Ronald Kessler: The Real Joe McCarthy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Kessler, a former Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reporter, is chief Washington correspondent of and the author of "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack" (Crown Forum, 2007).]

Fifty-four years ago today, Sen. Joseph McCarthy started his televised hearings on alleged Soviet spies and communists in the Army. The spectacle grabbed the country's attention for the next two months.

By the end of the McCarthy hearings, the senator's career was over; before an audience that often numbered 20 million Americans, he came across as bullying and unscrupulous. Yet today, more and more conservative writers are trying to vindicate the late senator. Authors M. Stanton Evans and Ann Coulter, for example, have claimed that McCarthy was more right than wrong because he, along with dozens of other anticommunists, was correct that the government was riddled with spies.

The FBI agents who actually chased Soviet spies have a very different perspective.

Robert J. Lamphere, who participated in all the FBI's major spy cases during the McCarthy period, was one. Lamphere also was the FBI liaison to the U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service's Venona program, which was intercepting secret Soviet communications. He used leads from the intercepts to work cases involving notorious espionage figures such as Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Kim Philby.

Lamphere (who died in 2002), told me in an interview that agents who worked counterintelligence were appalled that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initially supported McCarthy. True enough, the Venona intercepts revealed that hundreds more Soviet spies had operated in the government than was believed at the time.

"The problem was that McCarthy lied about his information and figures," Lamphere said. "He made charges against people that weren't true. McCarthyism harmed the counterintelligence effort against the Soviet threat because of the revulsion it caused."

McCarthy's crusade began on Feb. 9, 1950, when the Republican senator from Wisconsin gave a speech to the local Republican women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia. "While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were known to the secretary of State and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy of the State Department," he said.

However, the next day in Salt Lake City he told his audience that the number of communists was 57.

After the first speech, Willard Edwards, the author of articles in the Chicago Tribune on the communist threat, urgently asked Walter Trohan, the paper's Washington bureau chief, to come speak with him in Edwards's office.

Edwards, according to Trohan, confided that just before the Wheeling speech McCarthy had asked him about the number of communists in the State Department. Edwards gave McCarthy the figure of 205. Now he realized his mistake. "Edwards said it was more or less a rumor," Trohan told me. "It was just a piece of gossip." Bogus figures or not, McCarthy soon became a national figure....

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