The Magazine

The Origins of McCarthyism

What did Harry Truman know, and when did he know it?

Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN, during his long and illustrious public career, did not flinch from controversy. I doubt, therefore, that he would object to my having inserted him posthumously into an intriguing debate over recent history: Who was responsible a half-century ago for opening the door to McCarthyism and imposing a burden on the Democratic party from which it never has fully recovered?

In a column following Sen. Moynihan's death, in which I praised his uniqueness as a political figure, I concluded with this paragraph:

A few years ago when I was recuperating at home from a broken hip, the Senator dropped by and brought a copy of "Secrecy," one of 19 books he wrote. He pointed out the book's disclosure that Gen. Omar Bradley had dogmatically kept secret from President Harry Truman the result of communications intercepts revealing Soviet espionage in the United States. "How that would have kept the Democrats from the embarrassment of defending Alger Hiss and saved us from McCarthyism," said Moynihan. I can't imagine another U.S. Senator exploring this, but there was only one Moynihan.

As I entered my office the morning my column appeared, historian and journalist Jerrold Schecter telephoned me with a complaint. A former Time diplomatic editor and National Security Council spokesman during the Carter administration, Schecter contended that "Moynihan was dead wrong." He said that six weeks after he became president in 1945, Harry Truman "was told about the secret decoding of Soviet messages," adding: "It was not the bureaucracy that held back the secrets, but the president himself."

That dispute is not trivial, addressing as it does a serious political omission by a president who has become admired and indeed beloved across the ideological spectrum. Was Harry Truman victimized, or did he victimize his own party?

When Pat Moynihan paid his sick call on me in February 1999, he had more than small talk on his mind. He had brought me an autographed copy of "Secrecy," published the previous year, not just to give me a little light reading, but to send me a message.

The book was an outgrowth of Moynihan's service in 1995 and 1996 as chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, created by act of Congress in 1994. It is an eloquent essay on how bureaucracy breeds secrecy, poisoning government and a free society. Moynihan opened the book for me to pages revealing a specific problem.

As the Moynihan commission acquired the first Venona decryptions revealing Soviet espionage, the senator engaged in speculation. Was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had been sending Truman unsubstantiated claims of Communists throughout the government, now holding out on the president "when real evidence became available"? When Moynihan asked the FBI that question, he related, "agents came round one morning and professed not to know much about the matter, but promised to look into it. They were never heard from again." Such bureaucratic secrecy infuriated Moynihan, who complained to then FBI director Louis J. Freeh. Ordered by Freeh "to sweep the basement," the director's personal staff "produced a loose-leaf binder of Top Secret files: some thirty-six documents, now at last available."

MOYNIHAN'S smoking gun was an October 18, 1949, memorandum from FBI agent Howard Fletcher to Hoover assistant D. Milton (Mickey) Ladd describing a conversation with Brig. Gen. Carter Clarke, chief of the code-breaking Army Security Agency (ASA). Clarke was a career officer who worked behind the scenes in communications intelligence for almost his entire career. He was no ordinary staff officer. As a colonel in 1944, he was entrusted by Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, to put on a civilian suit in wartime to visit New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee for president, in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hotel room on a confidential mission. Dewey had learned that decrypted Japanese communications should have alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Pearl Harbor attack and was about to make this a campaign issue. Clarke pleaded that the disclosure would reveal to the Japanese U.S. code-breaking progress. Dewey reluctantly agreed to keep silent, and FDR was elected to a fourth term.