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Fifty years ago, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his consiglieri, Roy Cohn, mesmerized the nation with their Communist witch-hunt, the first nationally televised congressional inquiry. But before McCarthy took his show on the air, he rehearsed it in private. One of his victims was Abraham Unger, a founder of the left-leaning National Lawyers Guild. As part of McCarthy’s hunt for Communists at the United Nations, Unger was asked about Julius Reiss, an American who worked there. Unger had briefly employed Reiss to work on a case involving the Smith Act, a 1940 law that made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the government. The transcripts of those private sessions, sealed for nearly 50 years, were made public in May. Following are highlights from the exchange, which took place on September 15, 1953. Cohn: Did you do any such work concerning the preparation of the defense of persons indicted under the Smith Act? Unger: I think that is irrelevant to the subject of inquiry. That has to do with the question of attorney-client relationships, which obviously are not something, which you should inquire into. … Cohn: Is Mr. Reiss, to your knowledge, a member of the Communist Party? Unger: On that subject, I would say to you, I object to the question on the grounds of principle. I think, for one, on the basis of what you have already represented here, that is not a relevant question to the inquiry; and secondly, I object on the grounds that it is not within the purview of a congressional committee, this one, to inquire into the political beliefs and opinions of persons. And thirdly, that it is improper on my part to identify any person to describe, rather, the political opinions or beliefs of any person. That is a matter between himself and yourself, if he decides to state it. … McCarthy: Counselor didn’t ask you about his political beliefs and opinions. Unger: Yes, he did. McCarthy: He asked you whether he was a Communist. Unger: That is a political belief or opinion. McCarthy: That is whether or not he belongs to a conspiracy that is dedicated to overthrow this government. You will be ordered to answer the question. Unger: Senator, I want to say to you again that your statement as to what the Communist Party is simply a volunteered personal comment which you make, and while there is no one to stop you from doing so, you can hardly consider that it is acceptable as either evidence or as a basis for a question within the purview of the examination. … McCarthy: You are here to give up any information, which you have about this man. Counsel asked you a very simple question, whether or not he is a Communist. You will be ordered to answer the question. Unger: I have stated to you. McCarthy: I have heard what you stated. Unger [continuing]: Then I think you are not giving it sufficient consideration, Senator. I understand what your purpose is. I know that you are going after Communists, and that is a fairly well known activity on your part, and it is not my purpose here to debate that question with you. You have the power to do so at present, and you seem to be exercising it for your own purposes. … Cohn: Were you yourself at that time the head of the professional group of the Communist Party in this area? Unger: This is an intrusion upon the personal political rights and freedoms of an individual, and entirely outside the scope and powers of a congressional committee, having no relevance to the subject of an investigation, and intended solely for ulterior purposes which are improper and unlawful, and I therefore object to answering that question. Cohn: Of course, this witness says he doesn’t know whether or not Reiss is a Communist. As you know, Mr. Chairman, we have some evidence to the contrary, and it appears that Mr. Reiss was a member of the party. McCarthy: In other words, you have got information that shows that this witness either knows or should know that Reiss was a Communist; is that right? Cohn: That’s right. McCarthy: The witness will be ordered to answer the question. Unger never did answer the question, despite much similar browbeating, nor did he take the Fifth Amendment, and the Senate cited him for contempt as a result. The charges were dismissed on appeal. Old friends and colleagues couldn’t recall specifics of Unger’s later life, but his name lives on in the minds of conspiracy buffs. His phone number was written on a piece of paper found in Lee Harvey Oswald’s pocket the night after he assassinated President Kennedy. The National Lawyers Guild played another important role during the hearings. It was accusations by McCarthy about guild member and Hale and Dorr associate Fredrick Fisher that caused Army special counsel and Hale and Dorr partner Joseph Welch to utter the angry reply that marked the turning point in the inquisition: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

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