by Davy Kraken
A conspiracy to expose Communist subversion in the American government.
My thesis is that Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was assisted secretly and illegally by J. Edgar Hoover because of their mutual goal to expose Communist subversion in the American government. I intended to show the correlation between Hoover’s assistance and McCarthy’s rise and fall by dividing the paper into three parts: early association, the height of cooperation, and the dénouement of McCarthy’s power. McCarthy rose to prominence when Hoover began assisting him, and was quick to disappear from the national scene when the aid ceased. To conduct research, I consulted 13 sources, 5 of which were primary. I made use of the letters and memoirs of presidents Truman and Nixon, the recollections of two of Hoover’s closest assistants, and various letters to and from Hoover concerning the communist witch hunt. Looking into these and the secondary sources in detail, I examined whether or not there was really any personal friendship between Hoover and McCarthy, and decided that the alliance between the two was most likely exclusively political. There is, however, evidence for both positions, and it cannot be determined to a certainty because many of Hoover’s personal papers were either destroyed by his secretary upon his death or have not been released to the public. My most effective secondary source was The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, because it gave a comprehensive overview of the Hoover-McCarthy relationship, providing a basic outline for my paper, while the most useful primary source was From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover, as it was the only book that contained the written words of either Hoover or McCarthy.
J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy’s Cooperative Effort to Expose Communist Subversion in America, 1950-1953
In 1950, a young senator from Wisconsin, Joseph Raymond McCarthy, rose from the depths of obscurity to become one of the best known and most hated senators the United States has ever known. At the height of his power, during the general timeframe of the Korean War, 1950-1954, he capitalized on America’s post-World-War-II (WWII) fear of Communist subversion and conquest and accused some of the most influential Americans of being Communists—even presidents Roosevelt and Truman. This sometimes secret, sometimes public effort to reveal communists in American government became known as McCarthyism; however, unknown to presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Congress, or the American public, deeply involved in this effort was J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a strident anticommunist. J. Edgar Hoover covertly and illegally shared FBI files and information with McCarthy during the height of the Red Scare, another name for McCarthyism, from 1950-1953. Each man used the other to help fight his own war on communist subversion: McCarthy used Hoover as a source of information, and Hoover took advantage of McCarthy’s position in the national spotlight to wage a proxy war.
The FBI was prohibited from disseminating information to anyone other than the Executive Branch; however, the FBI often shared information with Congress, usually via background checks of individuals related to security clearances (Schrecker 214). Just as Hoover’s assistance began in early 1950, it just as quickly ended in mid-1954, and with that termination began the twilight of the era of McCarthyism. It is likely that McCarthy would have been discredited much sooner had he not received the political and personal guidance from Hoover.
The relationship between Hoover and McCarthy began as soon as McCarthy arrived in Washington as a Republican senator-elect from Wisconsin in 1947. Hoover was drawn to McCarthy because he had always admired “tough, combative men” (The Boss 280). The two could often be seen together at the Bowie, Maryland, racetrack or dining out at Harvey’s Restaurant in Washington (Gentry 431). Their written correspondence seemed to show sincere signs of friendship. McCarthy would write, “No one need erect a monument to you,” and Hoover would reply that “Any success the FBI has had is due in no small measure to … such fine friends as you” (Oshinsky 257).
It is difficult to say, however, whether or not Hoover and McCarthy were true personal friends. Some, including Hoover’s trusted deputy in the 1960s, Cartha DeLoach, insisted that “McCarthy was no personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover.” He went on to say that “Hoover didn’t like him, in part because McCarthy had supplanted the FBI director as the nation’s chief enemy of communism and in part because of his failure to speak authoritatively on the threat to internal security” (DeLoach 352). They may have been using each other to further their own political agendas. McCarthy needed factual information to support his charges, and Hoover saw in McCarthy, who had the national limelight, an excellent instrument to advance his repressive agenda. Another clue that they may not have been friends in the true sense, but only drawn together to fight the same enemy, was that Hoover’s perverse sense of professionalism caused him to maintain a dossier on McCarthy that contained numerous allegations, such as that his military record was “largely bogus,” that he speculated in soybean futures using campaign contributions, and that he was a homosexual (Gentry 432).
It is clear that Hoover saw promise in McCarthy early on. Hoover asked McCarthy to address the graduating class of the FBI National Academy in February 1948, an honor generally reserved for established individuals who were very loyal to the FBI. Hoover also invited McCarthy to a radio interview directed to McCarthy’s Wisconsin constituents in 1949 (The Boss 280).
Things were not looking good for McCarthy early in his tenure. Washington newsmen even voted him the “worst” senator in Washington during his first term (Ezell 7). If McCarthy did not come up with a campaign issue, he felt that he would not be reelected in 1952. On January 7, 1950, McCarthy went to dinner with three of his friends. The group discussed several possibilities for a campaign theme: a pension plan for the elderly and support for construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway were two suggestions. Someone finally proposed fighting communism as a campaign issue, which McCarthy quickly accepted. Ironically, McCarthy assured them that he would “get the facts” and not make wild accusations. Both McCarthy and his dinner companions thought he would do the country a service (Reeves 202). McCarthyism arose from his needing a hook for his campaign.
“McCarthy first began to make himself notable during my administration,” said Harry Truman, “and I recognized him immediately as a fake and a phony and as a real menace to our country and our principles of freedom and decency.” Truman stated that he knew McCarthy did not believe his own words, but was only “whipping up hysteria” to get himself in the headlines. Truman and his administration, in turn, were major targets of McCarthy for going “soft” on Red China during the Korean War. Truman vetoed a number of anticommunist bills that placed “ridiculous restrictions” on people such as immigrants and members of so-called communist front organizations, but the Senate overrode his vetoes and passed them anyway. The passage of these bills made McCarthy even more arrogant, and he began to dub the Roosevelt/Truman administrations “twenty years of treason” (Truman 69-70).
On February 9, 1950, McCarthy burst onto the national scene. In a speech to a Republican woman’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia, he accused the State Department of containing 205 Communists. In speeches later that month, he lowered the number to 57, then raised it to 81. Obviously, McCarthy was unsure of his numbers, and he offered no proof to support his claims, so after a speech given by McCarthy before the Senate, the Democratic leadership called his bluff and created a special committee, chaired by Millard Tydings of Maryland, to investigate McCarthy’s charges (The Boss 282-283).
In need of help to back up his charges, McCarthy called Hoover, who suggested that McCarthy appoint former FBI agent Don Surine to his staff as an investigator. Hoover had fired Surine but valued his abilities and “militant anti-communism.” Surine had indirect access to FBI information through his former colleagues at headquarters and in field offices. Surine also acted as a McCarthy/Hoover liaison, and sometimes the three would meet for lunch to discuss information (The Boss 283-284).
The Tydings committee dismissed McCarthy’s charges as without basis, so McCarthy had to get some evidence that the committee was wrong. McCarthy then used one of his alleged 81 communists in the State Department, Edward Posniak, as an example. In a memo from Special-Agent in-Charge (SAC) Guy Hottel to Hoover, Hottel explained the process by which the FBI could give McCarthy its files on Posniak: “The information would be completely paraphrased, making it impossible for any observer to determine that the information was actually taken from a Bureau report.” Furthermore, they would “insert the information appearing in the Bureau report in the form of a summary of information appearing in the CSC [Civil Service Commission] investigative files.” By paraphrasing the information and using the letterhead of a non-FBI government agency, Hoover made it impossible to establish any link between McCarthy and the FBI, so the Tydings committee was unable to determine any wrongdoing (Secret Files 255-256). With Hoover’s assistance, McCarthy had exposed Posniak’s communist connections that were previously unknown to the State Department (Herman 164).
Not only did Hoover act as a fountain of clandestine information, but he helped McCarthy in various other ways through weekly meetings in Hoover’s office. Assistance included making supportive speeches, monitoring critics, providing background checks, and helping with personal issues. One of Hoover’s cautions to McCarthy was to be vague rather than specific regarding numbers of communists, because specific numbers had to be backed up with facts. Hoover was “wary of the senator’s habit of shooting from the hip and answering questions later,” so he advised McCarthy to investigate matters more closely before making public charges to ensure that McCarthy maintained credibility. Hoover advised McCarthy on how to deal with personal attacks, saying that, “Whenever you attack subversives of any kind, communists, fascists, even the Ku Klux Klan, you are going to be the victim of the most extremely vicious criticism that can be made” (Reeves 493-494). It should be noted that McCarthy, because of his attempts to publicize subversives, also had information passed to him from many sources that he then passed to the FBI (Oshinsky 256).
William C. Sullivan, Hoover’s assistant in charge of criminal, intelligence, and espionage operations, stated that “the FBI kept Joe McCarthy in business. … We gave McCarthy all he had, but all we had were fragments, nothing could prove his accusations.” Sullivan cited the case of Owen Lattimore as a prime example of McCarthy’s baseless charges. Lattimore was a State Department employee whom McCarthy thought to be a Soviet agent. A lot of government money was spent to dig up dirt on Lattimore, but nothing incriminating could be found. “I couldn’t help wondering why the FBI was putting all that time and effort into helping Joe McCarthy instead of working on more important matters,” Sullivan wrote (Sullivan 45-46). Hoover was unhappy with McCarthy that the Lattimore case had been made public, since Lattimore had been under FBI surveillance for years and the disclosure endangered Hoover’s operation (Herman 164-165).
The Hoover-McCarthy cooperative relationship was epitomized during the confirmation process of President Eisenhower’s appointment of Charles Bohlen as ambassador to Russia in March 1953. Bohlen was a defender of the Yalta Conference and the controversial agreements reached there, and McCarthy wanted to defeat his confirmation. McCarthy called Hoover directly for assistance, and Hoover admitted the FBI investigation had found Bohlen weak from “the security and morals angle.” It was alleged that Bohlen was a homosexual, and McCarthy asked Hoover to confirm the allegation. Hoover disclosed that the FBI had been unable to uncover hard evidence of Bohlen’s homosexuality, but Bohlen had associated with homosexuals. Lacking the hard evidence, McCarthy could not proceed, and Bohlen was confirmed (The Boss 288-289). After the 1952 election, when Republicans regained control of the Senate, McCarthy became chairman of the Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations. Using this new power base, he dedicated himself to investigating subversion. He hired Roy Cohn, a 25-year-old lawyer, as his chief counsel, who in turn hired G. David Schine as his assistant. Cohn had ties with Lou Nichols, Assistant Director of the FBI. He could call Nichols for information and have an FBI contact’s name in half an hour (Oshinsky 257). As Richard Powers wrote, this is when “the saga of McCarthyism entered its final chapter” (Powers 253).
A number of other incidents signaled to Hoover that he should dissociate himself from McCarthy. Consequently, Hoover discontinued public association with McCarthy, although they did continue private dinners in Hoover’s home or the apartment of McCarthy’s future wife, Jean Kerr (Gentry 431).
In early 1953, McCarthy accused the State Department of stocking “Communist inclined” books in overseas Information Center Libraries. Later, in April 1953, Cohn and Schine went to survey the libraries themselves. As well as engaging in many “bizarre antics,” their “investigations” resulted in the burning of many books. McCarthy’s enemies called it a “Nazi book burning,” and the anti-American Press said that “McCarthy revealed the sinister nature of American imperialism, the fascist face of America.” Soon after, Eisenhower gave a speech that condemned book burning (Powers 264).
Another incident that gave Hoover cause to dissociate himself from McCarthy was McCarthy’s appointment of J.B. Matthews as his subcommittee’s Director of Research. McCarthy did not clear this appointment with Hoover first, but thought that the FBI held Matthews in “high regard,” to which Hoover replied, “Naturally we would subordinate our feelings on those fighting Communism but … McCarthy should be cautious about Matthews’ issuing press releases” (Secret Files 260). Matthews apparently had a penchant for issuing press releases with “great frequency.” Hoover was right to be worried: Before Matthews even joined the subcommittee, he published an article called “Reds and Our Churches,” in which he claimed the Protestant clergy was the “largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States” (The Boss 295). This was an irresponsible charge on two counts. First, the number of clergy who were communists was an extremely small fraction of the total number. Secondly, many of the most effective anti-communist leaders were Protestant clergy. Although Hoover agreed with Matthews’ opinion, he did not appreciate having an accusation made public without valid evidence (Sullivan 267).
After Matthews’ forced resignation, McCarthy appointed Frank Carr, a current FBI employee, to fill his position. McCarthy’s aides, Jean Kerr and Roy Cohn, assured McCarthy that Hoover had approved, but in reality Hoover had said he would “neither approve nor disapprove.” Hoover had reservations about appointing a current FBI employee, thinking it would “be seized upon by the critics of the Senator and of the FBI as a deliberate effort to effect a direct ‘pipeline’ into the FBI and that it would make it necessary for the Bureau to be far more circumspect in all of its dealings with the McCarthy Committee should Carr be appointed” (Secret Files 261). Hoover’s fear that the link with McCarthy would be exposed was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was at this point, June of 1953, that Hoover stopped funneling information to McCarthy’s subcommittee.
“By the spring of 1954 J. Edgar Hoover told Eisenhower that McCarthy had reached a point where he was actually impeding the investigation of the Communists,” claimed Richard Nixon (Nixon 149). As William C. Sullivan explained, “Reflective men said if this is anti-Communism I want none of it” (Sullivan 267). Eisenhower even went so far as to say that “McCarthy is probably [Soviet Premier] Malenkov’s best helper in the United States” (Nixon 149)
After Hoover relinquished support for McCarthy in June 1953, the senator made one baseless accusation after another during the Army-McCarthy hearings and other venues, leading the Senate to formally censure Joseph McCarthy on December 2, 1954. Just as he had begun his term in Washington as an obscure Senator from Wisconsin, so did he end it. Continuing as Senator, in his last years he was shunned by virtually everyone but his wife, Jean. He died on May 2, 1957.
McCarthy would have most likely remained an unknown Senator had it not been for the material and personal assistance furnished to him by J. Edgar Hoover to further the internal communist subversion theme raised by McCarthy. “Hoover was materially responsible for McCarthy’s rise to prominence” and “was as responsible for McCarthy’s demise.” Taking advantage of McCarthy’s position in the spotlight, Hoover simply used him as a means by which he could advance his own 20th-century witch hunt. McCarthy’s flamboyance, recklessness, and the potential to betray the covert links of the FBI caused the termination of their relationship. When Hoover, the real person behind the crusade against Communist subversion, was in danger of being exposed or having his informants exposed, he dumped McCarthy. With the passing of Joe McCarthy, Hoover, who lived 15 more years, continued his fight against domestic communism and subversion through other covert means.
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