McCarthy’s Achilles Heel

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An oft-repeated phrase by liberal anticommunists about Joseph McCarthy, that he may as well have been a KGB agent for all the damage he did to the anticommunist cause, inspired Richard Condon to write his Cold War masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate, a tale of a Soviet sleeper agent directing her brainless headline-grabbing senator husband to destroy Cold War alliances and thus allow a communist takeover of the country.

But McCarthy, for all his inability to substantiate any of his charges–a factor that exasperated defenders like William F. Buckley and repelled conservative heavyweights like Whittaker Chambers from supporting him (Chambers would characterize the senator as “a raven of disaster”)–did not fit the role of Condon’s crocodile-like wife. That honor belongs to Roy Marcus Cohn, added to McCarthy’s staff sixty years ago. Ironically, McCarthy hired this son of a liberal Jewish judge to offset any charges of anti-Semitism, but it would be Cohn, not other staff member Bobby Kennedy, the son of the Hitler-appeasing Joe, who would make even more credible the characterization of the senator’s anticommunist crusade as fascist. Cohn’s rampage had a step-by-step quality that made his damage to Cold War America seem almost deliberate.

Insiders on McCarthy’s staff noted that the senator considered Cohn his most valuable staff member and allowed him free reign. Cohn’s first assault was on the Voice of America agency, which broadcast Americanism to Iron Curtain audiences. Cohn’s assertion that the agency was peddling communist propaganda went unsubstantiated and damaged morale at the agency, with one employee committing suicide. Ed Kretzman, a policy advisor for the service, would later comment that it was VOA’s “darkest hour when Senator McCarthy and his chief hatchet man, Roy Cohn, almost succeeded in muffling it”.

Cohn, hiring his friend (some would say lover) G. David Schine would also ensure McCarthy’s doom. No one on McCarthy’s staff, including Cohn, could ever enunciate what Schine’s value was to the Senator. He penned one anticommunist pamphlet to be put in his father’s chain of hotels beside the Gideon Bible, despite its numerous errors.

Nevertheless, when McCarthy charged United States Information Agency libraries with containing books by Communist authors, Cohn took Schine along on a tour of Europe that included staying at posh hotels at taxpayer expense and claiming that these overseas libraries contained such communist propaganda as The Maltese Falcon and the works of Mark Twain. European reporters had a field day portrayed the duo as the last word in musical comedy. But there were more serious consequences caused by this vaudeville team. An American delegate’s negotiations with the French to remove communist members from their government broke down because of the pair. Worse, from a propaganda standpoint, employees of the libraries, fearful of the two, began burning books. This image of book-burning, deemed Hitlerite by President Dwight Eisenhower (who ordered all of the books back on the shelves) dropped a propaganda gift into the Kremlin’s lap.

Stateside, Cohn and Schine making their headquarters in top-flight hotels in New York and Washington caused many to question their sincerity and instead view them as hoppers on the anticommunist gravy train.

But the worst was yet to come. When Cohn was drafted into the Army, Cohn behaved in such a frenzied way to get him privileges, including weekend passes, that he gave another propaganda gift, this time to the American opponents of the Senator. Long the subject of homosexual rumors, McCarthy was now accused of keeping homosexual lovers on his staff. Confronted with evidence of Cohn threatening the Army on a daily basis for preferential treatment for Schine, McCarthy was given an ultimatum: either get rid of Cohn, supported by many on his staff, or the charges against the Senator and Cohn by the Army would go public.

McCarthy’s loyalty to Cohn was such (but not according to insiders to Schine, who he considered worthless and only kept him on to please Cohn) that he was willing to take on the Army. During the hearings, Cohn would prove to be, in the words of the Senator, “the worst witness” he had ever seen, and was being checkmated so by Army attorney Joseph Welch, that the Senator would violate their agreement–that Welch would not mention Cohn’s dubious draft status in exchange for no mention of a lawyer on Welch’s staff that had once served in a Communist front organization–and mention the background of said lawyer. Welch’s retort, “have you no sense of decency,” completed Cohn’s work, publicly humiliating the senator. It would be Cohn’s behavior and not specifically McCarthy’s that would bring about the senator’s censure.

Ironically, McCarthy’s loyalty to Cohn might have cost him his one last chance to make his investigations credible. Bobby Kennedy’s investigation into accusations that the Eisenhower administration traded with Red China was so credible that liberals and even McCarthy’s bete noir, journalist Drew Pearson praised the Senator. But Kennedy also presented the Senator with the ultimatum of choosing between him and Cohn; Kennedy would leave after only six months when the Senator refused to heed his advice, and that of conservatives to get rid of Roy. This was tragic, for Kennedy fit the bill of what Whittaker Chambers said was needed to salvage the Senator, a staff member who could “make the case the Senator is unable to make for himself.”

By hook and by crook, Cohn unraveled the anticommunist crusade, weakening the morale of vital government agencies, compelling book burning, conveying the impression that the senator was employing money-grubbing prat fallers, and finally turning what may have been a fit of homosexual passion for a staff member into a major, televised investigation.

McCarthy would drink away his remaining three years. And Cohn’s post-McCarthy career continued to follow the script of destruction with him defending mobsters and prowling nightclubs for male lovers looking suspiciously like Schine.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

  • He was a progressive Republican coming from the incubator of progressive thought at the time Wisconsin and he did nothing different than what had been done before. How many people know that in 1940 James Cagnie had to answer because a check with his name on ended up in a communist office.