M. Stanton Evans on Good Night and Good Luck

The DVD case aptly summarizes what you are expected to get from Good Night and Good Luck, the 2005 movie directed and co-written by noted actor, George Clooney, who also has a supporting role in the film:

It’s 1953, and the piece of talking furniture called TV is still a novelty in America’s living rooms.  On it, Sen. Joseph McCarthy uses fear, falsehoods and belligerence to become arguably the most powerful man in the land.  On it, newsman Edward R. Murrow, who’s had his fill of the Senator’s tactics, fights back.

In 2007, Crown Forum, a division of Random House, published the 663-page Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight against America’s Enemies.  With more space on its dust jacket, here is how the publisher summarizes the book:

Author and journalist M. Stanton Evans, a long-time student of Cold War issues, spent more than six years researching this explosive new evaluation of Joe McCarthy.  In documents buried in U.S. government archives, including troves of previously unexamined FBI files, formerly missing State Department records, and heretofore unknown data from congressional investigations, he discovered the hidden history of America’s backstage Cold War.  His astonishing findings reveal that McCarthy understood, better than his opponents cared to admit, the insidious forces that posed a very real threat to American society and institutions.

One would not expect Evans to treat Clooney’s movie very favorably, and he doesn’t.  Before we share what he has to say, though, let us give some background and context to the so-called “Red scare” period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, something that is usually missing in treatments of so-called “McCarthyism,” whether it be in scholarly tomes, history textbooks, or popular movies.

Historical Background

Occasioned in part by the great disillusionment caused by the unprecedented mass slaughter that was known at the time as the Great War and then by the Great Depression, Communist ideology enjoyed enormous success in the United States in the 1930s and the early 1940s, especially among the intellectual class.  Aiding the Communist cause was the fact that leading opinion molders in the country, most notably The New York Times and the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, itself, were papering over the tyranny in the Soviet Union, leading the public to believe that it truly represented a positive alternative to our apparently failed system (See The New York Times and Joseph Stalin and Mission to Moscow.). 

Much more than public opinion was involved in the penetration of American society and government, however.  Communism, acting like a particularly virulent evangelical secular religion, penetrated organizations from the highest to the lowest throughout the country.  At the top were those who had taken the step to become dues-paying members of the U.S. Communist Party, but above them were Stalin’s espionage agents.  Rigid party discipline was enforced; party members followed orders.  To be party members was virtually synonymous with being espionage agents for the Soviet Union, that is, if that is what they were ordered to be.

The fruit of this dangerous brew was brought to the attention of FDR’s anti-Communist security chief, Adolf Berle, in September of 1939 by Communist Party defector, Whittaker Chambers.  This account is from journalist Isaac Don Levine, who had set up the meeting and was present when it took place:

The general picture drawn by Chambers that night was of two Soviet undercover "centers" or rings which, according to his firsthand knowledge, had operated in Washington for many years.  One was concerned with infiltrating unionized labor and getting Communists into the federal service; the other, with political and military affairs.  Both groups were gathering and supplying confidential data to Moscow.

We learned that the business of filching from State Department and other secret government files had been well organized by the Communist "apparatus."  Most of the time important papers would be microfilmed and replaced before they had been missed, and the material would be delivered to Soviet couriers, operating under aliases, for transmission to Russia.

It was clear that Chambers knew his way about official Washington, and he exhibited unusual familiarity with the inside of the State Department.  He named six of its officials as having knowingly furnished confidential data to Soviet undercover agents.  Mr. Berle and I were shocked by the list, which included the Hiss brothers, then in minor positions. (See FDR Winked at Soviet Espionage.)

Among those named as spies at that meeting was Lauchlin Currie, a White House aide who was later instrumental in putting Owen Lattimore in a position to exert great influence over U.S. China policy. 

When Berle brought the news to President Roosevelt, FDR blew him off, as he would later do with Martin Dies, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  This is from Dies’ account of their meeting:

We had established the fact that thousands of Communists, and their stooges and sympathizers were on the Government payroll, and I said, "Mr. President, we must do something about this.  Here is a list of many of these people.  We have their membership records in Communist-controlled organizations.  If you understand the Communists as well as I do, you will know that they are in the government for one purpose alone, and that is to steal important military and diplomatic secrets to transmit them to Moscow."

The President was furious.  I was surprised at his anger.  He called me "Mr. Congressman”—he had called me “Martin” before—Mr. Congressman, you must see a bug-a-boo under every bed."  "No, I never look under the bed," I replied.  "Well," he said, "I have never seen a man that had such exaggerated ideas about this thing.  I do not believe in Communism any more than you do, but there is nothing wrong with the Communists in this country.  Several of the best friends I have are Communists." (See FDR Tipped Pro-Soviet Hand Early.)

Not until after the war, with the Soviet Union emerging as the big winner and the Republican Party gaining control of the House of Representatives in the 1946 elections, did the chickens begin coming home to roost.  The Un-American Activities Committee received new life, and former key Communist operative, Elizabeth Bentley, became its star witness.  Before she had finished testifying, she had named over 80 Americans as spies for the Soviet Union.  She was followed by Chambers, who was subpoenaed by the committee.  He corroborated much of what Bentley had said, adding additional names to the spy list, most spectacularly, the then powerful and prominent Alger Hiss. 

The reaction of the Democratic administration and much of the mainstream press was very much like what President Roosevelt’s had been earlier.  Though somewhat less brazen about it because the charges were now out in the public—to the extent that the media publicized them—their response to the revelations that the government was riddled with spies for a country that was now undeniably the enemy can best be characterized as a circling of the wagons. 

The massive infiltration of the government and charges of wholesale espionage were boiled down for public consumption to a test of veracity between the patrician, “respectable” Hiss and the slovenly former Communist spy Chambers.  How protection of the party trumped protection of the country is perhaps best illustrated by the performance on the stand of Berle, one of the few high-level administration figures who could be described as a strong anti-Communist.  Asked about the revelations of Chambers in his meeting back in 1939, he minimized their importance by resorting to provable lies, duly relayed uncritically to the American public by The New York Times. (See FDR’s Right-Hand Perjurer?).

Another opportunity to clean house was missed, as primarily cosmetic changes were made.  Most significantly, U.S. policy in the Far East, particularly relating to China and Korea, remained in control of people with strong connections to those originally revealed by Chambers to be Soviet agents.  The anti-Communist ambassador to China, General Patrick Hurley, had been forced into resignation in 1945, and the insightful 1947 report on China policy by the experienced anti-Communist General Albert C. Wedemeyer continued to be suppressed.

China fell to the Communists in 1949 and North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950.  Suspicions were rampant in Congress that continued Communist influence within the U.S. government was related to these policy disasters.  At the same time, Congressional committee researchers learned of numerous security risks within the government who had either remained at their positions after being discovered or had been allowed to resign from one agency and then get a job at another.

The Case of Annie Lee Moss

The foregoing, in barest outline, is the general context in which Senator McCarthy became prominent as a Red hunter in the early 1950s.  The specific context of the episode that we see in Good Night and Good Luck is as follows:

Most interested initially in Communist infiltration of the State Department, the subcommittee that McCarthy headed later turned its attention to subversion in the Army, primarily by civilians working at the sensitive headquarters of the Army Signal Corps in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.  Related to that investigation was the case of the black female code clerk by the name of Annie Lee Moss who worked for the Army in the Pentagon.  “Called before the subcommittee in early 1954, she was depicted at the time, and still is,” as Evans puts it, “as the quintessential McCarthy martyr.”

The FBI had managed to place one of its deep-cover agents, Mary Markward, near the top of the Communist Party organization in Washington, DC.  She had risen to treasurer of the local cell, keeping membership rolls and records of dues payments and subscriptions to party organs.  One of those members who had also subscribed to the Communist Daily Worker was a person by the name of Annie Lee Moss. 

Moss is shown in the movie denying any connection at any time in her life with the Communist Party.  The FBI witness, Markward, had never actually seen her, and, according to Moss and her defenders, it was simply a case of mistaken identity because there were three people in the DC telephone book by the name of “Annie Lee Moss.”  Unfortunately for this line of defense, according to Evans, “… there was ample reason in 1954 to know the Moss on the witness stand and the Moss in the party records were one and the same.  Close study of the hearing records would have been enough to show this.  For instance, the Moss named by Markward had been a cafeteria employee, lived for a time with a Hattie Griffin, and received the Daily Worker—all this testified to by Markward on February 23.  The Moss appearing before McCarthy, by her own account, had been a cafeteria employee, lived for a time with Hattie Griffin, and received the Daily Worker.  Anyone comparing the transcripts could see there was no identity mix-up.”

The Annie Lee Moss appearing before the subcommittee had also lived for a time at 72 R Street, S.W., in the District.  The Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), established by the Congress to monitor the Communist Party, after reviewing party records concluded in a 1958 report, “The situation that has resulted on the Moss question is that the party’s own records, copies of which are now in evidence, and the authenticity of which it does not dispute … show an Annie Lee Moss, 72 R St., S.W., as a party member in the mid-1940s.”

The case was really open and shut.  The Annie Lee Moss who had been a dues-paying member of the Communist Party and the Annie Lee Moss who worked as a code clerk in the Pentagon were one and the same person.  But with the destruction of the reputation of Senator Joseph McCarthy taking precedence in the national agenda, it is The Legend of Annie Lee Moss (which Evans names his chapter on the subject) that has become the popular truth.  And so it is with Clooney’s movie, as Evans describes it:

A … recent treatment of the Moss affair that deserves brief notice isn’t a scholarly work, but undoubtedly has done more to spread disinformation about the case than a dozen history books together.  This is the George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck, released in 2005, based on the 1954 confrontation between McCarthy and Edward R. Murrow (the title of the film is taken from Murrow’s habitual sign-off).  This Clooney opus portrays McCarthy as a fearsome dragon and Murrow as the brave knight-errant who dared to slay him.  In a mix of modern production methods and video clips taken from the archives, the movie affects to be a study in cinema verité, supposedly revealing the evil of McCarthy simply by showing him in action.  The case of Annie Lee Moss is featured, as it was by Murrow himself back in the 1950s.

It’s of interest that neither in the Clooney film nor in the original Murrow broadcast is there any evidence cited to indicate Moss was an innocent victim—the message being conveyed instead by video clips of Moss and of [Democratic Senator John] McClellan browbeating [subcommittee chief of staff Roy] Cohn for allegedly treating her unfairly.  In the case of the Murrow broadcast, when not all the relevant data were known, this was to some extent excusable (though had Murrow and Co. been the crack journalists they professed to be, they could have dug out the facts about Hattie Griffin and the like from the hearing transcripts).  In the case of the Clooney film, there is no excuse whatever, as the truth about the case is fully available to anyone who bothers to review the voluminous SACB reports and archives of the Bureau.

Amazingly, in a press interview about all this, Clooney made it clear he had been informed that Mrs. Moss was a Communist and that he didn’t deny it.  Instead, he said, the real question stressed by Murrow and his colleagues, and therefore in the Clooney film, was that “they simply demand that she has a right to face her accuser.”  We are thus informed, after fifty years of being told Mrs. Moss was not a Communist but a mistaken-identity victim, that wasn’t the point at all!  It was, instead, her right to face her accuser.

If Clooney was indeed aware of the copious evidence on the case, as he should have been in presuming to inform the world about it, he certainly disguised this knowledge in his movie.  In the interests of historical truth, the data set forth [in this chapter] should at least have been alluded to, making it clear Mrs. Moss was in fact what Markward (and McCarthy) said, and not the victim of a mistaken-identity foul-up.  But, of course, if Clooney had brought out these facts of record, he would have had no movie.  Such information would have undercut the thesis of the film about the bullying and reckless lying of McCarthy.

As for “facing her accuser,” Mrs. Moss was not denied such right by McCarthy.  In keeping with its standard practice, the subcommittee notified Moss and her attorney that there would be testimony about her and summoned her to appear at that time to answer Markward’s statements.  Mrs. Moss herself, via a letter from her attorney received the day of the hearing, declined to do this, saying she was too ill to testify.  She was then asked to appear the following day and came to the hearing room, but her attorney again said she wasn’t in condition to take the stand.  McCarthy, though skeptical of this, said if she were really too ill to testify he didn’t want her to do so, but would reschedule her response to Markward.  Mrs. Moss then appeared on March 11, the delay occasioned by her own requests, and not the doing of McCarthy.  (Note:  If the accuser-facing reference is to the film clip in which McClellan lambasted Cohn for mentioning other witnesses who would testify to the CP status of Mrs. Moss, that appears to have been still more humbug, and a bit of playacting by McClellan.  The matter of such additional witnesses had been discussed in McClellan’s presence by McCarthy, [Democratic Senator Henry] Scoop Jackson, and Cohn in the two previous hearings, the latter attended by Mrs. Moss and her attorney.  On those occasions, McClellan hadn’t said boo about the unfairness of alluding to these other unnamed parties.  It was only after McCarthy left the hearing of March 11 that McClellan jumped Cohn for referring to this already mooted subject.)

We really should have been suspicious of a movie that would portray a talking head for William S. Paley’s CBS as some brave little David going up against a fearsome Goliath in the form of a junior Senator from Wisconsin.

David Martin

June 14, 2011


See also James Forrestal and Joe McCarthy.



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