McCarthy Hearing Testimony Unsealed

ByEd O'Keefe

May 5, 2003 -- For the first time in 50 years, nearly 9,000 pages of McCarthy-era secret session transcripts came to light today, released from the National Archives.

The wide-ranging transcripts, published by the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, nearly triple the amount of on-the-record McCarthy hearing testimony, covering 395 witnesses from 161 hearings conducted in private prior to the committee's more infamous public sessions.

In an interview with ABCNEWS, Donald Ritchie, the associate historian of the Senate who spent two years preparing five volumes for release, said, "This is what historians and political scientists have been waiting for."

Ritchie added, "All we knew about what happened until was what Sen. McCarthy told reporters … now we can see what was actually going on."

See the volumes at the Web site for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

An Aggressive Pursuit

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican first elected in 1946, took the reins of the Senate Government Operations Committee in January 1953 and exercised prerogative to take the chair of the committee's investigations subcommittee as well.

Once in control of the powerful subcommittee, McCarthy ferociously inquired into what he saw as a vast Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the U.S. government. Transcripts released today dramatically show the senator's aggressive pursuit of evidence to support his theories, few of which bore fruit.

The released documents record testimony from poet Langston Hughes, composer Aaron Copland, and Dashiell Hammett, author of the Maltese Falcon. And for the first time, references to Albert Einstein, who advised a witness to invoke the Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, and McCarthy's suspicion of a White House luncheon hosted by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, are in the public domain.

Among several famous names, however, are also those of average citizens: government workers, teachers, mid-level officials and union members called before the committee on the basis of uncorroborated information or, quite often, the mere suspicion of Communist sympathies.

No Interest in Context

Vladimir Toumanoff, an employee at the State Department, was called before an executive session of McCarthy's committee on Jan. 28, 1953, and was subsequently called before a public session on Feb. 6, 1953.

Toumanoff's father was an officer in Czar Nicholas II's personal Imperial Guard and fought in the White Russian Army against the Communists; he was captured, sentenced to death, and escaped, while his mother fled to Turkey.

In public session, McCarthy quizzed him: "When you appeared before us in executive session it was pointed out to you that you were born in the Russian Embassy after the Russian Revolution … it was pointed out to you then that this would indicate that your parents must have been in sympathy with the Communist regime … is that correct?"

Toumanoff disagreed: "I don't recall in executive session your having asked me my opinion or having made any statement concerning the acceptability of my family to the Soviets, because if you had, I am sure I would have explained [our] background to you."

Indeed, Toumanoff's executive session testimony shows neither McCarthy nor his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, showed any interest in the context of Toumanoff's Russian background.

In Toumanoff's executive session testimony, Cohn asked, "You were born on [Russian] embassy grounds?"

Toumanoff replied: "Yes. Now, whether that was because [my parents] knew somebody in the embassy, and the embassy had some medical services, or not, I don't know. But they weren't sent over officially, in any capacity. They were actually escaping Soviet Russia."

After learning of the transcripts' release, Toumanoff sat down with ABCNEWS' Jim Wooten. "It was terrifying in the first place because I'd never been interrogated the way those people interrogated," he said. "They became more and more hostile, more and more sarcastic, more and more demonstrating by their refusal to accept answers that I had given them."

A Hostile Air

As the 1953 private and public hearings continued, McCarthy's style became more abusive and increasingly hostile with witnesses, especially those who asserted their Fifth Amendment rights, experts agree.

"McCarthy would say, 'If you use [the Fifth Amendment], it proves you're guilty,' " said Richard Fried, author of Men Against McCarthy.

In one section of the just-released testimony, McCarthy admonishes a witness, incorrectly describing to him the wording of the Fifth Amendment:

McCarthy: "If you think [your statement] would tend to incriminate you —"

Witness: "It may tend to incriminate me."

McCarthy: "Not 'may.' The Constitution says 'might.' Do you feel it might?"

Witness: "Yes, sir."

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution specifies no such qualifications; it does not read "might" or "may."

In another instance revealed today, McCarthy roared against a witness who had just taken the Fifth: "We call you into a secret session so you can [testify], and the public isn't present so they will not know what questions you will be asked … you come in here and take the Fifth Amendment, and you take advantage of the American Constitution to protect a Communist conspiracy …."

A Simpler Picture

Historians, however, might argue with McCarthy's point regarding the privacy of a "secret session."

"Occasionally, McCarthy was good at manipulating secret testimony. Since it was secret, obviously he could spin it. And so the headlines would reflect McCarthy's twist on events," said David Fried.

Take, for instance, the testimony of Carl Greenblum. Greenblum was an electronics engineer for the Army at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Recalled to testify in executive session two days after his mother's death, Greenblum broke down during his testimony and McCarthy granted him a recess to compose himself.

A distraught Greenblum was led out of the hearing room and past gathered reporters. During the recess, McCarthy told reporters Greenblum had cracked "after some rather vigorous cross-examination by Roy Cohn." He continued, "I have just received word that the witness admits that he was lying the first time around and now wants to tell the truth."

But the executive session testimony reveals a far simpler picture. Greenblum, having broken done due to the stress of testifying and his mother's recent death, asks, "Can't we continue here? I would just like to get this whole thing over."

McCarthy responds, "Just a minute. I think it would be better if you went home for a couple of days and came in again."

Moments later, McCarthy gives Greenblum the choice of coming back that afternoon or the following week; Greenblum chooses to resume his testimony that afternoon.

As a result of his testimony, Greenblum was fired from his job at Fort Monmouth. Never charged with any crime, he was reinstated by a federal court order in 1958.

Keen Awareness

The executive session testimony also clearly shows McCarthy's keen awareness of a press presence outside the supposedly secret hearings.

McCarthy assures one witness, "In accordance with our regular custom, your name will not be given to the press … unless you tell the press, they will not know you are here."

But before another witness, he admits, "The press always sees whoever comes in and out of here, and I always give the press a resume of what has occurred in executive session."

The McCarthy-led committee also briefly investigated whether or not homosexuals were more susceptible to blackmail or being recruited as Communist spies. In a section entitled "Perversion in Government," McCarthy explained to one witness, "While I understand the staff has material reflecting on your morals, I am not interested in your morals at all, except in so far as it might result in a security risk."

Several executive session witnesses also complain about the way in which they were served with subpoenas to appear before the committee. Howard Fast, author of Citizen Tom Paine, accused of being a Communist sympathizer, told the committee, "At about 1:30 a.m. there was a pounding on the door and a ranging [sic] of the bell, which woke my children and terrified them in the time-honored Gestapo methods, and I came down there, and here was this offensive character again, and this time, for the first time, he stated he had a subpoena with him."

The Army-McCarthy Hearings

Historians will likely treat these transcripts as a historical gold mine. In their introduction to the testimonies, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Carl Levin, D-Mich., the current chair and ranking member of the Senate's Governmental Oversight Committee, describe the pages as a "sobering read."

In late 1953 and into January 1954, criticism of the McCarthy-led subcommittee investigation grew. McCarthy's increasingly sharp comments toward and regarding the Army prompted concern from both Republicans and Democrats.

On March 16, 1954, at the request of Sen. Charles E. Potter, an executive session commenced to examine the charges and countercharges between the subcommittee chief counsel, Roy Cohn. The matter would become known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The Army-McCarthy hearings officially commenced in public session on April 22, 1954, and averaged a television audience of 20 million Americans. For 36 days, encompassing 187 hours of hearings, the nation was riveted at the sight of the once-powerful senator's self-destruction.

The culminating moment came on June 9, 1954, when McCarthy rose to his feet during the testimony of Cohn. McCarthy charged that a lawyer on the staff of Joseph N. Welch, an attorney for the Army, was a Communist. After some debate, an exasperated Welch uttered now-famous words, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

‘This Evil Was Ended’

As to the end of McCarthy's hearings, Vladimir Toumanoff, now 80, told ABCNEWS: "I was very satisfied. This evil was ended. And it ended in disrepute."

On Dec. 2, 1954, the Senate voted 67-22 in favor of censuring Sen. Joseph McCarthy for conduct having been "contrary to senatorial tradition." McCarthy died in 1957 at the age of 48.

Roy Cohn resigned as chief counsel in August 1954 and never again held a government post.

None of the witnesses who appeared before McCarthy's committee was ever convicted of any crime. All who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify had their convictions overturned.

ABCNEWS' Larry Shaw, Tom Shine, and Jim Wooten contributed to this report.