Cohn and Schine in the Libraries

from: Rovere, Richard H. Senator Joe McCarthy, Harper Torchbooks: New York, 1959 (pp.199-205)

[Joseph McCarthy's investigation into alleged communist infiltration of the] Voice of America ... came to an end in late March of 1953. It was never completed. It just stopped its largest possibilities for tumult had been exhausted, and it trailed off into nothingness. Then, suddenly, Cohn and Schine turned up in Parison Easter Sunday, April 4, and were off on a historic adventure. It was marked from beginning to end by comedy and at the end by devastation in the International Information Administration, by bitterness and anguish in every American embassy in Western Europe. This was no joke, but the trip was. Europe laughed its head off. In the basic circumstance, there was the ready-made plot for a gorgeous farce: two young Americans -- a study in contrasts, like Laurel and Hardy or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with names memorably mated and advantageous for puns and rhymes madly, preposterously bent on the ideological purification of the greatest government on earth. And there were such familiar fixtures of low comedy as a female secret agent who had once been the toast of Vienna, a contretemps that involved a platoon of diplomats involved in a search for a missing pair of pants, and an altercation denied by the principals but believed by newspapermen and, in any case, firmly fixed in legend in which Schine chased Cohn through a hotel lobby, swatting him over the head with a rolled-up magazine. The British correspondents who followed them quickly began chanting, "Positively, Mr. Cohn! Absolutely, Mr. Schine!" The pair spent forty hours in Paris, sixteen in Bonn, nineteen in Frankfurt, sixty in Munich, forty-one in Vienna, twenty-three in Belgrade, twenty-four in Athens, twenty in Rome, and six in London.

What was it all about? After a time, it turned out to be about books in I.I.A. libraries, but the interest in books was probably minor at the start. The expedition had been set up only a few days in advance, and the purpose of it was so obscure that everywhere the travelers touched down they gave a different account of why they were traveling. In Paris, they said they were looking for inefficiency in government offices overseas. In Bonn, they said they were looking for subversives. Asked in Munich which it was, Cohn explained that it was both. "Efficiency," he said, "includes complete political reliability. If anyone is interested in the Communists, then he cannot be efficient." Back home, on "Meet the Press," he said he didn't consider himself competent to judge performances abroad and had gone only to look into "certain things."

In Rome, a new angle came to light. McCarthy, in Wash ington, had told the press that they had been sent abroad to bring back a report on the amount of money that had been spent "in putting across the Truman administration in Europe. This was news to Cohn, but he was equal to it. "We haven't heard about that," he said, "but anything the chairman of our committee says, if he said it, goes with us."

They had no purpose beyond McCarthy's continuing one of free-style, catch-as-catch-can harassment. For this the trip was unnecessary; its victories could have been enjoyed without any traveling at all. The book-burning was not a consequence of the trip; the State Department had begun to pulp, ignite, and donate to charity the offending volumes the moment it learned that McCarthy had developed bibliographic interests. By the time Cohn and Schine got to the libraries, most of them had been thoroughly bowdlerized; what remained to be done scarcely required their attentions. In terms of McCarthyism's own economy, the trip was wholly unnecessary.

Nevertheless, it was richly productive of mischief. Cohn and Schine were a pair to be laughed at, but they made a bitter jest, for they moved about under a crazy-quilted panoply that unmistakably bore, among other devices, the Great Seal of the United States.

They were simply on the prowl for anything they could turn up by talking with underground members or fellow travelers and with any Europeans who might have tidbits. They employed a woman named Hede Massing, the former toast of Vienna and, in her post-toast life, the wife of Gerhart Eisler, a Moscow agent, and herself a former Communist spy in Washington, to give them the benefit of her observations of American government employees in Europe. And they hired a jobless German politician named Hermann Aumer (he had lost his Bundestag seat when it became known that an oil company had paid him 22,000 marks to vote for an increase in gasoline prices) to brief them on the American High Commission in Germany. (Aumer later said his main work had been to prepare a memorandum on anti-McCarthy articles appearing in German newspapers that might be receiving American subsidies.) Cohn's and Schine's dealings with persons such as Aumer and Hede Massing were for the most part conducted in private. What made the trip a sensation was the public behavior of the travelers, which was observed and recorded for posterity by as many journalists as are normally assigned to such eminences as kings, presidents, and Rita Hayworth. Even their exchanges with hotel clerks were taken down. They had a standard and characteristically tasteless joke for hotel registrations. Asking for adjoining rooms but insisting that the accommodations be separate, one or the other would explain to the generally uncomprehending room clerk, "You see, we don't work for the State Department."

Vienna was a typical way station for the investigators. They arrived there by plane from Munich on Friday evening, April 10. (Hede Massing had been at the airport to see them off, and as Cohn and Schine went up the ramp, Cohn shouted down, "So long, Hede. If anything goes wrong, get in touch with Joe!") They stayed in Vienna all day Saturday and into Sunday afternoon. The total elapsed time was forty-one hours, which was slightly above the par of twenty-eight.

Three and a half hours were devoted to the labor of inspections, surveys, and talks with government officials. Two and a half hours were spent in press conferences. They held their first immediately upon landing. Cohn denied the story about Schine having hit him on the head. "A pack of lies," he said. He then went on to give the routine talk about their inquiry, pointing out that the visit to Austria was unique in that they had no reports of American subversion in that country. "We are not trying to get anybody here," he said. At noon, they met with the Ambassador for twenty minutes. Au courant with diplomacy and psychological warfare on that particular frontier, they went shopping. Schine visited a tobacconist and picked out some unusual cigars for his cigar museum. This was followed by a latish lunch with American officials, after which they went back to their hotel, leaving it in midafternoon for a tour of the spacious Soviet Information Center. Here, their interest, which, reporters said, had been noticeably lagging, perked up. According to one account, Cohn and Schine, "speeding through the cards, discovered that the authors Agnes Smedley and Theodore Dreiser, among others, were represented in the Soviet collection. An American escorting officer, pointing out other books on the open shelves, showed them that Mark Twain was also represented. Then the party headed for the U.S. Information Center, three blocks away, to study the files for the presence of such authors as had been spotted in the Soviet's card catalogue down the street. The full inspection of books and periodicals lasted just a bit less than thirty minutes. Right after it, Cohn and Schine held their second Vienna press conference. The reporters asked, politely, how a combination of ignorance of the subject and half-hour inspections could possibly enable them to form reasonable judgments of government operations in Vienna. They airily explained that they were supplementing what they had seen and learned with information gathered from reliable "Austrian sources." The press was unable to learn the identity of the Austrian sources; some of its members wondered by what feats of magic they had managed to see any Austrians, since their only known visitor was a German newspaper writer and they had visited no one. They are still wondering.

On Sunday morning, the travelers went out to the airport and said farewell to lovely Vienna, and two days later flew back to McCarthy.

I was working in Europe a few months after Cohn and Schine left, covering much the same territory they had covered, and I had a chance to see what they had wrought. Actually, not many people had been fired as a result of their trip. The most notable victim, probably, was Theodore Kaghan, who had been a Public Affairs Officer in the United States High Commission for Germany. A witness at the Voice of America hearings had called him a "pseudo-American," and it had come out that in the thirties he had shared an apartment in New York with a Communist. He might have survived these scandals if he had not described Cohn and Schine as "junketeering gumshoes" to a newspaperman during the tour, and he might have survived even this if the State Department had not been in such a panic to get rid of him. He was eased out speedily, and so were a few others, but what really damaged the whole American complex in Europe was the shame and anger of the government servants who had witnessed the whole affair. I must have talked with a hundred people in Bonn, Paris, Rome, and London who told me their resignations were written, signed, stamped, and ready for mailing or delivery. Some did not really want to resign; others planned to, and were simply waiting until they could find other jobs or make the necessary arrangements for getting their families out. No one, probably, could estimate the number of people whose departure could be traced to this affair, and surely no one could estimate its effect on morale. Morale sank very low so low, indeed, that I was surprised to note, among government people in Europe, a willingness to denounce McCarthy in extravagant language and to ridicule Cohn and Schine. This was most unlike Washington at the time, and the explanation I was given was that very few people cared any longer whether they held their jobs or not.


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