The Real Joe McCarthy

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Fifty-four years ago Tuesday, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy started his televised hearings on alleged Soviet spies and communists in the U.S. 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 anti-communists, 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 participated in all the FBI's major spy cases during the McCarthy period. Lamphere was also the FBI liaison to the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service's Venona program, which intercepted secret Soviet communications. He used leads from the intercepts to work cases involving notorious espionage figures such as Klaus Fuchs and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

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 U.S. 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.

Back in Washington, McCarthy told FBI director Hoover that he had "made up the numbers as he talked." Hoover advised him not to give specific numbers in the future.

McCarthy asked if the FBI would give him information to back up his charges. "Review the files and get anything you can for him" was Hoover's order. The result? "We didn't have enough evidence to show there was a single Communist in the State Department," said William Sullivan, who became the number-three man in the bureau.

The Army-McCarthy hearings followed a pattern, noted Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate. Typically, McCarthy held hearings in executive session first, "like a dress rehearsal," said Ritchie, who studied the transcripts of the hearings. For the most part, McCarthy had no hard evidence against the people he was interrogating; he just hoped to get them to contradict themselves, take the Fifth Amendment or confess.

"He interviewed about 500 people in closed session," Ritchie told me. "He called about 300 people to public session."

As his arrogance grew, McCarthy began accusing President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being soft on communists. Hoover realized the dance was over; just before the Army-McCarthy hearings started, he ordered the bureau to cease helping the senator.

During the hearings, McCarthy failed to substantiate his claims that communists had penetrated the Army. He did, however, insinuate that Fred Fischer, a young lawyer at Hale and Dorr, the law firm representing the Army, was a communist sympathizer because he'd been a member of the National Lawyers Guild at Harvard Law School. Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg had also been a member of the group, an alleged communist front.

A Senate committee concluded that McCarthy's behavior as committee chairman was "vulgar and insulting" and "inexcusable." On Dec. 2, 1954, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure him. On May 2, 1957, McCarthy died at age 48 of acute hepatitis, widely believed to be a result of his alcoholism.

As a top Justice Department attorney, John L. Martin prosecuted scores of spies during his long career, and read many of the FBI's most secret raw files on historic espionage cases, including the files on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss. "While Venona later confirmed and expanded upon what the FBI knew about Soviet operations in the U.S.," Martin says, McCarthy used "the umbrella of national security to justify his outrageous practice of besmirching reputations of loyal Americans."

Efforts to vindicate McCarthy overlook the fact that he did not help the cause of dealing with the spy threat. Rather, he gave spy hunting a bad name. In sanctioning McCarthy's intimidating tactics and dishonest charges, revisionists dangerously invite history to be repeated.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com and the author of "The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack." This comment appeared in The Wall Street Journal.