[Marxism] Dr. Irving Peress, Target of McCarthy Crusade, Dies at 97
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Tue Nov 18 00:05:09 MST 2014
NY Times, Nov. 18 2014
Dr. Irving Peress, Target of McCarthy Crusade, Dies at 97
By SAM ROBERTS
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
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
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
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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