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Sen. Joe McCarthy's Startling Morphine Source

During the 1950s Red Scare, America's first drug czar fed the opiate addiction of America's most feared senator. Loved or hated, McCarthy remains a legend. Why is his drug habit so little known?

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Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn photo

By Matt Harvey

05/13/13

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Joe McCarthy, the late senator from Wisconsin who built his reputation by whipping up the anti-Communist hysteria sweeping America at the beginning of the Cold War, has long been widely viewed as an object lesson in the abuse of power. His style of politics—demagoguery, paranoia and, worst of all, witch-hunts—has been named McCarthyism, and in recent years some politicians have emerged who would wear the label proudly. For people who have struggled with addiction, however, McCarthy—an alcoholic and opiate addict—offers a provocative question about the limits of our own anti-stigma views.

By the peak of his power in 1953, McCarthy's allegations of “Communist subversion” had wrecked havoc on virtually every level of government—from scores of federal employees whose careers were ruined by unfounded charges of “treason” to decorated war heroes to highly respected statesmen. McCarthy even characterized the entire Democratic Party as the “party of treason.”

Not surprisingly, there is a long tradition of right-wing pols and pundits who see McCarthy as a misunderstood hero. Sen. Ted Cruz, the newly elected Tea Party Republican from Texas, has already won widespread comparisons to McCarthy for his innuendo-laced pronouncements about Democratic members of Congress and presidential appointees such as Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary. Cruz has welcomed the criticism as “a sign that perhaps we’re doing something right.” In fact, McCarthy seems to be almost a role model for Cruz, who in 2010 upbraided his alma mater, Harvard Law School, for harboring a dozen communists on its faculty.

A larger-than-life figure of enduring influence, the story of Joe McCarthy would seem to offer little in the way of surprises. The fact that he suffered from severe alcoholism is well known. But the fact that by many accounts, he was also addicted to opiates remains almost as hidden as it was during his lifetime.

That Capitol Hill was rife with drinking and even drugging was an open secret in the 1950s, but the “private” lives of political figures remained largely unpublicized. This protected McCarthy’s favorable reputation with the American public from the stinging stigma attached to alcoholism and drug addiction. (There is some speculation that his opiate addiction was the result of either treatment for “chronic pain” or treatment by sympathetic doctors to help fortify the hangover-hobbled senator to get him through the day. But he may have had a personality disorder; a friend remarked once that he "operates in his own moral universe.")

Yet even in the current age of celebrity snort-and-tell publicity, when nothing seems capable of shocking, the method in which McCarthy’s drugs were supplied is, well, shocking.

According to the country’s first de-facto drug czar, Harry Anslinger, McCarthy’s addiction was enabled by the federal government. Anslinger, who served as chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, is credited with successfully demonizing “marijuana” as causing addiction and insanity, murder and mayhem. More than any other political figure, Anslinger was responsible for criminalizing opiates and its users. And his word was gospel when it came to the country’s nascent war on drugs.

In his 1961 memoir, The Murderers, Anslinger wrote about finding out, in the 1950s, that a prominent senator (whom he left unnamed) was addicted to morphine. When confronted by Anslinger, the politician refused to stop, even daring Anslinger to reveal his addiction, saying it would cause irreparable harm to the “Free World.”  Anslinger responded to this gambit by securing the lawmaker a steady supply of dope from a Washington, DC, pharmacy. (Morphine taken by prescription was, then as now, legal.)

Anslinger’s acquiescence was a testament to just how feared McCarthy was in his heyday. Few dared to speak above a whisper about his evident alcoholism. “[He] went on for some time, guaranteed his morphine because it was underwritten by the Bureau," Anslinger wrote. "On the day he died I thanked God for relieving me of my burden."

Beltway insiders guessed that the smack-addicted senator’s bullying threats and bombastic appeals to patriotism—not to mention the fact that he had died in office—pointed to the late Joseph McCarthy. Anslinger, however, refused to reveal the name to reporters. The story dropped out of circulation until 1972, when a landmark study on the effects of narcotics, issued by Consumer Reports, repeated it (still with no name attached) in a chapter on “eminent narcotic addicts.”

Even in the current age of celebrity snort-and-tell publicity, when nothing seems capable of shocking, the method in which McCarthy’s drugs were supplied is, well, shocking.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings, which riveted Americans to their small black-and-white television sets in 1954, McCarthy’s combustible mix of grandiosity and paranoia was on full self-destructive display. Every so often a senator on the subcommittee would remind viewers—among whom McCarthy’s favorability ratings were falling by the week—of the real reason for the proceedings: an investigation of charges that McCarthy had tried to blackmail the Army into giving special favors to a McCarthy aide who had been drafted. All spring, McCarthy played to the cameras in his deep-throated baritone, using the hearings to preach “communist infiltration” at all levels of government (including the Army), and appealing to what he called the “real jury—the 16 million television viewers out there.”

But then Army chief counsel Joseph Welch confronted McCarthy over his attempt to blacken the reputation of a young Welch associate, for purportedly joining a “Communist-front” lawyers organization. When McCarthy persisted, a visibly shaken Welch famously upbraided him with these words: “Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The packed hall burst into applause.

By the time the gavel fell on the hearings, McCarthy could be seen desperately haranguing an empty chamber. Having finally gone too far, he was censured by a slim majority of his peers. Neither the career nor the man himself ever recovered; he died three years later. McCarthy’s last years were not pretty. He was in and out of the hospital with exhaustion, broken bones, failing organs. Apt to suddenly appear on crutches, or with his arm in a sling, he fluctuated noticeably in weight. His official cause of death, “noninfectious, seldom fatal, hepatitis, cause unknown," is not consistent with the acute alcoholic’s liver disease that is generally thought to have killed him.

McCarthy’s opiate addiction became public fodder only after Anslinger’s death. A 1978 article in, of all places, Ladies Home Journal named McCarthy as the senator in Anslinger’s autobiography. “Agents who worked under [Anslinger] claim that the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy was addicted to morphine and regularly obtained his narcotics through a druggist near the White House, authorized by Anslinger to fill the prescription,” Maxine Cheshire wrote.

Given Cheshire’s credentials as a respected Washington Post reporter, the report was treated not as gossip but as news, and widely disseminated. United Press International (UPI) put it starkly, “[McCarthy] was a morphine addict who had his drugs supplied by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for the sake of national security.”

In Flowers in the Blood: the Story of Opium, a 1981 investigation into the history of opium use, addiction and interdiction, Dean Latimer reported that the relationship between Anslinger and McCarthy was more complicated and hypocritical than Anslinger had ever let on. Just when the top drug-enforcer was supplying McCarthy with his government-approved pharmaceutical smack, the two worked hand in hand to pin the country’s burgeoning heroin trade on a Communist Chinese plot, even though the trafficking was clearly a mafia-controlled operation. Such a fiction would have conveniently served the federal government’s relaxed policy toward organized crime. (During his 40-year reign, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover never even acknowledged Cosa Nostra’s very existence.)

The last mainstream mention of McCarthy’s morphine addiction that this writer has uncovered dates back to 1989, when the Philadelphia Inquirer attacked scholarship supporting Cheshire’s findings. By now, of course, anyone who could have authoritatively confirmed the story is long dead. 

McCarthy was undoubtedly a man who wrestled with more than his share of private demons that he was only too eager to unleash on the nation. His exploitation of his country’s greatest fears have made him a polarizing figure. To most, he is a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. But to some, he is an exemplar of the principle that, as the late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Given the current climate of polarization in our national politics, it is not surprising that McCarthy-as-myth has made a comeback.

For the recovery community, there is a special question in the story of Joe McCarthy. Whether omitted by those who would rehabilitate him or advertised by those who would vilify him, his addiction is viewed as a shameful "scarlet letter." For those of us who view addiction as a disease to be treated with sympathy—and who reserve none of that emotion for McCarthy the demagogue—coming to terms with McCarthy the addict is, to say the least, challenging.

Matt Harvey is an award-winning freelance journalist whose writing has appeared on AnimalNY.comBlack Book, the New York Post and the New York Press, among other publications. He lives in Manhattan. 

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