In the 1950s, Robert Kennedy, like most Americans, despised communism. At the time, the Soviet Union was "Enemy #1." But RFK honed his anti-communism working side-by-side with the nation's leading red-baiter, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
A Kennedy family friend, McCarthy vacationed with the clan on Cape Cod, and even dated two Kennedy sisters, Pat and Jean. When Bobby needed a job in 1952, after working on his brother Jack's successful Senate campaign, his father Joe Kennedy picked up the phone. By January, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had a new lawyer.
He would last barely six months, done in by a rivalry with McCarthy's chief deputy, Roy Cohn, as well as disenchantment with their overzealous style. But the months with McCarthy would follow Kennedy for the rest of his life, helping define the "Bad Bobby" that many liberals could never quite forget.
Though Kennedy had long since moved on, he found McCarthy's death in 1957 "very upsetting." In historian Ronald Steel's words, "for him the errant senator was a kindred spirit -- one engaged, as he was himself, in the struggle against evil."
In this excerpt from the hearing transcripts, Robert Kennedy questions Markus Kalasz, a Hungarian-born steelworker from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about his ties to the Communist Party:
Markus Kalasz: He and another fellow, and I don't remember his name, they came to the house just at the time when we eat, before I would go to the afternoon shift work, and they asked me to join the party, and I said, "'Boys, nothing doing. I am registered Democrat, and I tell you this,"' and I point my finger to them, and I said, "A man cannot be a Jew and a Catholic, and a man cannot be a Democrat and a Communist. It is impossible."
Robert F. Kennedy: When were you telling him this?
Kalasz: That day, and they coax me, and coax me.
Kennedy: When was this?
Kalasz: They picked me up in his car, and took me down to the gate where I was going to work.
Kennedy: When was this?
Kalasz: They coaxed me to get the paper.
Kennedy: Just answer me. When was that when you did point your finger that you can remember, when you pointed your finger at them?
Kalasz: I don't know the date.
Kennedy: If you can remember when you pointed your finger at them, Mr. Kalasz, you ought to remember about what year this was, and was it a month ago, or was it ten years ago?
Kalasz: Oh no, that was in about those years you mentioned over there, that was before we got the contract.
Senator Potter: Would it be about 1937?
Kalasz: No, that was later, pretty close to 1940, and after 1940, after we got the first contract, and they came many times.
Kennedy: You can remember pointing your finger at them but you can't remember what year it was?
Kalasz: I am too doggone absentminded on that.
Kennedy: Why can you remember that you pointed your finger at them?
Excerpt from Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations (McCarthy Hearings 1953-54). Volume 5. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C., 2003.