Annie Lee Moss and Joe McCarthy
After a decade of work, Oxford University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute published the African American National Biography(AANB). The AANB is the largest repository of black life stories ever assembled with more than 4,000 biographies. To celebrate this monumental achievement we have invited the contributors to this 8 volume set to share some of their knowledge with the OUPBlog. Over the next couple of months we will have the honor of sharing their thoughts, reflections and opinions with you.
Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades. In the article below he looks at Annie Lee Moss.
A peculiar effort has been underway to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy as a Red-hunting investigator. Some commentators have declared the censured senator vindicated by the opening of Cold War archives that revealed the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States. A key figure in this debate is a witness whose brief appearance before McCarthy helped undo his public reputation: Annie Lee Moss.
An African American widow, Moss lost her government job in 1954 due to McCarthy’s investigations. Illness prevented her from testifying at a closed hearing, so it was not until she appeared at a televised hearing that McCarthy had an opportunity to take her measure. The chief witness against her, an FBI informant who served as membership director of the Communist Party’s Washington branch, testified that Annie Lee Moss’ name and address appeared in the party’s rolls from 1943 to 1945. Yet the witness, who claimed that she “knew almost all of the party members in Washington,” could not identify Moss personally.
In 1943, Moss had joined the Washington Cafeteria Workers Union, a chapter of the United Federal Workers of America (UFWA) as a condition of getting a job as a pastry cook at the Pentagon. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) later expelled the UFWA for having Communist leadership. During her two years in the union, Moss’ family received copies of the Daily Worker, but when someone came to collect the subscription fee, she refused to pay, saying she had never subscribed.
McCarthy dismissed Moss as “not of any great importance” herself. He wanted to know: “Who in the military, knowing that this lady was a Communist, promoted her from a waitress to a code clerk?” The Army denied that Moss had access to secret intelligence, and described her position as a relay machine operator who handled unintelligible coded messages. In her testimony on March 11, 1954, Moss denied having been a Communist, paying any dues or attending party meetings. She seemed such an unlikely threat to the republic that McCarthy excused himself and abruptly left midway through her testimony—although the TV cameras continued to pan his empty seat.. News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow featured her hearing in his TV program, See It Now, and the Army reinstated Moss in a “nonsensitive” post.
Like McCarthy, recent writers have shown less interest in Moss as a person than as a symbol. Rather than accept her word, they have speculated that she must have been more political than she let on, wearing a mask of innocence to deceive her interrogators. The few reporters who interviewed Moss at her home described a deeply religious woman devoted to her family, church, and community. If she was a symbol, it was of a bewildering era when citizens were presumed guilty until they proved themselves innocent.