WHILE LYNDON JOHNSON’S STRATEGY on foreign policy dovetailed with his country’s interests from his first days as Democratic Leader, on domestic issues, and in particular on the dominant domestic issue, his arrival on the side of the angels was delayed, and came only after there was little risk involved.
It had been in February, 1950, that Wisconsin’s junior senator told a women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia, “I have here in my hand a list of 205” State Department employees “who have been named as members of the Communist Party … and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department,” words that touched off the decade’s Red Scare.
The national bonfire thus ignited by Republican Joseph R. McCarthy—a bonfire that was to consume or sear, leaving scars that sometimes never healed, the reputations of thousands of innocent Americans—was to blaze for four years and ten months, and during virtually all that time, a period longer than America’s participation in the Second World War, not only liberals and concerned journalists but more than a few Democratic senators argued that the Senate should take a stand against him. It was in the Senate that a stand should be taken, they said, for McCarthy was using the Senate floor as his platform (it was the fact that many of his charges were made in the Senate that gave them a veneer of respectability), and his Senate chairmanships—of the Government Operations Committee and its Permanent Investigations Subcommittee (Roy Cohn, chief counsel)—as his base of operations. And in his abusive language about targets and colleagues on the Senate floor, and his misuse of senatorial powers of investigation and privilege, it was not merely basic human tenets of fairness and justice that were being violated, again and again, by the man who was, in Robert Sherrill’s words, “the most influential demagogue the United States has ever produced,” but specific Senate rules of decorum and civility. It was therefore under Senate rules that he could most fittingly be brought to book, and the tarring, month by month, of innocent Americans halted. From the time of that first speech in February, 1950, there were attempts to move in the Senate against this consummate liar (among his inventions was a war record for himself: he claimed to have been known in the Pacific as “Tail-Gunner Joe,” and in 1951 asked for, and received, a Distinguished Flying Cross for flying twenty-five combat missions, although he had never been a tail-gunner but rather an intelligence officer whose primary duty was to sit at a desk and debrief pilots upon their returns from missions). When, several weeks after his Wheeling speech, he repeated on the Senate floor his charge that “there are presently in the State Department a very sizable group of active Communists” (although not, apparently, as sizable as had been the case before: the number was reduced from 205 to 57; it would thereafter fluctuate from speech to speech), the Senate established a special subcommittee, headed by Millard Tydings, to investigate his allegations, and after extensive hearings concluded that they were “a fraud and a hoax” not only on the American people but on the Senate itself. And, as Robert Byrd has written in his history of the Senate, “from the day he gave his address in 1950 … McCarthy was constantly under fire” from liberal senators—from liberals on both sides of the aisle. When, on June 1, 1950, Margaret Chase Smith delivered on the Senate floor her “Declaration of Conscience” (“Recently [the Senate’s] deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination, sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity”), six fellow Republicans supported her. And repeatedly Johnson, as whip first and then as leader of the party opposed to McCarthy’s, was asked by liberals both in and out of the Senate to take steps to at least put the party on record against not only McCarthy but McCarthyism, the technique of guilt by association and innuendo that was poisoning the nation’s political dialogue. “Something, somebody, has got to stop this man McCarthy,” Bill White said to him in 1951. “You simply must put the Democratic party on the attack against him.” But no help from Lyndon Johnson was forthcoming.
Considerations against going on the attack were understandable. Not a few senators agreed with McCarthy. His fears of Communist infiltration of the government were no more paranoid than those of Republican reactionaries like William Jenner or Homer Capehart, or of Molly Malone, who walked into a Washington cocktail party one evening, and loudly announced: “I’m for the son of a bitch and I’m for his methods. And I don’t want to talk about him any more tonight.” In addition, as long as the Wisconsin demagogue confined his attacks to Democratic targets, his party regarded him as a considerable asset in congressional elections in the Midwest. It was for a combination of these reasons that in 1950 Robert Taft told reporters that McCarthy should “keep talking and if one case doesn’t work out, he should proceed with another one.” And among the senators who agreed were more than a few of the conservative, ardently anti-Communist southerners who were the base of Johnson’s support.
Many senators feared McCarthy—with reason. Instead of retreating in the face of the Tydings’ subcommittee report, he attacked, going into Maryland to campaign against the patrician Senator, using a fake photograph that “showed” Tydings listening intently to Communist Party leader Earl Browder. In 1938, Tydings had turned back Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to purge him; he couldn’t turn back McCarthy’s. In November, 1950, he lost to the obscure John Marshall Butler by a startling forty thousand votes. The lesson, underlined by the unexpected victories that November of two Republican candidates for whom McCarthy had campaigned, Herman Welker of Idaho and Wallace F. Bennett of Utah, was not lost on the Senate. After observing the early days of its 1951 session, William White wrote: “There was a time, only a few months ago,” when many Republican senators “snubbed” McCarthy—when they “quietly arranged matters in their daily routine so as never to pass close to the desk of their colleague, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. With a seeming casualness they avoided any public friendliness…. The desk of Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin is not, these days, avoided very often by his Republican associates. Senator McCarthy is, by any standards, the most politically powerful first-term senator in this Congress.” Nor, White reported, was the fear confined to the Republican side of the aisle. At the first Democratic conference that January, 1951, “there ran through the caucus” a “general expression of fear that what had happened to Mr. Tydings could happen to any other man in the Senate. ‘For whom does the bell toll?’ one Democrat asked. ‘It tolls for thee.’” The extent to which McCarthy had intimidated the Senate was definitively demonstrated during a speech in which he was presenting his “evidence” of Communist infiltration of the State Department, standing behind a lectern piled high with documents on the various “cases” that proved his point, and saying that any senator who wanted to examine the evidence was free to do so. One senator tried to take him up on the offer. With his funny waddling walk and his heart full of courage, Herbert Lehman came over to McCarthy’s desk and stood in front of it, his hand held out for the documents. Then, as Stewart Alsop wrote,
the two men stared at each other, and McCarthy giggled his strange, rather terrifying little giggle. Lehman looked around the crowded Senate, obviously appealing for support. Not a man rose. “Go back to your seat, old man,” McCarthy growled at Lehman. The words do not appear in the Congressional Record, but they were clearly audible in the press gallery. Once more, Lehman looked all around the chamber, appealing for support. He was met with silence and lowered eyes. Slowly, he turned and walked [back to his seat]. The silence of the Senate that evening was a measure of the fear which McCarthy inspired in almost all politicians…. Old Senator Lehman’s back, waddling off in retreat, seemed to symbolize the final defeat of decency….
To traditionalist senators of both parties, moreover, the idea of taking action against a colleague because of his political views was anathema. “At that time, there was a feeling that if the people of a state wanted to send an SOB to the Senate, that was their business,” George Reedy was to write. “It is difficult, in this place so devoted to debate, for the Senate to think of disciplining a member for what he says.” William White said.
Other considerations may also have been holding Johnson back, some of them strategic. If the issue became a partisan one—if the attack on McCarthy was almost entirely a Democratic attack—Republicans, as Evans and Novak were to write, “would be forced as an instinctive partisan reaction to come to McCarthy’s defense. Beyond that, Johnson had a deeper fear that if the entire Democratic establishment in Congress, led by himself, turned against McCarthy now when he still had a dangerous and powerful hold on millions of Americans, it might appear that the Democrats were moved by self-interest in trying to cover up some unspeakable wickedness in the Truman Administration.”
There may have been personal considerations as well. Lyndon Johnson was, after all, unusually well qualified to appreciate the strength not only of the issue McCarthy was using but of some of the specific tactics McCarthy employed; who knew better than Lyndon Johnson the efficacy of linking an opponent to Earl Browder—even if he himself had used not a photograph but photostats of an old newspaper article? It had been a bare six months before the Wheeling speech that Johnson himself had employed the issue, and the link, himself—had employed them so effectively that in August, 1949, the Senate, at his instance, had refused to consent to the reappointment of Leland Olds; if McCarthy had not hit on a single epithet as damaging as “Commissar”—well, McCarthy was not as gifted a phrasemaker as Lyndon Johnson. The issue was not one on which it was wise to be on the wrong side. If Johnson tried to fight McCarthy in the Senate, it was a fight he well might not win.
The fight was also one for which he had little stomach—for Lyndon Johnson had read not only the polls but the man, and he was very, very wary of the man. “Joe will go that extra mile to destroy you,” he said privately. And he may have been worried that if McCarthy decided to go that mile against him, the Wisconsinite already knew which route to take. On one of Arthur Stehling’s trips to Washington, a lobbyist had taken Johnson’s Fredericksburg attorney and McCarthy to dinner, and at the dinner McCarthy had asked Stehling, as Stehling was to relate, “about how Johnson made his money, how he treated his office help, and whether he trifled on Mrs. Johnson.” And, Stehling was to relate, “he [McCarthy] said enough to make me suspect that he knew at least a little about the money part.” The Senator from Wisconsin seemed particularly conversant with a factor in Johnson’s rise of which Johnson was not anxious that Washington be reminded. After being introduced to Herman Brown at a cocktail party, McCarthy told Johnson the next day: “Well, I met your sugar daddy.” As Evans and Novak were to say: “Johnson, it seems clear enough, wanted to strike at McCarthy—but not until McCarthy could be brought down. He knew how dangerous McCarthy was.” Bobby Baker heard Johnson telling men he could trust, “Joe McCarthy’s just a loudmouthed drunk. Hell, he’s the sorriest senator up here. Can’t tie his goddamn shoes. But he’s riding high now, he’s got people scared to death some Communist will strangle ’em in their sleep, and anybody who takes him on before the fevers cool—well, you don’t get in a pissin’ contest with a polecat.”
These considerations were especially strong in Texas, where McCarthy’s popularity was high in 1951 and 1952, not only with the public but with some of the most reactionary—and richest—of the state’s oil barons, who felt that their country and their fortunes were threatened by Communism. The largest single contributor to McCarthy’s enterprises was Hugh Roy Cullen, and among his other major supporters were H. L. Hunt and Clint Murchison.
Johnson had to run for re-election to the Senate in 1954. By 1953, his courting of the Texas establishment, all-powerful in the state’s Democratic politics, had been cemented by the federal contracts he obtained for their companies, and by his defense of the depletion allowance and other tax breaks for the oilmen, and of course by his destruction of Leland Olds and his support of legislation that would free their natural gas enterprises from government regulation. Johnson’s presence in the Senate meant millions of dollars in their pockets, and they knew it, and any possibility of a challenge to him in the Democratic primary was discouraged; the only candidate to enter the field against him would be the extremely wealthy—and extremely eccentric—thirty-year-old Dudley Dougherty, who was regarded, as Ed Clark was to put it, as “a little bit of a nut”; Reedy said that “Dougherty is just a screwball” who “could be equated with no opposition at all”; he would campaign against Johnson from the back of a red fire truck in which he toured the state, would describe Eleanor Roosevelt as “an old witch” and Roosevelt and Truman as mental incompetents, and would tell voters that with the single exception of himself, all Texas politicians were “afraid of sinister, hidden powers.” Dougherty’s candidacy, George Reedy was to say, “is the sort of thing you dream and pray will happen” if you are the incumbent. “Johnson made only a single speech in Texas during that whole campaign,” Reedy would recall. “He never mentioned Dudley Dougherty’s name, did not put out any campaign literature, and he took out only one ad”—and he defeated Dougherty by more than half a million votes—883,000 to 354,000. While Johnson did not have to worry about re-election, however, he had to worry about losing the future support of the oil barons, many of whom were his financial supporters as well as McCarthy’s—and whose financial support he would need for a presidential bid; in moving against McCarthy, he had to walk a very thin line so as not to alienate them.
When liberals—liberal senators, liberal journalists, liberal Washingtonian insiders like Abe Fortas and Ben Cohen and Tommy Corcoran—asked him to put the Democratic senators “on the attack” against McCarthy, he told them that the time wasn’t right, that McCarthy was still too popular, the issue too potent. When Bill White said that McCarthy was “destroying civil liberties in this country,” Johnson replied: “Bill, that’s a good point, but let me explain something to you. If I commit the Democratic Party to the destruction of McCarthy—‘what he meant was an attempt at something like censure’—first of all, in the present atmosphere of the Senate, we will all lose and he will win. Then he’ll be more powerful than ever. At this juncture I’m not about to commit the Democratic Party to a high school debate on the subject, ‘Resolved, that Communism is good for the United States,’ with my party taking the affirmative.” It was while explaining to Hubert Humphrey that it was necessary to wait until victory was certain, for they might get only one chance at McCarthy, that he warned “that to kill a snake … have to get it with one blow.” Recalls Gerald Siegel: “He kept saying to those people who were impatient, ’Now just wait a minute. The time will come, and when we’ve got enough votes to be sure we’ll win, we’ll move.”
HE DIDN’T “MOVE,” HOWEVER—didn’t commit the Democratic Party in the Senate—even when, in the opinion of many liberals, he had enough votes, even when, in their opinion, the time was right at last. He had told Humphrey, back in the early days of the Red Scare, what he was waiting for. Attacks on McCarthy by liberals were useless, Johnson said, both because it was easy for McCarthy to destroy them by calling them “soft” on Communism (“He just eats fellows like you. You’re nourishment to him”), and because they didn’t have enough power in the Senate. Only when the Senate Bulls took the field against him could he be stopped, he said. “The only way we’ll ever get Joe McCarthy is when he starts attacking some conservatives around here, and then we’ll put an end to it.”
What Johnson said he was waiting for began to occur in April, 1952, in George Reedy’s opinion because McCarthy failed “to realize the fundamental toughness of the senior members of the establishment. It had never occurred to him that politicians who had survived two or more Senate contests must know something about political warfare. They had said nothing about him and he thought they were keeping silent out of fear. That was a serious misunderstanding.” That April, McCarthy, speaking on the floor of the Senate, attacked one of Carl Hayden’s faithful retainers, Darrell St. Claire, chief clerk of Hayden’s Rules Committee, charging that in a former job—as a member of the State Department’s Loyalty Board—St. Claire had voted to give security clearance to an economist who was the subject of “twelve separate FBI reports.” Hayden, in his usual quiet voice, defended his aide, saying that St. Claire’s name “has been dragged into this dispute without any basis of fact at all.” McCarthy, who, George Reedy says, regarded Hayden “as an old, blind, fuddy-duddy,” then almost casually took a swipe at the Senator himself. “God,” Reedy was to say, “that was a stupid thing for him to do…. Carl Hayden was one of the toughest creatures that ever walked the face of the earth.” Speaking to some reporters that night, Johnson said, “Joe has made a lifelong and powerful enemy in Carl Hayden, and Carl is not a man who forgets easily.”
Looking back on the McCarthy affair years later, George Reedy, praising Johnson for his “superbly developed sense of timing,” would say that “the Hayden episode really sealed Joe McCarthy’s doom although it did not come until many many months later.” But superb though Johnson’s timing may have been, it was also slow. Although he became Democratic Leader in January, 1953, he neither spoke against McCarthy nor raised the matter in the Policy Committee until July, 1954. The number of months that would elapse between the Hayden episode and the Senate’s censure resolution on McCarthy was, in fact, thirty-two months—more than two and a half years, years during which scores of men and women were destroyed by the Wisconsin demagogue’s charges, and hundreds, possibly thousands, more were destroyed by charges brought by local vigilantes emboldened by the national atmosphere of fear and distrust that McCarthy went on creating. During these years, thousands of government workers would be fired under federal loyalty decrees and hundreds of others lost their jobs—in Hollywood, in schools, in colleges, in unions—and were prevented by blacklists from finding others.
During this period—beginning, in fact, just a few days after the Hayden episode—more cracks in McCarthy’s aura of invincibility appeared in the very spots that Johnson had told Humphrey would be crucial. In April, 1952, Richard Russell, while reiterating his warnings about the threat of world Communism, also took an obvious slap at McCarthy, warning about “hucksters of hysteria” who, in criticizing those who disagreed with them, undermined “the American system of fair play.” He predicted that these “salesmen of infamy” would fall because of the common sense of the American people. To some liberals Russell’s remark was the signal they had been waiting for: that the conservative southern senators were no longer solidly behind McCarthy, and that Democrats could begin to move against him in the Senate. Then, in July, 1953, the chief investigator of McCarthy’s subcommittee, J. B. Matthews, in an article in the American Mercury entitled “Reds in the Churches,” assailed Protestant clergymen, including Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, Methodist bishop of the District of Columbia—and a friend of Harry Byrd’s. Minority Leader Johnson was reading wire service stories that had been clipped from the teletype machines in the Senate lobby when he came across the story on Matthews’ attack. “Come on over here,” he shouted to Hubert Humphrey, and, showing him the article, said, “This is the beginning of the end for Joe McCarthy. You can’t attack Harry Byrd’s friends in this Senate, not in this Senate.” McCarthy, he said, had made “a fatal mistake. Harry Byrd is going to take this personally. And that is going to be a fatal blow.”
A blow was, in fact, to be struck—but it wasn’t fatal, and it wasn’t struck by Lyndon Johnson. After a furious Byrd, his round cheeks flushed as bright a red as his apples, demanded on the Senate floor that Matthews “give names and facts to sustain his charges or stand convicted as a cheap demagogue, willing to blacken the character of his fellow Americans for his own notoriety and personal gain,” not only liberals but southerners Stennis and Maybank attacked McCarthy, and McCarthy’s own subcommittee voted 4 to 3, with Democrats McClellan, Symington, and Jackson joined by Republican Charles E. Potter of Michigan—to dismiss the subcommittee investigator. The Senate had taken its first significant step to rein in McCarthy, and the move, as McCarthy biographer David Oshinsky was to write, “tarnished the myth of inevitability so vital to his fortunes…. He seemed more vulnerable and less menacing than before.” And, perhaps most importantly, the Matthews affair had, as Oshinsky writes, “hurt [McCarthy] in the Senate”—the place where his fate would be decided.
The Senate move had been made, however, without the help of the Senate’s Minority Leader, and indeed the Minority Leader may have tried to head it off. It was during this period, Stuart Symington was to recount, that Johnson began trying to convince him that it was still too early to take on McCarthy. Symington disregarded the advice, and, he was to say, “the fact that I took on McCarthy, Johnson didn’t like at all; I’ve never quite known why. I think it’s probably because so many important, I guess it’s fair to say wealthy, people [in Texas] were backing McCarthy.” Also, midway through 1953, McCarthy abandoned his uneasy accommodation with President Eisenhower, and his salvos began falling on Republican as well as Democratic targets. Previously McCarthy had described the Roosevelt and Truman administrations as “twenty years of treason.” Now, a year into Eisenhower’s presidency, he began speaking of “twenty-one years.” And Tail-Gunner Joe said, “You wait. We’re going to get Dulles’s head.” Taft’s feelings began to change. While publicly continuing to support some of McCarthy’s attacks, “behind the scenes he gave his rambunctious colleague no encouragement,” Taft’s biographer says, and when McCarthy started moving against liberal professors in universities, the Republican Leader said, “I would not favor firing anyone for simply being a Communist.” But if Taft’s sense of responsibility was moderating his support for McCarthy, that was not the case with the Senate’s “Taft wing,” and after Taft’s death in 1953, his successor as GOP Leader was Knowland, a McCarthy supporter.
But the Taft wing amounted—by the most generous calculations—to no more than half the Republican senators. The November, 1952, elections had brought to the Republican side of the Senate not only Potter but Prescott Bush of Connecticut and Thomas Kuchel of California; there were additional Republican recruits now for the views that Margaret Chase Smith and six other Republicans had expressed three years before. Democratic liberals felt that bipartisan support for a move against McCarthy—the support that Lyndon Johnson had been saying he was waiting for—was surely present now. As for their own party, McClellan’s vote on the subcommittee, coming after the attacks on McCarthy by Russell, Hayden, Byrd, Maybank, and Stennis, was a signal that the Democrats’ southern conservatives had had enough of McCarthy and were prepared to take action against him. Confident that with the exception of Pat McCarran and perhaps one or two other Democratic conservatives—and perhaps two or three Democratic senators with large Catholic constituencies—the forty-seven Democrats would be lined up against McCarthy almost solidly, liberals pleaded with Johnson to bring the issue before the Democratic Policy Committee, so that the party could take a course of action, or at least go on record, against the demagogue. But if during this period he did so, the Policy Committee’s minutes do not reflect it. Herbert Lehman asked Johnson to support a resolution condemning McCarthy—Johnson, who had been assuring liberals that he would move when “we have enough votes.” They felt there were certainly enough votes to pass a resolution, but no support was forthcoming from Johnson, and the resolution never reached the floor. When Maury Maverick wrote him that “Everybody in the Government is scared to death … and as the leader of the Senate Democrats I hope you will do your part to stem the tide,” Johnson replied with words that in one form or another he had repeated so often that they had become a refrain, his mantra on McCarthyism. While he regretted the “hysteria around the country and in the government,” he said, “You have got to realize that atmosphere can be dispelled only by letting it run its course so that people can see for themselves what is really behind all the noise.”
Lyndon Johnson had determined on the course of action that should be taken. Sometime in 1953, he told a group of friendly reporters, in an off-the-record talk: “If I were the Majority Leader, I know what I’d do about McCarthy. I’d appoint a bipartisan select committee, and I’d put on our side the very best men we have, men who are above reproach, the wisest men in the Senate and the best judges, and I’d ask ’em to make a study of McCarthy and report to the Senate. With the men I’d pick, the Senate would accept their judgment and that would be the end of it.” But, Evans and Novak were to report, “he was not Majority Leader. And McCarthy was Bill Knowland’s problem, not his.” Knowland remained reluctant to move against McCarthy, but liberals were increasingly skeptical of Johnson’s reasoning. So substantial had anti-McCarthy sentiment become within the Senate, they felt, that there would be a majority for disciplining the Wisconsin senator if that sentiment were only mobilized behind some specific Senate action, and the mobilizing did not necessarily have to be done by the Majority Leader. There was among these liberals considerable feeling, in fact, that the more obvious senator to do the mobilizing was the leader of the party opposed to McCarthy’s party—the Minority Leader. But the Minority Leader continued to decline every opportunity to do so. Without such an action, senators remained too timid to act alone. In January, 1954, only one senator—William Fulbright—cast a vote for what would have been the rare move of denying funding for a subcommittee McCarthy chaired.
THEN, IN FEBRUARY, 1954, as the McCarthy era entered its fifth year, the Wisconsin senator picked a new target—the United States Army—and the climate began to change. Nineteen fifty-four would be the year of Irving Peress, an Army dentist who had received a promotion despite the fact that he had taken the Fifth Amendment when asked if he had ever been a Communist, a fact which, when McCarthy got hold of it, caused a furor so great that it produced a large New York Times headline: “who promoted dr. peress?” (NOone, as a matter of fact; the promotion had been automatic.) It was the year of General Ralph Zwicker, the officer who had had the bad luck to be Peress’ commanding officer at the time of the promotion, and who McCarthy said was therefore “not fit to wear the uniform”—although the uniform was covered with medals; Zwicker was a battlefield hero of World War II. It was the year of Roy Cohn, smirking and vulpine, and of Private G. David Schine, Cohn’s handsome friend, for whose training-camp comforts Cohn had exerted pressure on the Army. It was the year of the “chicken lunch” in Everett Dirksen’s Capitol hideaway, at which Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens was tricked into signing a “memorandum of understanding” that gave McCarthy so much of what he was asking for that the Times of London said: “Senator McCarthy this afternoon achieved what General Burgoyne and General Cornwallis never achieved—the surrender of the American army.” And it was the year of the March 9 See It Now documentary that was advertised in a small ad paid for by Edward R. Murrow and his co-producer Fred Friendly because CBS would not pay for an ad, and that was, in David Oshinsky’s phrase, “chillingly effective” because Murrow and Friendly let the film clips of McCarthy speak for themselves—and they did, showing McCarthy terrorizing a witness before his subcommittee, chuckling over his “Alger—I mean Adlai” remark, and belching and giggling his high-pitched, uncontrollable giggle. Murrow ended the program by saying, “This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent…. We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” and reaction poured in on the reluctant network. CBS had to hire dozens of operators to take an estimated fifteen thousand calls—which ran about ten to one for Murrow and against McCarthy. McCarthy’s popularity began to fall; in January, 50 percent of the public had a “favorable” opinion of him; only 29 percent were “unfavorable.” By March, the margin had been tightened to 46 percent to 36, and by April, the balance had tipped the other way, with 38 percent “favorable” and 46 percent “unfavorable.” And then, on April 22, 1954, before McCarthy’s own subcommittee—recusing himself, he appointed his closest friend in the Senate, Karl Mundt, as chairman—began the “Army-McCarthy Hearings.”
Understanding the lesson of See It Now (as another very savvy—if very different—politician also understood: “Ike wants hearings open and televised,” Jim Hagerty wrote in his diary), Lyndon Johnson had told John McClellan, the subcommittee’s senior Democrat, that no matter what concessions the Democrats made to the subcommittee’s Republicans, they must insist that the hearings be televised. “He knew that what McCarthy was doing was a very dangerous thing for the country,” Sam Houston Johnson was to say. “And he knew that the newspapers alone and two minutes a night on television during the Army hearings wasn’t enough. McCarthy had to be seen day after day during the entire hearings on the Army. He thought that would make people see what the bastard was up to.” And television did indeed let millions of Americans see for themselves another “doctored” photograph—this time, a figure had been cut out rather than added—and heard Roy Cohn maintain, even with the two pictures displayed in front of him, that the picture had not been “changed.” Television let millions of Americans see for themselves McCarthy’s black-jowled sneer as he whined, “Point of order, point of order, Mr. Chairman,” and witness the brutality with which he bullied witnesses—and it let America contrast him with the Army’s courtly, puckish counsel, Joseph Welch. It let America see McCarthy’s black-jowled smile as he brought into the hearing the name of a young attorney, Fred Fisher. A member of Welch’s Boston law firm, Fisher had originally been a member of the Army legal team, but when he told Welch that during the 1940s he had belonged for a time to the National Lawyers Guild (learning of its link to a local Communist organization, he resigned), Welch had said that Fisher had better not work on the Army case because if he did, “one of these days that will come out and go over national television and it will hurt like the dickens.” And now millions of Americans saw Welch’s distress as McCarthy said, “Mr. Chairman … I think we should tell him that he has in his law firm a young man named Fisher whom he recommended, incidentally, to do work on this committee, who has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh, years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party…. I am not asking you at this point to explain why you tried to foist him on this committee.” They saw Welch’s face contorted with dismay as he tried to stop McCarthy—“Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild….” They saw the despair on Welch’s face when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to stop him. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” When McCarthy kept talking about how Welch had tried to “foist” Fisher on the committee, millions saw how even Mundt felt impelled to try—to try repeatedly—to correct him: “The Chair would like to repeat that he does not believe Mr. Welch recommended Mr. Fisher as counsel for this committee.” And they saw how Welch finally had to say, “Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me, and could have asked about Fred Fisher. You have brought it out. If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good.” Leaving the hearing room, the Boston lawyer, weary, grim-faced, said, “I never saw such cruelty.” Millions of Americans had seen what Welch had seen; television had let them see it. By the time the Army-McCarthy hearings ended on June 17, McCarthy’s favorable rating had dropped to around 30 percent—where it was to remain for the rest of the year. McCarthy’s great weapon had been his mass support. “That weapon,” as Oshinsky writes, “was gone now, and gone for good.” And that fact was promptly underlined in terms that senators could grasp. In 1950 and ’52, McCarthy’s support in elections for the Senate had been a fearsome weapon. In 1954, he sponsored—and arranged for the financing of—a primary campaign against Margaret Chase Smith by a personable, dynamic young candidate whom he called “that Maine boy who is going places.” The Maine boy carried exactly two, small, precincts. The legend of McCarthy’s political invincibility had been destroyed.
Upon the conclusion of the Army-McCarthy hearings, Vermont’s Republican Senator Ralph Flanders introduced a resolution to censure McCarthy for conduct that violated Senate traditions and brought the body into disrepute, and liberal organizations, including the National Committee for an Effective Congress, urged Senate Democrats to support the resolution or in some other way to take a broader position to demonstrate that their party was opposed not only to McCarthy but to McCarthyism. Johnson refused to take any action at all, and indeed he did not take any action until after his primary victory over Dougherty on July 24—and until after his hand had been forced by Knowland’s announcement that he was about to bring the resolution before the Senate for a vote.
WHEN LYNDON JOHNSON FINALLY moved against Joe McCarthy, he did so with his customary effectiveness—both with strategy and with men. He didn’t want the Democrats to take a party position on McCarthy, and on the very day before the vote, he staved one off. On July 29, at his call, the Democratic Policy Committee finally met to discuss McCarthy, for almost four hours. Johnson had invited five liberals who were not members of the committee to present their views, and Lehman said that he had “never subscribed to the thesis that this [Senator McCarthy] is a Republican responsibility. Every man in the Senate has a responsibility…. I very much hope that the Policy Committee will decide that it is a matter of our concern. I very much hope that Senator Johnson will take the lead in censuring Senator McCarthy. I think the Democratic Party will suffer if it does not take a stand.” Symington said that “A vote against McCarthy is a vote against evil.” But Johnson, supported by Clements, Kerr, Murray, Ed Johnson (“This should not be a partisan issue and therefore I do not think the leadership should be asked to deliver votes”), and Russell (“The Policy Committee has got no right to commit Democratic members on issues of this kind”), persuaded the committee not to formulate a Democratic position. He had lined up support for the move he wanted, the appointment of a select committee—a bipartisan select committee—by consulting with such key Republicans as Earl Warren and General Jerry Persons, head of the White House congressional liaison team, and on August 2, the Senate voted, 75 to 12, to refer the Flanders resolution to a select committee of three members from each party, which was directed to report back to the Senate before it adjourned for the year.
Knowing that the committee had to be sufficiently respected so that its report would pass, Johnson had devoted a great deal of thought to selecting its members—and a great deal of craft to making Knowland think he had selected them. “Knowland theoretically appointed the Republican members, but Johnson appointed every one of them,” White was to recall. “I was present in his office one day when they had their final conference on this.” Johnson would suggest “some Republican he knew Knowland detested. He’d say, ‘Now, Bill, I’m sure you want so-and-so.’ Knowland would say, ‘Oh, no! Good God, no, I don’t want so-and-so!’ and he’d wind up naming the man Johnson wanted.” Johnson didn’t want liberals, who would be “just grist” for McCarthy’s mill, but conservatives, and conservatives tough enough to stand up to McCarthy, and he had read his men. On the Democratic side he wanted Stennis (“It had never occurred to me that anybody as gentle as John Stennis could actually get up in across-floor debate and not only hold his own but mop up the floor with an Irish brawler like Joe McCarthy, which Stennis did,” George Reedy was to say. “I think Joe McCarthy was cleaning blood off himself for two weeks after he made the mistake of trying to tangle with Stennis”); and Ed Johnson, who hated McCarthy because of an old personal feud; and Sam Ervin, because Ervin had been a state supreme court judge in North Carolina, and, as Evans and Novak say, “it was essential that the country accept the select committee as juridically qualified” to render a verdict on McCarthy. As Republicans he wanted the same kind of senators, and he got them—Frank Carlson of Kansas, Francis Case of South Dakota and, as chairman, Watkins of Utah, very quiet and very tough. All, except Case, belonged to the Senate’s “inner club,” and respected its rules and traditions, which McCarthy had so flagrantly broken. The Select Committee’s report, as Oshinsky would note, “left an awful lot unsaid.” It was a condemnation not of McCarthy’s long inquisition—“There was hardly a word about his anti-Communist crusade”—or of his use of classified information and “senatorial privilege” to destroy innocent people. It recommended his censure—or, to be precise, “condemnation”—only because of conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions” that “tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute” and to “impair its dignity.” But when the report was delivered to the Senate, Johnson lined up behind it forty-four of the forty-seven Democrats. Two were paired with Republican senators who were unavoidably absent. So only one Democratic senator—John Kennedy, who was hospitalized in Boston recovering from a serious back operation—was not announced for McCarthy’s condemnation. The GOP split down the middle, with twenty-two moderate and liberal Republicans voting in favor of condemnation and twenty-two old Taft partisans overwhelmingly opposed. Independent Morse voted yea, so McCarthy was censured, 67 to 22. (Republican Wiley was absent and unrecorded, and McCarthy himself voted “present.”) He was to spend his last three years in the Senate—before his death in 1957—increasingly in the throes of alcohol, wandering the halls, prone to tears, often unshaven, fawningly anxious for a kind word from his colleagues. Once Reedy was standing on a sidewalk in Washington when a mud-encrusted automobile pulled up, “and something black and round and squiggly forced its way out the front door and rolled up to me…. It took me about thirty seconds to realize that this was the remnant of Joe McCarthy—unshaven, needing a bath, bloated from too much booze, almost inarticulate.”
“The size of the majority,” as Oshinsky notes, “was impressive indeed.” Lyndon Johnson had lined the Democrats up in a solid front—from Lehman to Eastland. He had achieved Democratic unity on still another issue, and thereby helped end McCarthy’s reign of terror. “Whatever you say about his delaying and delaying, well past the point when it was necessary, and allowing this inquisition, with all its human suffering to go on,” nonetheless Johnson “in rounding up those votes” accomplished something “that was really difficult,” Paul Douglas’ administrative aide, Frank McCulloch, was to say. Douglas himself was to call Johnson “splendid on McCarthy.” Yet the censure, as Oshinsky notes, was voted “on rather narrow grounds.” “We have condemned the individual, but we have not yet repudiated the ‘ism,’” Herbert Lehman said.
Moreover, the condemnation vote was taken on December 2, 1954; the vote to bring McCarthy’s career to a conclusion was taken only after that conclusion was foregone. Oshinsky says that McCarthy “could have been stopped rather quickly”—and almost certainly he could have been stopped far more quickly than he was. By the time the censure vote was finally taken, McCarthy’s support from the American people was very low—and, except for the Taft wing, so was his support in the Senate.
His Senate support had, indeed, been low for some time. The attitude of the three Democratic subcommittee members at the Army-McCarthy hearings had demonstrated that in April. Scoop Jackson had confronted McCarthy’s staff on the doctored photograph, and Symington had confronted McCarthy himself on so many occasions, and so directly and uncompromisingly, that an enraged McCarthy had called him “Sanctimonious Stu” to his face. And if these two Democratic moderate liberals had clearly shown their hostility to McCarthy, so had the subcommittee’s Democratic conservative member, the ironbound McClellan, who more than once turned down the table and lectured McCarthy in terms quite harsh by Senate standards, going so far as to tell him bluntly, on one occasion when he had reversed the names of two witnesses, “Get your names straight,” and on other occasions telling him flatly that he was breaking the law in revealing classified information, and that he, McClellan, would not allow him to do so. Between Jackson, Symington, and McClellan, all segments of the Senate Democrats had been represented at those hearings except for the most “ardent” liberals—who were, of course, McCarthy’s bitter enemies. Had Lyndon Johnson not been so efficient and persuasive in lining the Democrats up behind a censure resolution, there might conceivably have been a few Democratic votes against the resolution, but only a very few: Democratic liberal and moderate support for curbing McCarthy had been evident well before April. Given Republican moderate support for curbing McCarthy—support also evident well before April, 1954—Senate opposition to a resolution was effectively limited to the GOP’s Taft wing. Despite the mounting toll of McCarthy victims month after month, Johnson had waited to move against him until it suited his purposes to do so. He had acted not as a mobilizer or enunciator of opinion against the unprincipled demagogue who was using the Senate as his platform, but only as a coordinator by which that opinion, already formed, could be expressed.
He had had his reasons. If he had moved against McCarthy too early, he might have lost—and increased McCarthy’s strength. If he had moved before a substantial number of Republicans had become disillusioned with the Wisconsin demagogue, the issue might have become a partisan one, with the Democrats on the less popular side of the issue. Feeling, moreover, that “Joe will go that extra mile to destroy you,” and that McCarthy might have been made aware, through the Texas oilmen who were his allies, of damaging information about his finances, he was very wary about taking him on until he had been sufficiently discredited that an attack from him would not cause as much damage as it had previously. If he had played too prominent a role in the opposition to McCarthy he might have alienated the oil barons who were McCarthy’s principal financial supporters, and thus jeopardized the future financial support he himself would need. For all these reasons, Lyndon Johnson didn’t move against Joe McCarthy until the time had come when moving wouldn’t hurt him, and when he did move, he stayed sufficiently behind the scenes so that his own alliance with the Texas reactionaries would not be weakened. Johnson biographer Robert Dallek acknowledges that “Johnson’s role in ending McCarthy’s influence should not be exaggerated.” In the McCarthy affair, Lyndon Johnson had demonstrated his legislative skill—and had demonstrated how this skill was subordinated to pragmatism.