TCS Daily

'Romantic Radicals'

By Lauren Weiner - November 17, 2005 12:00 AM

It is the way of the bien pensant intellectual to reason thusly: Because Senator Joseph McCarthy was a demagogue, nobody in America was rooting for Josef Stalin or helped him. And here's the logical corollary, subscribed to by the bien pensant actor and director George Clooney: Because McCarthy was a demagogue, CBS news legend Edward R. Murrow's fiery denunciations of "hysteria" about communism were not only plucky and self-righteous but uttered in defense of opinionated yet essentially innocent Americans.

Some of the people Murrow spoke up for were more than just opinionated, though.

Clooney's picture "Good Night and Good Luck" gives moviegoers some idea of the motive behind Murrow's famous anti-McCarthy television report, a half-hour broadcast of "See It Now" that informed a wide audience of the Wisconsin Senator's reckless way of going after people who were or were reputed to be members of the Communist Party. (McCarthy would be censured by the Senate nine months after it aired.) But the film simplifies that motive, leeching from it a whole lot of its historical import and personal drama.

Murrow's March 9, 1954 "See It Now" salvo was a pre-emptive strike against "Tail Gunner Joe," who was poised to go after the newsman in retribution for covering him critically on CBS. The threat of imputing Red associations to Murrow was based on his work during the 1930s for a New York-based organization called the Institute of International Education, which promoted exchange visits for foreign scholars, including Soviet scholars.

The name of this institute is bandied about several times by the characters in "Good Night and Good Luck" -- to indicate that McCarthy was digging into Murrow's past -- but there is no mention of the people who ran it. They were Murrow's mentor, Stephen Duggan, and Duggan's son, the late Laurence Duggan. And therein lies the fascinating tale. McCarthy's bullying of Murrow with the use of Duggan-related dirt infuriated him, according to Alexander Kendrick in his 1969 Murrow biography. His CBS assistant brought him the details of the accusation, and said a creepy member of McCarthy's Senate staff (depicted in the film) was waving around an old newspaper clipping as the supposed proof that the newsman had been "on the Soviet payroll." Kendrick quotes Murrow's reaction: "The question now is when do I go against these guys." He and his producer Fred Friendly then carefully prepared, and put on the air, the famous expose of McCarthy.

Edward R. Murrow wasn't a communist. He took umbrage on behalf of both himself and the Duggans -- particularly Laurence, whose death six years earlier was a raw wound for the East Coast establishment of which Murrow was a part. They had lost one of their own when Duggan jumped or fell from the 16th floor of his Manhattan office in 1948 in the midst of the legal and political maelstrom of the Alger Hiss spy case.

Larry Duggan, former chief of the State Department's Latin American division, a charming, smart, and warm-hearted Ivy Leaguer who strived to bring about world peace, had a lot in common with Hiss. Murrow, justifiably angry that America's loudest counter-subversive was trying to intimidate him and sully his friend's memory, did not know that that friend was, like Hiss, a dedicated communist who passed sensitive information to Stalin's agents in the United States. The FBI interviewed Duggan in connection with the Hiss prosecution in December 1948. His shocking death days later at the age of 43 preserved his secret, for the media and his friends and family made him into a martyr -- a liberal destroyed by right-wingers who enjoyed impugning respectable citizens without due process. For decades afterward, those interested in the history of this period generally viewed the Duggan affair in the same way as the literary lion Archibald MacLeish, who wrote a poem upon Duggan's death that began:

"God help that country where informers thrive! Where slander flourishes and lies contrive."

It was not Senator McCarthy who had pursued Duggan as an underground communist but those active in the Hiss case: Representative Richard Nixon of California, the ex-communist Whittaker Chambers, and the ex-communist Isaac Don Levine. These were the people accused of symbolic manslaughter by university presidents, diplomats, newspaper columnists, and other worthies when Duggan died. The tragedy received front page coverage in the New York Times. Prominent people attended Duggan's memorial service. In Washington, a group of his friends put out a statement deploring the congressional panel on which Nixon sat, the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC's investigations, they charged, dragged the names of good Americans through the mud. Some Duggan supporters even suspected foul play.

Foul play there had actually been, but not what MacLeish, Nicholas Murray Butler, Sumner Welles, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the other grieving friends of Duggan might have thought. According to the account of Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood (1999), when in 1937 a man named Ignatz Reiss broke from Stalin's secret service, a pair of KGB assassins hunted down the defector in Switzerland and killed him to stop him from blowing the cover of Laurence Duggan and another American official who secretly assisted the KGB out of devotion to world communism and the Soviet Union, Noel Field.

In 1948, the furor over Duggan knocked the counter-subversives back on their heels. Nixon dove for political cover. Pressed for comment by reporters, his fellow anticommunists awkwardly tried to say nice things about the deceased, a sensitive family man and pillar of the community, even as they stuck by their conclusion that he was in league with Moscow's agents. Chambers, cornered by a New York Times reporter in the corridor of the federal court house where the Hiss grand jury was meeting, said that he'd testified to Duggan's being one of the covert communists he'd heard about, but he was not personally acquainted with the man nor had he used him as a source in the pre-war spy ring that he, Chambers, managed for Soviet military intelligence.

Chambers sounded defensive, but his testimony was borne out later, when archival documents and decrypted cable traffic between Moscow, New York, and Washington came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet cables and documents showed that Duggan's deliveries to the KGB (known in those years by other acronyms) included a confidential cable from the U.S. ambassador in Moscow back to the State Department, U.S. diplomatic dispatches from Europe offering U.S. perspectives on the civil war going on in Spain, and a State Department personnel list. Two of his code names were "Frank" and "Prince." His handler was Norman Borodin, whose boss was KGB station chief Izhak Akhmerov.

Murrow and the rest had been unable or unwilling, in the heat of the communist controversy, to distinguish between McCarthy's theatrics and the more considered charges leveled by people who actually knew a lot about communism. Murrow, according to his biographer, wanted to follow up his television broadcast on McCarthy with one on the untimely demise of Laurence Duggan. This, he believed, would drive home the moral point about the evils of anticommunism. He never got to make that show.

What if he had? Or better yet, what if he knew then what we know today? Would it have affected his airy indifference -- well conveyed by actor David Straithairn as the movie's Edward R. Murrow -- to whether a targeted individual was a communist or not?

"Good Night and Good Luck" is a missed chance in this regard. For Laurence Duggan was one of several "romantic radicals" in the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s, to borrow a phrase from The Haunted Wood's chapter on Duggan. He is described there as an idealist in the cause of revolution who would not deign to take money from the Russians for risking his career to give them intelligence. The double life of the spy apparently took a severe toll. Judging from the Soviet records plumbed by Weinstein and Vassiliev, Duggan was one skittery pigeon. First there was his anxiety to protect his job, his family, and his reputation as a loyal American. Then -- and more interestingly -- there was his stricken conscience as he took in news of the bloody political purges in Moscow during the late 1930s. It bewildered and embarrassed him, his Soviet handlers wrote to headquarters, that famous Bolshevik heroes of the October Revolution were being tried and executed, one after another, as "Trotsky-fascist spies." Some of the Soviet diplomats he knew were getting recalled home and liquidated, to his horror.

Like guidance counselors fussing over a fragile high school student, Duggan's handlers conferred with Moscow repeatedly on strategies to reassure Duggan so he would not lose faith in the revolution or lose the nerve to keep serving it clandestinely. He was worth their trouble. Unlike some of the other sources in government positions in Washington, Duggan gave Moscow information it valued highly, including the U.S. Navy's data on war materiel that foreign governments were ordering from manufacturing firms in the United States. He did beg off for certain periods, but Borodin would coax him into resuming, into the mid-1940s, his pilfering of official information.

After years of betraying the people he worked with at the State Department, Duggan finally had to leave government, amid suspicions that he was a security risk. He returned to New York, first to a United Nations job and then to take the helm of the Institute of International Education. Then, the Hiss case broke; the FBI knocked on the door of the Duggan home in Scarsdale; and the fear and even perhaps the shame may have welled up in Laurence Duggan past all enduring.

George Clooney walked up to this human drama, brushed lightly against its edge and passed right around it. Given his politics, one can see why. But any self-respecting cinematic storyteller ought to kick himself for failing to find room for the psychic tension, the tragedy, the surprise, and the supreme irony of the fact that the crusading journalist Edward R. Murrow, believing he was vindicating the dignity and rights of the loyal opposition, took his potent shot at "McCarthyism" partly in defense of a Soviet spy.

The author works on Capitol Hill for a Republican member of Congress.


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