• U.S.

THE CONGRESS: The Censure of Joe McCarthy

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When the constitutional foundation of the U.S. Senate was built in 1787, the builders believed they were constructing a citadel of deliberation and dignity. Said James Madison: “The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom than the popular branch.” One hundred and sixty-seven years later, when the floodlights blazed on the Army-McCarthy hearings, wisdom, system and coolness seemed to have vanished in the glare. But this week, out of a tidy office on the fourth floor of the Senate Office Building, came a ringing reassertion of the U.S. Senate’s dignity.

A Select Committee of the Senate recommended the censure of Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and thereby erected a new landmark in U.S. government. The report was carefully constructed by six shirtsleeved men in the office of Utah’s Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins, a man little known in the past who should be long remembered in the future. Unanimously, firmly, unequivocally. Chairman Watkins and his five committeemen recommended that McCarthy be censured by the Senate on two counts: ¶ He had been contemptuous of, and had obstructed, the Senate Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections, which in 1951-52 had attempted to investigate him; he had denounced, “without reason or justification,” a member of that subcommittee, New Jersey’s Republican Senator Robert C. Hendrickson.

¶ He had acted in an “inexcusable” and “reprehensible” manner toward an honorable and honest soldier, Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, who was a witness before his investigating committee.

Documented & Direct. The committee’s recommendations were, perhaps, not as important as its manner. Its report, like its hearings, was a product worthy of an unusually able appellate court. It was direct, documented and unequivocal. Its impact was far broader than the two censure recommendations. In sum it was a scathing indictment of McCarthyism, condemning the Wisconsin Senator for disregarding the principles of democracy, good government, fair play and decency.

In eight weeks the committee had carefully weighed 46 specific complaints against McCarthy, itemized by Vermont’s Republican Senator Ralph Flanders and other members of the Senate. For its first grounds for censure, the committee reached back to an earlier Senate attempt to investigate McCarthy.

Carefully, thoroughly, the six men studied and reported on the record of that investigation. On Aug. 6, 1951 Connecticut’s then Senator William Benton, a Democrat, had introduced a resolution asking the Senate to consider whether Member McCarthy should be expelled. The question was referred to the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections, which set out to investigate a number of questions raised by Benton and others, including: 1) Were funds received by McCarthy to fight Communism diverted to his personal use? 2) Did McCarthy use his position as a member of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee to obtain a $10,000 fee from the Lustron Corp.? 3) Were close associates and relatives of McCarthy used, for ulterior motives, to secrete financial transactions?

Six times the subcommittee asked McCarthy to appear before it to testify. He consistently refused to appear, and roundly abused the subcommittee by letter and public statement. Time and again he called the subcommittee “completely dishonest”; time and again he charged that, by using public funds to investigate him, it was “guilty of stealing just as clearly as though the members engaged in picking the pockets of the taxpayers and turning the loot over to the Democrat National Committee.”

“Intemperate & Unworthy.” After it had inspected the record, questioned McCarthy and considered the case, the Watkins committee reached a firm conclusion: “The failure of the junior Senator from Wisconsin to accept repeated invitations . . . to appear was obstructive of the processes of the Senate . . . It is the opinion of the Select Committee that when the personal honor and official conduct of a Senator of the United States are in question before a duly constituted committee of the Senate, the Senator involved owes a duty to himself, his state, and to the Senate to appear promptly and cooperate fully.”

Having thus stated the basic principle, the committee turned to McCarthy’s specific acts: “The conduct of the junior Senator from Wisconsin toward the subcommittee was contemptuous . . . disregarding entirely his duty to cooperate . . . making it impossible for [the subcommittee] to proceed in orderly fashion or to complete [its] duties . . . Such language directed by a Senator toward a committee of the Senate pursuing its authorized functions is clearly intemperate, in bad taste, and unworthy of a member of this body . . . If Senator McCarthy had any justification for such denunciation of the subcommittee, he should have presented it at these hearings. His failure to do so leaves his denunciation of officers of the Senate without any foundation in this record.”

Here, the Watkins committee paused to take particular note of McCarthy’s denunciation of New Jersey’s Senator Hendrickson, a member of the Privileges and Elections Subcommittee. When he learned that Republican Hendrickson had joined Democrats Thomas Hennings of Missouri and Carl Hayden of Arizona in signing the report, McCarthy snarled that the New Jersey Senator was “a living miracle, in that he is without question the only man in the world who has lived so long with neither brains nor guts.”

To the Watkins committee this was the worst kind of abuse: “Any Senator has the right to question . . . or condemn an official action of the body of which he is a member, or of the constituent committees which are working arms of the Senate, in proper language. But he has no right to impugn the motives of individual Senators responsible for official action, nor to reflect upon their personal character for what official action they took. If the rules and procedures were otherwise, no Senator could have freedom of action to perform his assigned committee duties. If a Senator must first give consideration to whether an official action can be wantonly impugned by a colleague as having been motivated by a lack of the very qualities and capacities every Senator is presumed to have, the processes of the Senate will be destroyed.”

“Contumacious” Conduct. In addition to reaching down to an individual member, McCarthy’s misconduct toward the Hennings-Hayden-Hendrickson committee extended to the Senate as a whole, the Watkins committee found. Said the report: “The conduct of Senator McCarthy has been contumacious toward the Senate by failing to explain . . . questions raised in the subcommittee’s report . . . Senator McCarthy has given to the Senate, on the Senate floor, an explanation of the Lustron matter only.* It is our opinion that the failure of Senator McCarthy to explain to the Senate these matters . . . was conduct contumacious toward the Senate and injurious to its effectiveness, dignity, responsibilities, processes and prestige.”

With a sharp reminder of the Senate’s prerogatives, the Watkins committee disposed of McCarthy’s argument that it had no right to investigate the Hennings-Hayden-Hendrickson affair, because the people of Wisconsin had re-elected him in 1952 after it occurred. After pointing out that the Senate is a continuing body, the committee said: “The people of Wisconsin can only pass upon issues before them. They cannot forgive an attack by a Senator upon the integrity of the Senate’s processes and its committees. That is the business of the Senate.”

“Inexcusable” Conduct. While the committee’s first recommendation for censure concerned McCarthy as a minority member of the Senate, the second was a judgment of him as a committee chairman. The report’s comments on the Zwicker case were a resounding blast at Chairman McCarthy’s methods.

First, the committee carefully outlined the history of the Zwicker incident. In New York last February, McCarthy called General Zwicker to testify about the case of Major Irving Peress, the drafted dentist who was promoted and finally given an honorable discharge, although he had refused to sign loyalty forms. Zwicker, commander of the separation center where Peress was discharged, pointed out that a presidential directive prohibited him from revealing some details of such an Army loyalty case. At that, McCarthy became furious, roared that Zwicker should “be removed from any command,” was “not fit to wear that uniform,” and was “a Fifth Amendment general.”

Pointedly noting that men who conduct congressional investigations are expected to “maintain high standards of fair and respectful treatment,” the Watkins committee contrasted this principle with the McCarthy practice: “The conduct of Senator McCarthy toward General Zwicker was not proper. We do not think that this conduct would have been proper in the case of any witness, whether a general or a private citizen, testifying in a similar situation. Senator McCarthy knew . . . that General Zwicker had been directed by higher authority to issue an honorable discharge to Peress upon his application.

“Senator McCarthy knew that General Zwicker was a loyal and outstanding officer who had devoted his life to the service of his country . . . was strongly opposed to Communists and their activities . . . was cooperative and helpful to the staff of the subcommittee in giving information with reference to Major Peress . . . opposed the Peress promotion and . . . honorable discharge, and that he was testifying under the restrictions of lawful executive orders. Under these circumstances the conduct of Senator McCarthy . . . was inexcusable.”

“Grave Errors.” When it discussed the charges on which it did not recommend censure of McCarthy, the Watkins committee often employed a sharply thorned charity. This was its attitude toward the charge that McCarthy had misused confidential security documents. There was no doubt, the committee found, that the 2¼-page summary of an FBI document that McCarthy attempted to inject into the Army-McCarthy hearings contained classified information affecting the security of the U.S. His offer to make the document public “was an assumption of authority which itself is disruptive of orderly governmental processes . . . and incompatible with the basic tenets of effective democracy.” In this act McCarthy “committed a grave error” and “manifested a high degree of irresponsibility.”

But after voicing these sharp criticisms, the committee drew the kind of distinction that McCarthy cannot understand: “The committee recognizes, however, that at the time in question Senator McCarthy was under the stress and strain of being tried or investigated . . . He offered the document in this investigation which was then being contested at every step by both sides. The contents of the document were relevant to the subject matter under inquiry . . . These mitigating circumstances are such that we do not recommend censure . . .”

This same form of charity appeared in the committee’s decision on the charge that McCarthy had encouraged Government employees to steal classified documents and give them to him. McCarthy’s public statements on the subject, it found, were equivocal. They might be construed to mean that he merely wanted legitimate evidence of wrongdoing, or they might be interpreted as an invitation to purloin classified secrets. His statements open to the latter interpretation were “deemed improper.” But, giving McCarthy the benefit of. the doubt, the committee voted against censure on this charge.

Careful Reasoning. When it considered the charge that McCarthy had unfairly attacked Vermont’s Senator Flanders, the committee made another careful distinction. McCarthy’s comment on Flanders had been brutal; “I think they should get a man with a net and take him to a good, quiet place.” But this was an attack on an individual senator, because he had made “provocative speeches” about McCarthy on the Senate floor and had marched into a televised session of the Army-McCarthy hearings to serve notice that he was about to make another one. It was not an attack on a Senator for an official action he had taken as a member of a committee, as in the Hendrickson case. While McCarthy’s remarks were “highly improper,” the committee ruled that the circumstances did not justify a recommendation for censure.

Equally careful reasoning was used as the committee reported on why it eliminated many of the charges from its public hearings. Items: ¶The charge that Senator McCarthy made an unwarranted attack upon General George C. Marshall in a speech on the Senate floor was dropped because censuring a Senator for such an act “would tend to place unwarranted limitations on the freedom of speech in the Senate.”

¶ The charge that McCarthy permitted abuse of Senate privilege by Roy Cohn, former chief counsel of his subcommittee, was dropped because this was the responsibility of the whole committee, not just McCarthy.

¶The charge that McCarthy posed as the savior of his country from Communism while never turning over for prosecution any alleged Communist was dropped because it was not legal grounds for censure.

In dropping these charges, the committee carefully pointed out, it was not condoning the conduct on which the complaints were based.

The Powerful Antidote. The firmness with which the Watkins committee disposed of Joe McCarthy was a surprise to almost everyone on Capitol Hill—except Chairman Watkins and his committeemen. Four times before, McCarthy had been investigated by committees of the Senate, and never before was there a conclusive result. When the Senate established the Select Committee, there had been loud cries of stall and whitewash. Arkansas Senator Fulbright, who had been called “half bright” by McCarthy, moaned that “Joe can buffalo any committee on earth.” The Fair Dealing segment of the press was angry and dismayed, e.g., the New York Post referred to the prospective committee members as “six sickly spirits.” But when the nature of the report became evident, the New York Daily News’s McCarthy apologist, Columnist John O’Donnell, called the committee members “six sad sacks.”

Both of these angry judgments were ill-conceived and unwarranted. In their report the six Senators dramatically illustrated that they had found the antidote for McCarthyism: incisive law, logic and common sense, firmly applied. Hysterical anti-McCarthyites, who had cried so long and so ineffectively, had never found that remedy.

Among the six who found it there was not one man that Joe McCarthy could label an “extreme left-wing bleeding heart.” Utah’s Watkins, a lifelong Republican, comes from a family that switched to the G.O.P during the “Democratic depression” of 1893, and never switched back. During World War II the Senator’s father refused to change his watch to daylight-saving time because he considered it a Franklin Roosevelt trick. The Senator, who was a close disciple of Ohio’s late Robert A. Taft, has long been a clearheaded antiCommunist. His five committeemen all could be classed as conservatives. The five: ¶ Colorado Democrat Edwin Carl Johnson, 70, a Kansas-born, Nebraska-bred farmer, railroader and politician, a rough-hewn Western individualist who follows no party line.

¶Mississippi Democrat John C. Stennis, 53, a lawyer, former prosecuting attorney and judge, a reserved, quiet, tolerant Senator who is respected for his judicial approach to problems.

¶North Carolina Democrat Samuel J. Ervin Jr., 58, twice-wounded veteran of World War I, a lawyer and former associate justice of his state’s Supreme Court, who, in his 14 weeks as a Senator, has already reaped some criticism at home for voting too much like a Republican.

¶ Kansas Republican Frank Carlson, 61, a farmer-stockman who has a long record as a conservative state legislator, governor, U.S. Representative and Senator.

¶ South Dakota Republican Francis Case, 57, a World War I marine, country editor and rancher, who favored Douglas MacArthur for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952.

A Praying Man. Neither Arthur Watkins nor any of his colleagues wanted the task of investigating Joe McCarthy (“A very unpleasant task,” said Watkins). But when the job was finished, Watkins was satisfied that it had been done right. Every committee decision was unanimous; not once did politics enter into the deliberations. While Committee counsel E. Wallace Chadwick (a former Republican Congressmen from Chester, Pa.) helped, most of the report was written in sections by individual members of the committee.

A devout Mormon who often kneels to pray before a major decision, Chairman Watkins added prayer to the rest of the committee’s efforts. He prayed, frequently, that the committee would come to a just and unanimous decision. Said he: “I’m a praying man, and I believe my prayer has been answered.”

Precedents & “Pitchfork Ben.” In working toward its decision on the case of Joe McCarthy, the Watkins committee had little precedent to draw on. In its 165-year history the U.S. Senate has considered only two motions of censure. Both were adopted.

The first, in 1902, was a dual motion, aimed at the two Democratic Senators from South Carolina, Benjamin R. Tillman and John L. McLaurin. “Pitchfork Ben”* Tillman, an ill-mannered, unprincipled demagogue, a master of the unfounded accusation (in a sense, the McCarthy of his day), started a fist fight with McLaurin on the Senate floor. Fellow Senators pulled them apart, later voted to censure both. Tillman survived the dishonor, was later re-elected to the Senate twice, and died in office. McLaurin served out his term, but did not seek reelection. The bad blood between the two men was caused in part by McLaurin’s unfounded charge that Pitchfork Ben was an “intellectual.”

The other censure action was taken against Connecticut’s Republican Senator Hiram Bingham in 1929. Bingham brought into an executive session of the Senate Finance Committee, as his aide, the assistant to the president of the Connecticut Manufacturers Association. Since the committee was discussing a tariff bill of particular interest to manufacturers, the Senate found that Bingham’s action was “contrary to good morals and senatorial ethics . . . (tending) … to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.” Bingham served the rest of his term, unsuccessfully sought re-election in 1932, and retired from politics.†

In its third experience with a question of censure the U.S. Senate will have before it the exhaustive report of a Select Committee, clearly and firmly recommending censure. This will be documentation to support the resolution introduced by Vermont Republican Flanders: “Resolved, that the conduct of the Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy, is unbecoming a member of the U.S. Senate, is contrary to senatorial traditions and tends to bring the Senate into disrepute, and such conduct is hereby condemned.”

Last week, before the Watkins report was issued (but when he surely knew its tone), Majority Leader William Knowland announced that the Senate will not be called back to face the censure question until Nov. 8, six days after the elections. Postponing the call until then, said Knowland, will permit the Senate to act “in an atmosphere free from pre-election tensions.” Some Democrats immediately attacked this decision as a move to shield Republicans from the necessity of taking a stand on McCarthy until after the elections. But there is no doubt that the Senate will be able to exercise a calmer judgment after Nov. 2.

The Sick List. Until the Senate acts (and probably afterward), the Watkins report stands as the most crushing blow that has fallen upon Wisconsin’s Joe McCarthy since his spectacular political career began. Last week, when the committee was putting the final touches on its report, McCarthy canceled the only three speeches he had scheduled before the election. His aides said that he was troubled by a sinus condition, would have to enter a hospital.

Politically, Joe McCarthy this week was indeed on the sick list. One of the clearest indications came out of Los Angeles, where the American Federation of Labor was holding its annual convention. In contrast to other A.F.L. conventions since McCarthy became an “ism,” there was hardly any discussion of McCarthy or McCarthyism. Said a delegate from Chicago: “McCarthy is dead. Why should we bother kicking the corpse?”

* He said that Lustron paid him the $10,000 for a pamphlet on housing.

* So nicknamed because he constantly threatened to stick his adversaries with a pitchfork.

† In January 1951 Bingham returned to public life as chairman of the U.S. Government’s Loyalty Review Board, served until 1953, is now living in retirement in Washington.

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