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The Peak or the Precipice
At 10:30 p.m. on the night of March 9, 1954, a CBS thriller, "The First Hold-Up," with Ben Gazzara and Bethel Leslie, faded from the black and white screen. The network went into "system," thirty seconds given to local stations to identify themselves and run their commercials. The system break over, there appeared on the screen a man sitting in a control room. There was something dark and arresting about him. The head was large and handsome, the visage somber, the brows thick and black; and the eyes, peering upward through the brows, were both baleful and riveting. When he spoke, the voice too had a dark timbre and projected total authority. The man was Edward R. Murrow, the program See It Now, a documentary series then in its third year.
"Good evening," Murrow began. "Tonight, See It Now devotes its entire half hour to a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, told mainly in his own words and pictures...."
Five months had passed since Murrow had decided to turn the essentially untried power of television on McCarthy. At the time, both men were at their peak, Murrow the preeminent broadcaster in America, McCarthy, the most successful demagogue in America's history. Murrow's outward air of composure belied his anxiety. Moments before, the makeup woman had been swabbing away the sweat that beaded his face and dripped off the point of his chin. He was mindful of Emerson's dictum: "When you strike at a king, you must kill him." For McCarthy's path was littered with the political corpses of those who had dared oppose him.
As Murrow spoke, he was like a man climbing a mountain in a dense fog. He could not tell if his next steps were going to take him higher, or if he was already at the summit and another step would begin his descent, even his fall.
His decision to take on McCarthy had been long in the making, too long, he later confessed. The incident that had finally triggered him to act illuminates much about both Murrow and the times. It had occurred in November, five months before. The United States Senate was then preparing to investigate charges that the previous President, Harry S. Truman, had committed treason. There is no more delicate way to put it. In the climate of that era, however, the charge was hardly as sensational as it seems at first blush. Allegations of treachery and spying, of disloyalty and subversion, were thick in the air that season. And even a former President was not spared.
Murrow had assigned Joe Wershba, a young See It Now reporter, to cover the investigation. Wershba was a bear of a man, more precisely, an oversized teddy bear, for he was an amiable soul, as well as a gifted reporter. His assignment this November day was to cover the testimony of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover before the Senate's Internal Security Subcommittee. Hoover presumably held the answer to the treasonous point at issue: Did Harry Truman, as President, knowingly keep Harry Dexter White, an alleged Communist agent, in a high post at the Treasury Department?
On his arrival in Washington, Wershba had gone directly to the Senate Caucus Room, where he found Hoover already testifying. He rushed outside, looking frantically for his cameraman, when he felt an arm restraining him. He turned to see Donald Surine. Surine, an investigator for Joe McCarthy, was a shadowy figure who had earlier been fired by the FBI for, word had it, keeping a whore at the taxpayers' expense. "Hey, Joe," Surine asked Wershba, sounding disappointed, "what's this Radwich junk you're putting out?"
Surine had mangled the name. But Wershba knew instantly what he meant. The month before, Ed Murrow had devoted a full broadcast of See It Now to the plight of an Air Force Reserve lieutenant named Milo Radulovich. The Air Force had called Radulovich a "security risk," not because he was disloyal, since his patriotism was beyond question. Radulovich could not be trusted, the Air Force feared, because his sister was allegedly a Communist, and his father was said to read subversive Serbian-language newspapers. Radulovich had been asked to resign his commission. When he refused, an Air Force board ordered his separation from the service.
To Murrow, the Radulovich case reeked of a sickness abroad in the land. A man was being punished without due process of law, without being permitted to know the evidence against him, indeed without having committed a crime. His ordeal was being shared by hundreds of other Americans. While responsibility for the sickness could not be blamed entirely on one man, "McCarthyism," in Murrow's reckoning, fully summed up the disease.
The Air Force had pressured Murrow to kill the Radulovich story, but he had pressed ahead and broadcast it anyway. This broadcast was the "Radwich junk" bothering Donald Surine. Wershba told Surine that he was in a hurry, that he had no time to gab, and began to leave. But as he started to go, Surine said something that stopped him cold. "What would you say if I told you Murrow was on the Soviet payroll in 1934?" Before Wershba could react, Surine cocked his head and said, "Come on up to the office. I'll show you."
Surine's charge struck Wershba as ludicrous. But given McCarthy's genius for mischief, no threat from him or his agents could be dismissed out of hand. Wershba momentarily forgot about finding his cameraman and followed Surine to McCarthy's fourth-floor office in the Senate Office Building. Surine ordered the reporter to wait outside. When he returned, he handed Wershba a photostat of a newspaper story. Wershba read it and then asked Surine if he could show a copy to Murrow. Surine agreed. As Wershba was leaving, Surine said, "It's a terrible shame. Murrow's brother being a general in the Air Force." Murrow's older brother, Lacey, was in fact an Air Force Reserve officer. Surine gave Wershba a friendly wave, confident that Wershba would carry his barely veiled warning to his boss.
When Wershba got back to CBS in New York the next night, he went immediately to see Murrow, who was just wrapping up his nightly radio newscast. He handed him the photostated clipping. Murrow, he was later to recall, "reddened and a weak grin came to his face." "So that's what they've got," Murrow said quietly.
Joe Wershba idolized Ed Murrow, and he sought to put himself at ease in the man's presence by playing court jester. "You've had a long and honorable career," he said, "enough to enable any man to retire to the role of country gentleman." Murrow had in fact just bought an expensive home in the country.
Murrow, seated, head bent, looked up at Wershba through the heavy brows with a stare that made clear he was in no mood to be humored. Wershba started to leave. As he did, the annoyance suddenly vanished from Murrow's face. He looked drained, Wershba remembered thinking, "Like a fallen warrior."
The following morning, Wershba ran into Murrow again at the water fountain. He was happily astonished. The gloom had faded. Murrow was aggressively chipper. "The only question now," he said, with a teeth-baring smile, "is when do I go up against those guys?"
Attacking bureaucratic bone-headedness in the Air Force on See It Now was one thing; taking on Joe McCarthy was a risk of another order of magnitude. The man was, on his own peculiar terms, a quintessential American success story. Joseph Raymond McCarthy was the fifth of seven children of a dirt-poor Wisconsin farm family. He had been yanked out of school at 14 and did not make it back to high school until he was 20. He then proceeded to breeze through four years of high school in one. He went on to the Jesuit's Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he was best remembered as a boxer who seemed to relish taking punishment as much as giving it, the kind of fighter who blocks punches with his head.
Joe McCarthy became a lawyer and at the age of 32 was elected to a local judgeship. During World War II, he enlisted and was commissioned in the Marine Corps. He came home from the war and proceeded to accomplish a seeming political miracle. In the 1946 Wisconsin Republican primary he brought down a Wisconsin dynasty, defeating Robert LaFollette, twenty-one years in the U.S. Senate, whose father had served there for twenty years before him. McCarthy went on to win the general election in the fall.
His Senate colleagues came to know a man at once simplistic and complex, an ugly bully one instant, a raffish charmer the next. He just missed being handsome. The eyes were a trifle too narrow, the brow too frowning, the mouth too thin-lipped, the needle-sharp nose planted in a face too broad, the beard too heavy. He had grown narrower in the shoulders and broader in the beam with middle age. Like an aging bull, his body now suggested power going slack. He walked with a slouching gait that gave a certain menace to his movements. He was an indifferent dresser, rumpled, careless, willing to let a white shirt go another day. His appearance suggested a very tough, very smart old con.
Joe McCarthy became the avatar of anticommunism much the way other men choose a new suit. Up for reelection in 1952, he was shopping around for a campaign issue. He had tried on a couple of issues--the St. Lawrence Seaway, giving every American over 65 a hundred dollars a month--and had discarded them. A priest-academic from Georgetown University had suggested Communist subversion. McCarthy's eyes danced. That was it. "The government," he exclaimed, "is full of Communists."
On February 10, 1950, McCarthy found the first occasion to wear the new suit. He had drawn a second-rung speaking assignment from the Republican Campaign Committee for the annual round of Lincoln Day fundraising dinners--Wheeling, West Virginia.
McCarthy that night, hunched over a lectern in the ballroom of the McClure Hotel, waving a never-identified document purportedly listing 205 Communists "working and shaping policy in the State Department," has become by now a part of American political demonology. The charge was spectacular. Overnight, Joe McCarthy found himself catapulted ahead of the Senate pack to the front rank of political celebrity. He had tried on the new suit. It not only fit; it looked good, it felt great, and it was obviously going to do wonders for his career.
It mattered not that his original charge of 205 Communists at the State Department had fluctuated almost from news cycle to news cycle--eighty-one, to sixty-one, to fifty-seven. It mattered not that he promised to expose the "top Soviet agent in the State Department" and came up with Owen Lattimore, who was not a spy, not a Communist, and not in the State Department. It mattered not that on serious measures to halt the spread of communism Joe McCarthy voted no--no to the Marshall Plan, no to Point IV aid to underdeveloped countries, no to military aid for non-Communist states. Nothing fazed Joe McCarthy as he went on hurling his charges against Communists in government like a pitcher with dazzling speed but no control.
Many of his Senate colleagues saw Joe McCarthy as a publicity-besotted buffoon, a politically lewd figure whose membership in their club was an embarrassment. Millard Tydings of Maryland, a pillar of the Senate establishment, investigated McCarthy's accusations. McCarthy campaigned against him, and Millard Tydings was defeated for reelection. Scott Lucas of Illinois, the Democratic floor leader, challenged McCarthy, and Lucas was defeated for reelection. Senator William Benton succeeded Lucas as floor leader and introduced a resolution to have McCarthy expelled from the Senate. McCarthy went to Connecticut where Benton was campaigning for reelection, and Benton was defeated. Ernest MacFarland of Arizona succeeded Benton as floor leader. McCarthy campaigned against him, and MacFarland was defeated for reelection. In the Senate, contempt for Joe McCarthy continued, but the nature of it changed. Ridicule largely gave way to caution, or silence, or even grudging admiration.
Joe McCarthy had started his anti-Communist crusade virtually from nothing, from an assignment of almost embarrassingly low status, a seat on the Senate Operations Committee, a housekeeping body that looked into government motor pool abuses and jacked-up office furniture contracts in federal agencies. McCarthy had managed to transform this unlikely base into a fearsome instrument of political inquisition.
He took on seemingly untouchable targets. George C. Marshall was one of the most respected figures in America--chief of staff and an architect of victory during World War II, and later Truman's secretary of state, father of the plan that bore his name and that saved a prostrate Western Europe from a genuine threat of Communism. Joe McCarthy called General Marshall, "A man steeped in falsehood, part of a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man." And McCarthy got away with it.
McCarthy's staffers drew up a list of "subversive" American authors--Stephen Vincent Benet, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Henry Steele Commager, and John Dewey among them--and U.S. information libraries abroad started yanking books by these people off their shelves.
McCarthy cowed the State Department into scrapping the two most powerful radio transmitters ever built, costing $815 million. Disloyal officials of the Voice of America had sabotaged the transmitters he said, by locating them where their signals would not work.
Ohio's conservative John Bricker came off the Senate floor one day and met McCarthy in the cloakroom. "Joe," Bricker said, "you're a dirty son of a bitch. But there are times when you've got to have a son of a bitch around. And this is one of them." The proud teller of this story was Joe McCarthy.
The shanty Irish kid had achieved what he had hungered for all his life. He was somebody, a figure to be taken seriously, to be reckoned with, to be played up to and stood aside for. He mattered. No matter the route, he had arrived.
Obviously, he had not achieved his success-through-excess in a vacuum. Joe McCarthy had cast the seed of his ambition on fertile soil. World War II had been over barely five years when he gave the Wheeling speech. When the war had ended in 1945, America stood unscathed and unrivaled, the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, the most powerful nation on earth. Her victorious armies were quickly demobilized and came home to cities that were intact, to factories that were undamaged, and to an economy readying itself to meet enormous pent-up consumer demand. The United States, her people believed, stood on the threshold of a new age of peace and prosperity. And deservedly so. They had fought the good fight, and they had won.
Too soon it started to unravel. The defeat of nazism had saved western democracy, but it also saved Russian communism. And communism, in its global reach and appeal to the earth's disinherited, began to loom as a more formidable long-term enemy than nazism. In 1946, China went Communist, because of, some Americans believed, traitorous officials shaping Asian policy, people like Secretary of State George C. Marshall. In 1949, the Soviet Union, thought to be war-ravaged and backward, exploded an atomic bomb. How? Through secrets given to Russians by western spies and traitors. Just one month before the Wheeling speech, Alger Hiss, who had held sensitive State Department positions at Yalta and at the birth of the United Nations, was convicted of perjury for denying his past connections to Communists. And five months after Wheeling, the United States was actually at war against Communists in North Korea.
How could it all have gone so wrong so fast? Why had the United States, so recently unassailable, found herself competing with communism for world leadership and bogged down in an ugly war with a fourth-rate Communist pawn. The conspiracy theory had the appeal of all great simplifications, an understandable answer to the inexplicable. Traitors, spies, and soft-headed liberal dupes in government, boring from within, had obviously achieved what no external enemy had been able to do to America. And as for those who criticized this explanation as simplistic and paranoid, what exactly were their motives? Whose side were they on? Which were precisely the questions that doe McCarthy asked.
To Ed Murrow, a man already inclined to pessimism and dark forebodings, the era of McCarthyism was a nightmare coming true. As a student leader in Europe, and later as a broadcaster, he had watched the Germans trade unruly Weimar democracy for Nazi order. He had witnessed home-grown Fascist movements in England, France, and Poland. He knew how the Fascists made their excesses palatable: anticommunism was the respectable cloak they wore. When Murrow and his wife, Janet, were flying home from England in 1946, as the American coast came into view, she recalled Ed saying, "We saw it happen in Europe. There's no reason to suppose it can't happen here."
He had taken stands. He had spoken out against the circus-style anticommunism of the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy's victim, Owen Lattimore, thanked Murrow for defending him on the air "even when the hysteria was at its height." Murrow helped save the careers of CBS colleagues who had been blacklisted.
Still, some of Murrow's friends had been asking aloud why he was not doing more, not using his unrivaled position, that bully pulpit of microphone and camera with its audience of millions, to challenge McCarthy head-on. Bill Downs, a gruff, much valued friend came up from CBS's Washington bureau to have dinner with the Murrows at their Park Avenue apartment. Afterward, over drinks, Downs warned, "You'd better do something about that guy."
Murrow hedged. "Fred Friendly says it isn't time yet," he said, referring to the coproducer of See It Now.
"It is time," Downs insisted. "The effect that McCarthy is having is nothing short of devastating."
Another friend taunted Murrow that he was avoiding a confrontation with McCarthy because he had too much to lose, his programs, his sponsors, the Park Avenue apartment, the new country estate. Murrow answered with the stock dodge that he used to conceal his private thoughts: "You may be right." Joe Wershba gingerly asked Murrow, was he interested in a "let's-you-and-him-fight-it-out" scrap with McCarthy? Murrow answered, "We ain't." Another acquaintance criticized him for being unfair to McCarthy in his broadcasts. "His methods may be a little harsh," the man said, "but he's doing a job that needs doing." Murrow replied, "You may be right."
Still, underneath the caution, the stalling, the you-may-be-rights, the matter of McCarthy rankled. At times, Murrow's restraint wore through. Struve Hensel, the Pentagon's counsel in the Eisenhower administration, and his wife were having dinner at Murrow's country home one Sunday. Also present was Murrow's weekend guest, the British ambassador to the United States. Murrow proposed a snide toast mocking President Eisenhower for his fear of offending McCarthy. Mrs. Hensel got up and started to march out. Murrow went after her. "You simply cannot speak that way about the President," she said, "especially not in front of foreigners." Murrow apologized and led the woman back to the table.
He began thinking about using television to deal with McCarthy, to make the public see the man, as it were, with the naked eye. After work one day he was having a drink with the cartoonist Walt Kelley. "You know," Murrow said, "the best man to destroy McCarthy is Joe himself."
"Yes," the creator of Pogo agreed. "But will he take the job?"
Murrow was driving one day to the Astoria film studios on Long Island with Sam Goldwyn, Jr., to narrate a film. As they drove, Murrow began thinking out loud. Nobody in the press, he speculated, was going to nail McCarthy simply by attacking him, even with the truth. McCarthy was too smart for that. He could counterpunch faster and harder than any of them. "It has to be done," Ed concluded, "through his own deeds and words." Conventional reporting, he thought, actually played into McCarthy's hands.
Indeed it did. McCarthy was a U.S. senator, and he was making charges of such gravity that they could not be ignored. Even as respected a liberal voice as Walter Lippmann conceded: "When he makes such attacks against the State Department, the Defense Department, it is news which has to be published." The New York Times concluded: "It is difficult if not impossible to ignore charges by Senator McCarthy just because they are usually proved false." The Times then proceeded to put the responsibility for separating innuendo from truth and accusation from guilt in a strange place. "The remedy," said The Times, "lies with the reader."
What saved McCarthy from his own recklessness was the lack of any continuing context in which his behavior could be judged. He tossed out the day's accusations like a keeper feeding the animals at the zoo. The reporters snapped up his charges, reported them, and waited for the next day's feeding. Yesterday's victim was forgotten in the dash for tomorrow's headline. However contemptible many journalists found him, Joe McCarthy was great copy. And so the press, the government, and the public continued to gape like spectators at a circus watching the man on the high wire, wondering, spellbound, what he would dare next.
It was this question, where McCarthy might strike next, that appears to have triggered Murrow's decision to take him on. Murrow knew, in a normal climate, that the flimsy information McCarthy had on him, based on an old newspaper clipping, could be explained to fair minds. But these were not normal times, and Joe McCarthy had not achieved his success through fair play.
He tried later to analyze his motives for attacking McCarthy. "I wouldn't say it was liberalism," he told an interviewer. "...I think it stems from my feeling about the sacredness of due process of law. I saw in Germany and Czechoslovakia that the law is destroyed first and then, after the law is gone, the freedom of the people is destroyed. The thing about McCarthy that bothers me is his disrespect for the due process of law." And his motive may have been to strike before McCarthy struck him--the belief that a good offense is indeed the best defense.
Whatever the motive or the unknowable amalgam of motives, immediately after Surine delivered McCarthy's threat through Joe Wershba, Murrow asked Fred Friendly how much film they had on McCarthy. He was especially eager to know if anyone had shot the Wheeling speech. To his disappointment, no one had. He also began to fire off memos to Fred Friendly to make sure that See It Now crews covered future McCarthy appearances. He dispatched reporters to McCarthy's home town of Appleton, Wisconsin, to talk to the senator's relatives, friends, old schoolmates, and former employers.
Still, he was dissatisfied. The conventional documentary-making process was too slow. He also feared that the usual piecing together of a documentary portrait would fail to capture the essence of Joe McCarthy. He found himself drawn back again to his earlier gut instinct. As he told Charles Collingwood: "The thing to do is to let the man damn himself out of his own mouth."
As 1954 opened, Joe McCarthy was on to fresh game--Communists and Communist influence in the Army. As in his other crusades, McCarthy was using a time-tested approach. If he could not find a big Communist and bring him low, he would find a small fish and inflate his importance. On the hook this time was a draftee Army dentist named Irving Peress, stationed at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Just as he was about to be discharged, Peress had been routinely mass-promoted, along with 7,000 other Army doctors and dentists, to the rank of major. McCarthy charged that Peress's promotion revealed "Communist influence" at Camp Kilmer. McCarthy acted with a zeal suggesting that he had cornered Rosa Luxembourg in the Pentagon. His insistent demand was to become the caricature battle cry of this bizarre era: "Who promoted Peress?"
Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated hero of the Battle of the Bulge, was the Camp Kilmer commandant and hence Peress's commanding officer. McCarthy hauled General Zwicker before his subcommittee in executive session. His treatment of the war hero was brutal even by McCarthy standards. "You are," he said, "a disgrace to the uniform. You're shielding Communist conspirators. You are not fit to be an officer. You are ignorant. You are going to be put on public display next Tuesday."
Joe McCarthy was not known to read the classics. But his life now paralleled Aristophanes's The Knights, in which Demosthenes says of a sausage-maker who has become a powerful demagogue: "You shall trample down the Senate underfoot, confound them and crush the generals and the commanders." Walter Lippmann watched McCarthy's Senate colleagues remaining silent or profiting politically from his excesses and wrote: "This is the year that the Senate of the United States, in order not to appear red decided to be yellow."
In February of 1954, Joe McCarthy was at his zenith. Never had he been stronger or looked more invincible. If he could browbeat a genuine war hero, brand him a fool and a dupe, and have Senate conservatives pressure the Army to put up with it, what could be denied him?
Yet Murrow thought he sensed something different in McCarthy's Zwicker performance, the crossing of an invisible line that separated audacity from rashness, boldness from self-destructiveness. The time to strike, he decided, had come. Early in March, he told Friendly to splice together every foot of film that they had on McCarthy. The two men then disappeared into a projection room and spent three hours reviewing five miles of film. Murrow pulled See It Now reporters off other assignments and put them to work full-time on the McCarthy project. He chose a tentative air date, March 9, just one week away.
He had an obligation, he knew, to tell his network and his sponsors his intentions. The problem was how much to say, and to whom and when. Up until now, Murrow had enjoyed virtual autonomy at CBS. He and Fred Friendly did not ask approval for the subjects they covered, and no one in the corporation had ever attempted to censor them. Murrow's sponsor, the Aluminum Company of America, had proved the most tolerant of patrons. ALCOA had scrupulously respected Murrow's iron rule--no sponsor interference. ALCOA let him do what he wanted and paid the bills. Still, if he intended to take on McCarthy, he knew that CBS and ALCOA deserved some warning.
Five days before the broadcast date, Murrow informed Sig Mickelson, the CBS vice president for news and public affairs and hence Murrow's nominal boss, of his plan. Murrow and Friendly had agreed that if Mickelson asked to see the program in advance, they would screen it for him. But they would not initiate the offer.
Sig Mickelson well knew that at CBS the power line ran directly from Murrow to Chairman William S. Paley, cutting out not only a news bureaucrat like himself, but bypassing the company's president, Frank Stanton, too. Mickelson had never exercised a shred of control over Murrow. He was not about to assume responsibility for a broadcast over which he had no authority, particularly one on Joe McCarthy. He did not ask to see the program.
Distancing became the pattern in the upper echelons of CBS as word of the program spread. When Friendly tried to place a newspaper ad to run on the day of the program, the head of the CBS television network vetoed the request. Thereupon, Murrow and Friendly decided to run the ad at their own expense using prize money that they had won for See It Now. No connection to CBS, not even use of the company's logo, they were warned, was to appear in the ad.
Murrow and Friendly were virtually living in the studio now, as they pared the mass of film from three hours, down to two hours, down to an hour, and finally to thirty-seven minutes, still too long. Yet, for all the feverish preparation, Murrow had left himself an escape hatch. He had two other See It Now broadcasts standing by in case he changed his mind at the last minute.
The arguments favoring prudence, delay, even retreat, were powerful. Four U.S. senators had directly challenged McCarthy, and all four had paid with their political careers. The President of the United States had watched McCarthy slander George C. Marshall, Eisenhower's wartime chief, and had essentially looked the other way. As Eisenhower explained his inaction to his brother Milton: "I just won't get into a pissing contest with that skunk." McCarthy had destroyed the professional lives of scores of people as innocent and honorable as Edward R. Murrow. And Murrow himself was employed in an industry then practicing its own form of McCarthyism with blacklists and loyalty oaths. He was laying his career on the line along with those of all the men and women who had hitched their future to his.
Joe McCarthy was not going to be an easy target. It mattered not that he had led a stained and soiled life; that he had won his first judgeship by tacking twenty years onto the age of his 66-year-old opponent and then ran as the youth candidate; that he had campaigned for the U.S. Senate as "tail-gunner Joe" with thirty combat missions, when actually he had had a desk job, fired guns only at coconut trees, and flew no combat missions; that he had wangled a purple heart for "ten pounds of shrapnel" that he claimed he carried in his leg when actually he had hurt himself falling down a ship's gangway during an equator-crossing hazing ceremony; that as a freshman senator, in order to placate German-American voters in his state, he had defended Nazi SS troops on trial for the Malmedy Massacre of over eighty defenseless American prisoners of war; that he had taken so many favors from American soft-drink makers in return for helpful legislation that he was called "the senator from Pepsi Cola"; that a poll of Washington news correspondents had chosen him the worst member of the U.S. Senate; that despite all the fuss, he had never found a single Communist in the State Department.