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A big lie in a small newspaper that launched McCarthyism

Dick Ahles

On Feb. 10, 1950, a West Virginia daily newspaper innocently printed what may have been the biggest lie up to that time in modern American history. This big lie in that small paper endures because it taught the politically ambitious that a big lie or two could take you far, like the more recent big lie about the birthplace of a president that paved the teller’s way to his own presidency.

Joe McCarthy, the teller of the midcentury’s big lie, would, for a short time, become the most powerful man in America, but his lying, bullying and abuse of his victims would eventually catch up with him. In 1954, he was censured by his fellow senators. A year later, I would get my first newspaper job, at The Wheeling Intelligencer, the newspaper that launched McCarthyism, and learn how it all happened.

Standing out in the city room I entered my first day, mainly because of the green eyeshade he wore, was an older reporter named Frank Desmond, whose byline had appeared under the headline that made McCarthy famous:

“McCarthy Charges Reds Hold U.S. Jobs”

The story recounted the speech delivered by the little-known senator the previous evening at the McLure Hotel as the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday. McCarthy wasn’t exactly a stellar attraction. He had just been voted the worst member of the U.S. Senate in a poll of Washington reporters, having achieved some notoriety by championing the Nazi SS officers who had perpetrated the Malmedy Forest Massacre during World War II. 

This dubious cause pleased a few of his German-American constituents in Wisconsin, but it alienated others. The senator was looking for a new issue to excite the voters. In anticommunism, he found a good one. 

China had just fallen to the “Reds;” Soviet Russia had detonated an atomic bomb and dominated half of Europe. In January, Alger Hiss, a prominent diplomat, had been convicted of lying to the House Un-American Activities Committee about his ties to a communist spy ring in the 1930s and 1940s. The stage was set for McCarthy’s Wheeling attack on communists in Harry Truman’s Washington.

Desmond was the kind of journeyman whose fondness for whiskey inspired newspapers to run “help wanted, reporter” ads in Editor & Publisher magazine with the admonition, “no drifters or drinkers.” He had drifted to Wheeling from New York and once showed me a photo of the younger Frank Desmond in a group of big-time reporters like Damon Runyon at the trial of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapper.

Upon arriving at the dinner, as was his custom, Frank asked for and was given a copy of the senator’s speech and quickly repaired to the hotel bar. Later, refreshed and back at the paper, Frank discovered he had been handed a pretty good story. 

He alerted his editor and led the story with the money quote: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 (employees) that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”

The paper, a member of the Associated Press, filed Frank’s carbon with the wire service, and Frank generously provided copies to the AP’s competitors, United Press and Hearst’s International News Service, which paid local reporters $5 or so for a good story.  By the next morning, McCarthy was famous.

People who were at the speech thought he had said 57 communists or maybe 25, but McCarthy, who had apparently reduced the number that was in the text he had given the reporter, confirmed the larger number, and Desmond was quick to utter the journalist’s immortal insistence, “I stand by my story.”

McCarthy would do incredible damage to the truth and the republic in the coming months and years until, in 1954, he ran afoul of two American institutions, the United States Army and Edward R. Murrow.

The Army-McCarthy hearings looked into misconduct of McCarthy’s closest aide, Roy Cohn, who had pressured the Army to provide favors for his drafted colleague and close friend, G. David Schine. But the Army determined Schine would have to complete basic training before he could take weekends off to hunt communists, prompting retaliation by McCarthy and Cohn and another investigation. 

It proved to be one too many for the senator. When McCarthy revealed a young lawyer in the firm of the Army’s special counsel, Joseph Welch, had once belonged to a leftist legal group, the dignified Boston attorney uttered one of history’s great rebukes:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never fully gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” Then, as McCarthy tried to continue, Welch angrily interrupted. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir. At long last.”

Welch’s withering attack was witnessed by millions on the two television networks televising the hearings. At about the same time, the father of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow, was using McCarthy’s own words and actions in a 30-minute documentary that concluded with Murrow’s eloquent summation and Shakespeare’s stark condemnation, interestingly, from Julius Caesar.

“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay among our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully.  Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night and good luck.” 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.