[Marxism] Dr. Irving Peress, Target of McCarthy Crusade, Dies at 97

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 18 00:05:09 MST 2014

NY Times, Nov. 18 2014
Dr. Irving Peress, Target of McCarthy Crusade, Dies at 97

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade had reached a fever 
pitch in 1954 when Irving Peress, a New York dentist who had been 
drafted into the Army, became the beneficiary of a seemingly routine 
promotion from captain to major.

What followed was anything but routine. Dr. Peress was branded a 
Communist, and his promotion — unsought by him, a reluctant warrior from 
the start — became a Cold War battle cry, spurred a nationally televised 
congressional investigation and all but ended McCarthy’s anti-Communist 
campaign and political career.

The chant “Who promoted Peress?” rumbled across America and ultimately 
claimed the jobs of several top Army officials, cost Dr. Peress much of 
his private dental practice in Queens and even drove his wife, Elaine, 
to resign under pressure as editor of the Parent-Teachers Association 
bulletin at Public School 49 in Middle Village, Queens.

A resident of Queens since 1958, he died at his home in Queens on 
Thursday at 97, his son, Jeffrey, said on Sunday.

Dr. Peress found himself in McCarthy’s cross hairs as the senator, a 
Republican from Wisconsin, was waging a relentless campaign to root out 
suspected Communists from the government. In the televised Army-McCarthy 
hearings, he attacked Army officials for allowing Julius Rosenberg to 
penetrate the Signal Corps. Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, were 
convicted as Soviet spies and executed in 1953.

McCarthy contended that Dr. Peress’s promotion had been directed by a 
“silent master who decreed special treatment for Communists.” Dr. 
Peress, he said, represented “the key to the deliberate Communist 
infiltration of our armed forces.” McCarthy called him a “Fifth 
Amendment Communist.”

Dr. Peress (pronounced PEH-ress) invoked the Fifth Amendment dozens of 
times at a Senate subcommittee hearing after a New York City policewoman 
swore that he and his wife were Communists and had attended a leadership 
class run by the party.

Dr. Peress did testify that he would oppose any group that sought a 
violent or unconstitutional overthrow of the government. He quoted the 
Book of Psalms: “His mischief shall return upon his own head and his 
violence shall come down upon his own pate.”

He also said that anyone, even a senator, who equated the invoking of 
constitutional privileges against incrimination with automatic guilt was 
himself guilty of subversion.

McCarthy, as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on 
Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, accused the 
Army of coddling Dr. Peress. He said it had promoted him despite 
questions about his loyalty; had acceded to his request not to be 
assigned to Japan; and had allowed him to be honorably discharged 
despite McCarthy’s demand that he be court-martialed.

In fact, Dr. Peress’s promotion to major, along with hundreds of others, 
was considered largely automatic under legislation passed by Congress, 
and the change in assignment, forwarded by the Red Cross, was granted 
because his wife and young daughter were ill. As for the honorable 
discharge, the Army argued that invoking the Fifth Amendment was not 
sufficient grounds for military prosecution.

The senator’s bluster during the hearings, his denunciation of Brig. 
Gen. Ralph W. Zwicker as “unfit” to wear his uniform, and his pressuring 
the Army for preferential treatment for G. David Schine, a draftee who 
was an associate of the McCarthy counsel Roy Cohn, finally prompted a 
showdown with the White House and, later that year, McCarthy’s censure 
by the Senate.

Had Dr. Peress, in fact, been a Communist?

“Not when I was in the Army, not for one minute,” he replied in a 2005 
interview with The New York Times, the first time he and his wife talked 
about the case and its consequences.

And before that?

“I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “Nothing can accrue to it.”

“I never advocated the violent overthrow of the government,” he offered.

“I’m far from a Marxist scholar,” he said, “but from my skimming of 
Marx, it was always reasonable, appropriate: democratic control by 
people of their own destinies and in control of the means of production. 
It’s so utopian and mythological, it’s hard to conceive. Who would be 
against it? And what the Soviet Union was on its way to was enough to 
convince me.”

Why not just say that to the committee, he was asked, instead of 
invoking the Fifth Amendment?

“The next thing is, ‘Name names,’ ” he said. “That’s the follow-up 
question. I have a constitutional right not to tell you. Even Oliver 
North took the Fifth Amendment,” he added, referring to the Marine 
lieutenant colonel and White House intelligence official who was called 
to testify before Congress during the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s.

“The common knowledge according to all of us who were involved was, if 
you answer one question, you give up your constitutional privileges,” he 

“Were we Communists?” Elaine Peress interjected. “I don’t see why I 
would need to answer that question. It’s nobody’s business. You don’t 
say you pray every morning; you don’t have to answer, ‘Do you believe in 
God?’ ”

After the hearings, the Peress home in Queens was stoned. Not only did 
Elaine Peress become a target by association, pressured to step down as 
editor of the P.T.A. bulletin, but someone called leaders of the Brownie 
pack that one of their daughters belonged to and warned them to be wary 
of possible subversion. A dentist with whom Dr. Peress practiced 
persuaded him to take his name off the door. Dr. Peress sold the 
practice in 1980 and retired in 2003.

The son of a tailor, he was born in Manhattan on July 31, 1917, and 
graduated from George Washington High School there. At City College, he 
enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. He recalled playing box 
ball on campus while classmates debated the relative merits of 
Trotskyism. He went on to study at New York University Dental School.

Irving Peress was largely apolitical at dental school, until he met and 
married Elaine Gittelson, a politically active English teacher who 
became a therapist and psychiatric social worker. They had two daughters 
besides their son, all of whom survive him, along with grandchildren. 
Elaine Peress died in 2012.

After graduating from dental school in 1940, Dr. Peress sought a 
commission as an Army dentist but was rejected because of a hernia. By 
the time over-age doctors and dentists were being drafted during the 
Korean War, he had established his practice and had no desire to leave 
it, so he fattened up to aggravate his hypertension in hopes of failing 
his physical. He passed anyway.

When he applied for a commission as an officer in 1952, he signed an 
oath declaring that he had never belonged to an organization that sought 
to alter the government by unconstitutional means. (“I didn’t consider 
the American Labor Party or the Communist Party subversive 
organizations,” he said.) But on subsequent loyalty forms he wrote 
“federal constitutional privilege” when asked about membership in groups 
deemed to be subversive.

“A Communist who’s trying to infiltrate isn’t going to call attention to 
himself,” Dr. Peress said.

Had his views about Communism evolved? “I am more and more confused,” he 
replied in the 2005 interview. “I was a true believer until the 
not-too-distant past. I have no doubts about the crimes of capitalism, 
even though it’s such an efficient system on paper.”

Also, no regrets. “Regrets? That I acted appropriately?” he said. “No. 
None at all. True believers don’t have regrets.”

So who promoted Dr. Peress?

He blamed red tape. “You know who promoted me?” Dr. Peress asked 
rhetorically. “Somebody was eating lunch or making a telephone call when 
my promotion passed across their desk. I slipped through.”

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