ONE OF THE LOW POINTS in American history was in the early 1950’s when Senator Joseph McCarthy successfully fueled and exploited Americans’ fear and paranoia about secret governmental conspiracies, launching witch hunts to expose allegedly subversive infiltrators and Communists within the U.S. government. A lesser known part of the story is the critical role that a same-sex male relationship, almost certainly a sexual one, played in bringing the crisis of McCarthyism to a head and, in the end, silencing the senator. As it happens, the gay couple involved cannot exactly be considered the “good guys” in the drama.
Early in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy entered history as an “accidental demagogue” when, during a speech to a small town Republican women’s club, he waved a scrap of paper toward the audience and exclaimed that it was a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party working within the State Department. Such accusations garnered national attention, which fed McCarthy’s egomaniacal hunger for fame and notoriety, leading to a carnival-like show of accusations and threats that lasted for nearly four years. That scrap of paper, by the way, was apparently his laundry receipt.
McCarthy’s rise to prominence was due partly to his sense of self-righteousness and partly to his superb performance in this self-appointed role. It always looked as though he needed a shave; he bored his listeners with a tuneless whine and smirked like a schoolyard bully after making a point; but somehow it worked. In addition, McCarthy understood how the news was made and became an expert at manipulating reporters by providing just the story they needed right before their deadlines (Fulford, 1995).
He had a passion for stories about spies and conspirators involved in secretive plans to dominate the world. During this period in American history—then as now—there was a latent, widespread public belief in secret government conspiracies, and McCarthy’s antics enabled these long dormant opinions to rise up to the surface. McCarthy successfully kindled and fueled this hitherto silent paranoia about subversive infiltration and Communism. (This was the era of the John Birch Society.) Using the legitimacy of a Senate inquiry, along with his knack for generating publicity, McCarthy fostered a general belief that every major American policy failure could be explained as a plot employed by a secretive government or its (Communist) agents.
Prior to 1952, the Republican Party had lost five presidential elections. The only successful issue they could find was the notion that Communists were subverting the nation from within, and McCarthy’s escapades greatly facilitated this strategy. This issue, as Randy Shilts (1993) argued, was “used against President Truman to blame soft Democrats for everything from ‘losing’ China to the Communists to allegedly allowing homosexuals to take over the State Department.” Eisenhower didn’t necessarily approve of the excesses of McCarthyism, but he wasn’t about to challenge a political agenda that generated such badly needed Republican support. As it turned out, homosexuals were an even easier target than suspected Communists to go after, because no one would stand up for a homosexual, not even the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1953, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 which declared sexual “perverts” to be unfit for government service—an action that he recognized was politically expedient.
In 1952, a hard-headed and dynamic young lawyer named Roy Cohn caught the attention of Senator McCarthy. Cohn was the son of a New York State Supreme Court Justice and graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of twenty. While serving on the staff of the U.S. Attorney for Southern New York, he apprenticed for two brilliant prosecutors. Cohn preferred the sensationalism of prosecuting subversive activity to more routine legal cases, and he learned all of the techniques used by prosecutors to win convictions. From 1948 to 1952, he played a significant role in the prosecution of U.S. government economist William Remington, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and eleven top officials of the Communist Party of the United States.
McCarthy recognized Cohn’s brilliance and brought him on board as chief counsel of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee. However, Cohn did not join up with the Senator alone but brought with him a personal friend named David Schine. Cohn managed to get an appointment for Schine as the subcommittee’s unpaid consultant on psychological warfare. But McCarthy got more than he’d bargained for, as one historian observed, having “added Schine to his staff … to please Cohn, never dreaming of the role this frivolous young man would play in his political and personal destruction” (Von Hoffman, 1988).
David Schine was the son of a self-made multimillionaire hotel magnate. Although he graduated from Harvard, he did not do well because he paid a secretary to attend his classes and take notes in shorthand, which she later typed out for him. His fame on campus was not for his abilities but more for what he owned. He had good looks, money, and a black Cadillac convertible with a radio telephone. Cohn and Schine met each other through Judge Irving Saypol, a former boss of Cohn’s, and although the two men had very different backgrounds, they very quickly took up with each other. The consensus from Cohn’s family was that Schine was bringing Cohn out of himself and showing him how to have a good time. “He and Roy became such fast friends and neither one of them thought the rules applied to them” (Von Hoffman, 1988).
In April 1953, Cohn and Schine set out on a hastily planned European trip. Although the stated purpose of the excursion was often obscure and seemed to vary greatly, it was contended that the two staff members were investigating the work of the United States Information Service and U.S.-run libraries to uncover any Communist or otherwise left-wing literature hiding in the shelves. Their trip did not go unnoticed by people in high places. John Foster Dulles saw to it that “the boys” were to be made comfortable in their travels by securing government funds for transportation expenses, while reserving rooms at expensive hotels such as Paris’s Hôtel de Crillon. Journalists, too, took notice of the trip and reported on every move the boys made, including one alleged incident in which Schine was seen chasing Cohn through their hotel lobby, swatting him on the head with a rolled up magazine. The trip was characterized as a fiasco, and Cohn and Schine were made into laughing-stocks—and they managed to infuriate virtually every American embassy in Western Europe, even destroying a few careers along the way.
Roy Cohn’s obvious affection for David Schine created speculation that they were lovers. However, Roy aggressively denied that he was a homosexual (even though he eventually died of AIDS). The few people who knew that he preferred sex with men were in certain danger of provoking Cohn’s wrath and suffering the consequences of his reckless assertion of power. Cohn’s intense public homophobia made it all the more difficult for those in the know to challenge his personal life, much less his blatant hypocrisy. During his eighteen months of service to Senator McCarthy, Cohn had no reservations about using other people’s homosexuality to destroy them.
But there seems to be a hint of something more going on among Cohn, Schine, and McCarthy himself lingering in the background. There were allegations that the relationship between the three bachelors was more than friendship. Author Lillian Hellman once referred to them as “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.” Hank Greenspun, publisher of The Las Vegas Sun and a passionate McCarthy hater, wrote in an article dated October 25, 1952, that McCarthy was a 43-year-old bachelor who rarely dated girls. “It is common talk among homosexuals in Milwaukee who rendezvous at the White House Inn that Senator Joe McCarthy often engages in homosexual activities.” Greenspun also wrote that during a convention at which McCarthy was an honored guest, he spent the night with William McMahon, a Young Republican from Wisconsin, and engaged in illicit acts. It is reported that McCarthy contemplated suing Greenspun, but it does not appear to have happened.
Two months after Cohn and Schine’s return from their European excursion, Schine was drafted into the U.S. Army. Cohn tried to get the Army to exempt Schine, and when that failed he tried to get them to grant a commission and assign Schine to duty with McCarthy’s committee. Ironically (or poetically), it was Cohn’s past behavior that may have prevented his success in getting a commission for Schine. Major General Miles Reber was in charge of the Office of Legislative Liaison during the time that Cohn was attempting to negotiate on Schine’s behalf. Samuel Reber was Miles’ brother, and his career with the State Department had ended abruptly because of threats from Cohn to expose him as a homosexual. Reber testified that he had received on average about two phone calls a day from Cohn to discuss an officer’s commission for Schine (Congressional Quarterly, 1954). He denied that his decision to refuse Schine a commission was related to his brother’s involuntary retirement from the State Department. But it’s hard to take this denial at face value under the circumstances. What’s telling is that Cohn apparently believed his power was such that he could get what he wanted regardless of whose career he may have destroyed.
Cohn tried relentlessly to secure special privileges for Schine and to have him assigned to duty in the New York City area. Cohn reportedly coupled his requests with threats that if his requests “were not granted he would cause the Army to be exposed in its worst light and demonstrate to the country how shabbily it was being run” (U.S. News & World Report, April 23, 1954). The Army resisted and released a report accusing McCarthy and Cohn of trying to blackmail them with threats of anti-Communist probes unless preferential treatment was given to Private Schine. McCarthy and Cohn turned it around and claimed that the Army was trying to blackmail them by using Schine as a hostage to pressure the committee to close their eyes to accusations of Communism in the armed forces. At this point the U.S. Senate intervened to investigate the charges and counter-charges in what came to be known as the Army–McCarthy hearings.
These hearings, which ran for 35 days, were a milestone in modern American history, not only for their role in bringing down Joseph McCarthy, but also because they were televised and viewed by an estimated twenty million people. Networks canceled lucrative advertising commitments in order to broadcast the proceedings, audience measurements showed the hearings outranked the top daytime shows, workers clustered around TV sets instead of working, and some 130 press correspondents overflowed the press table (U.S. News, May 14, 1954). Private Schine actually slipped into the background of the hearings, and far bigger names took the spotlight in what became a climactic showdown between Joseph McCarthy and his enemies. In the end, these hearings discredited McCarthy and Cohn forever, though the latter went on to become a high-powered lawyer in New York with close ties to Republican politicians and conservative causes.
After Communists, homosexuals were the main target of McCarthy’s four-year smear campaign. Consequently, one of the huge ironies of this particular historical event is that it was brought to a climax because of a same-sex relationship that happened to involve one of the principle players in the drama. Because Roy Cohn was apparently willing to blackmail the United States Army in order to secure an exemption from the draft for his personal friend, a series of very public hearings was called in which Joseph McCarthy was seen by millions as the ranting and drunken fraud that he was. But the subversive little secret that brought the hearings into being never came to light.
Fulford, Robert. “American Demons of the 1950s.” Queen’s Quarterly, 102(3), 1995.
Investigation of Army-McCarthy dispute. Congressional Quarterly Vol. X, 83rd Cong., 2d Session. Congressional Quarterly News Features, 1954.
Miller, Neil. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. Vintage, 1995.
Shilts, Randy. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Von Hoffman, Nicholas. Citizen Cohn: The Life and Times of Roy Cohn. Doubleday, 1988.