Among the 400 witnesses covered in transcripts of closed door meetings, made public by the Senate yesterday, are composer Aaron Copland and Eslanda Goode Robeson, the wife of blacklisted singer-actor Paul Robeson.
Some 4,000 pages of newly released documents also show McCarthy was convinced that many writers, government officials and secretaries had access to classified information.
McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, chaired the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953 and 1954 at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His investigation into communists in the US government, denounced by critics as a witch hunt, spawned the term McCarthyism to describe smear attacks.
Senate associate historian Donald Ritchie, who assembled the volumes, said McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, used the closed-door sessions like grand jury proceedings. “Anybody who stood up to McCarthy in closed session, and did so articulately, tended not to get called up into the public session,” Ritchie said.
“McCarthy was only interested in the people he could browbeat publicly.”
Copland, brought before the subcommittee because he had been hired by the State Department to lecture overseas, was one of those never called back for a public session.
When McCarthy asked whether he had ever been a communist sympathiser, Copland replied: “I am not sure I would be able to say what you mean by the word ‘sympathiser’.”
“These executive sessions are really trolling sessions,” said history professor David Oshinsky, author of a McCarthy biography, A Conspiracy So Immense.
“McCarthy is looking for people who either have a spectacular story to tell, or people he thinks he can break in public, or people he was certain will take the Fifth Amendment” against self-incrimination,” Oshinsky said.
“McCarthy thrived on the Fifth Amendment,” Oshinsky said. “He liked nothing better than to ask people very pointed questions, and they would take the Fifth, so he could call them ‘Fifth Amendment communists’ and talk about a larger conspiracy.”
Oshinsky said communists had infiltrated the government during the 1930s and 1940s, but by the time McCarthy launched his investigation that had pretty much been stamped out.
Still, Republicans succeeded in portraying Democrats as soft on communism.
The Republicans won the White House and Congress, making McCarthy chairman of the investigations subcommittee. McCarthy continued hunting for communists. Republicans turned on him when he set his sights on the Eisenhower administration. The Senate censured McCarthy in December 1954, and he lost his chairmanship. Discredited, McCarthy died in 1957 aged 47.