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December 4, 2009

American Reign of Terror

Roy Meachum

The anniversary of an important event in my life was published in the History column of all three papers I read daily. It was 55 years this week that the U.S. Senate cast out Joseph R. McCarthy for “conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.” Less than two years later, in early May, I was the Washington reporter to cover the political eulogies his last day in town.


The rise and fall of a peculiarly American demagogue involved me from the start. I was living in Georgetown, attending the college, when he made his appearance before a Wheeling, West Virginia, Lincoln Day dinner. Senator McCarthy electrified the media by claiming to have a list of “known Communists” employed mainly by the State Department. He made no mention of homosexuals.


Very shortly after a veteran embassy code clerk, who lived in the apartment above, and the Army warrant office in the basement both lost their jobs; they were fired not because of treacherous behavior. They were “gay” – a word not used in that context at the time. The man above appeared at my door, holding his small dog, tears streaming down his face. The officer below departed the Pentagon and the house; I never saw him again. Neither was a spy for a foreign country.


By coincidence, there was a Georgetown resident facing exactly those charges. Alger Hiss was so high in the State Department that he traveled with the president to a Big Three meeting at Yalta. He was “outed” by a former Time editor, Whitaker Chambers. Mr. Hiss finally went to prison, not for espionage; under oath, he denied allegations that proved true. I knew him by sight; we both shopped at Neam’s market, on Wisconsin Avenue.


The Hiss case made people nervous about the people they saw; there were those who refused to attend parties because someone “questionable” might be there. Augmented by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Wisconsin senator converted the hospitable Southern city I moved into the previous year into a hotbed of suspicions. No one knew who might be next.


Although a staff sergeant assigned to the United States Army Band, I felt drowned by the jittery situation. Because my basement neighbor was a warrant officer in the Army chief of staff’s suite, my uniform provided no protection. Furthermore, I was single and just returned from nearly three years in Germany. It was not by coincidence that I married the following June, one week before North Korea invaded its southern neighbor.


My new wife and I continued to live in Georgetown; we rented for the summer Harding Bancroft’s house that looked at the side of Phil and Kay Graham’s residence. After living through the intensive start of McCarthyism, the senator’s crusade receded for me. I was much too busy doing radio shows with Eddie Fisher, drafted into the Band the next year.


Reassignment to the American Forces Network brought the whole nightmare back into reality. Many faces familiar from my first postwar tour with Armed Forces Network were missing. John Penrose was sent back to Ireland, primarily for joining the forces that fought Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was hired to supervise housekeeping and maintenance 10 years before, when the network started in London.


There were others fired out of concern their backgrounds could attract the anti-communist investigators, among them Spiro Galanoupolis, the news correspondent I worked with in Berlin. Spiro had a major hand in establishing the Free University that replaced the University of Berlin seized by the Russian conquerors; in addition, for news stories he relied on sources behind the Iron Curtain. His blue, covered Jeep was a very familiar sight around the erstwhile German capital. Officially stained as pro-communist, Spiro returned to his mother’s apartment where I visited him three years later.


Shortly after I departed the castle, Roy Cohn and his favorite protégé, David Schine, swept grandly through Europe on an inspection tour; the announced intention was to extend the impact of McCarthyism, especially to subversive books that might lurk in American libraries, military and embassy. More was involved. Meanwhile, the Cohn twins, as dubbed by the media – but not the Army’s Stars and Stripes or the American Forces Network – continued to make themselves a sordid spectacle all over Europe. They had yelling and screaming contests that left little doubt they were homosexual lovers, confirmed by hotel employees that cleaned their rooms.


Taking advantage of his status, on the trip to Europe, Mr. Cohn managed to humiliate officers and enlisted man alike. His attempts to make good on his promise that Pfc. Schine would receive a commission led directly to the Army hearings that brought McCarthyism down. Especially hard for the senator to counter was Boston attorney Joseph Welch’s question, prompted by the Wisconsin Republican’s attack on a young lawyer: “Have you no sense of decency?”


President Dwight Eisenhower’s frank hostility didn’t help the senator and his cause; the blow from his colleagues hurt most. Stripped of his official power, he drank heavily. Joe McCarthy took to roaming Capitol Hill halls and grabbing strangers’ hands, asking: “Do you know who I am?”


McCarthyism, the first American reign of terror that I experienced, started to decline 55 years ago this week.


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