicion on themselves by asserting their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, were later called to testify in public.

“What these transcripts show, above all, is someone who is desperately trying to push a conspiracy theory, using all the badgering bullying tactics in private that he was known for in public,” said David Oshinksy, a McCarthy biographer and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin who has reviewed excerpts of the papers. “There is no smoking gun here, and there is really nothing that will do McCarthy or his advocates any good.”

Yet there are some nuggets of news. The papers reveal, for instance, that G. David Schine, the independently wealthy, unpaid consultant who worked for the committee because of his close relationship with its chief counsel, Roy Cohn, was involved in interrogating witnesses -- a fact that surprised several historians.

“Oh my,” said Thomas C. Reeves, another McCarthy biographer, upon learning of Schine’s role. “I never heard of that.”

The documents also provide an eerie foreshadowing of the moment that proved to be McCarthy's downfall.