Accuracy in Media

Like many other critics of Joe
McCarthy, Ronald Kessler would be more persuasive if he knew something of the

Kessler’s Wall Street Journal essay (“The Real Joe McCarthy,”
April 22), attacking the Wisconsin senator and taking a sidewise shot at my
recent book about him, is an odd amalgam of unverifiable hearsay and a handful
of items checkable from the record. It’s noteworthy that, on the checkable
matters, Kessler is repeatedly, and egregiously, in error.

For openers, there is the bizarre
assertion in Kessler’s lead that, 54 years ago this April, McCarthy
“started his televised hearings on alleged Soviet spies and Communists in
the Army.” The point is twice repeated in subsequent paragraphs referring
to these sessions as McCarthy hearings.

In fact, the hearings that began 54
years ago this April weren’t hearings conducted by McCarthy, but hearings in
which he was the main defendant, brought on by charges lodged against
him by the Army. Kessler has obviously confused these sessions with the Fort Monmouth
inquest of the previous year run by McCarthy. Anyone who doesn’t know the
difference between these two sets of hearings can’t be taken seriously as an
authority on such topics.

Scarcely better is Kessler’s
repetition, as supposed fact, of the discredited notion that McCarthy claimed a
list of “205 Communists” in the State Department, then crawfished and
changed the number to 57. (McCarthy’s version was that he never claimed 205,
but had said 57 all along.) I devote two chapters to this issue, showing (a)
that the alleged documentation of McCarthy’s supposed lying about the numbers
was a backstage concoction of the State Department, and (b) that the charge of
McCarthy’s having claimed 205 was debunked in 1951 by investigators for a
Democratically controlled committee of the Senate. (Curiously, after the
investigators turned in a 40-page report that in essence backed McCarthy, their
memo would abruptly vanish—to be recovered later.)

Likewise with the face-value quote
of Army Counsel Joseph Welch’s lachrymose denunciation of McCarthy for
allegedly having outed Welch assistant Frederick Fisher as a former member of
the National Lawyers Guild, an officially cited Communist front. Omitted from
this Welchian morality play—and apparently unknown to Kessler, since he says
nothing of it—is that Fisher had already been outed to the press and
public as a former member of the Guild—by none other than Joe Welch, six weeks
before this set-to with McCarthy.

As to Kessler’s hearsay accounts of
what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover supposedly said to William Sullivan or what
Robert Lamphere then said to Kessler, suffice it to note that these windy
generalizations about deceased third parties are uncheckable by their nature.
Somewhat more susceptible to proof are comments that McCarthy made false
accusations against a host of innocent people (specifics, please) and that the
FBI couldn’t find any Communists in the State Department to back his charges.

If that were true (which it isn’t),
then the Bureau was more incompetent than its worst enemies have imagined, as
there were indeed Communists in the State Department when McCarthy came along,
as shown by the official records. In my book I give a complete list of
McCarthy’s early suspects, plus now accessible data on many of these cases that
show Communist affiliation, hanging out with Moscow spies, identification as Soviet agents
in the Venona papers, and so on.

In one notable instance, it’s
possible to check out Kessler’s hearsay stories from the grave, as he quotes a
third-party account in which Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune allegedly said McCarthy picked up the
“205” number concerning Communists in the State Department from a
rumor relayed by Edwards. This, however, is also wrong, as shown by a
memorandum on the matter from Edwards himself (provided by his son, Lee). This
says McCarthy may have picked up the number 57 (not 205)
from an Edwards article listing this number of suspects in the Federal
government—a speculation that supports McCarthy’s version of the numbers and
contradicts the Kessler version.

A final instance to be noted is
Kessler’s reliance on Senate associate historian Donald Ritchie, who edited the
McCarthy executive hearings for publication. Though Kessler quotes Ritchie as
an impartial expert, the facts of the matter are quite different. In numerous
comments, Ritchie has routinely stacked the deck against McCarthy—most
conspicuously and most often in McCarthy’s most famous case, that of Annie Lee

Mrs. Moss, who appeared before
McCarthy in March of ’54, has been portrayed for 50 years as a
mistaken-identity victim because the committee supposedly collared the wrong
suspect. Ritchie’s treatment of the case, cited to secondary sources,
reinforces the standard image of Moss as victim and McCarthy as browbeating
tyrant. All of this, however, again is false, as shown by the extensive
archives of the FBI and other official records.

When I got Ritchie on the phone I
asked if he had by any chance checked out these official sources, rather than
simply citing other academics. When I offered to sum up the relevant data
proving McCarthy was right about the case, the historian grew irate, said
“I am growing very tired of this conversation” and quickly ended our discussion.
Such is the supposedly impartial authority quoted by Kessler—all too typical of
the recycled error that passes for historical knowledge of McCarthy. 

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.