Murrey Marder, McCarthy-era Washington Post reporter, dies at 93

March 14, 2013

Murrey Marder, a Washington Post reporter whose tenacious coverage of Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade foreshadowed the senator’s downfall and disgrace, died March 11 at the Washington Home hospice. He was 93.

The cause was complications from a stroke last month, said his nephew Steve Marder.

Mr. Marder’s career spanned nearly eight decades, including World War II service in the South Pacific as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He joined The Post in 1946 and distinguished himself on the so-called “Red Beat,” the sensational trials and hearings about the alleged communist infiltration of government, Hollywood and other industries.

In his journalism history book “The Powers That Be,” author David Halberstam described Mr. Marder as “the perfect choice for the assignment, quiet, intelligent, dogged and meticulous. There was nothing flashy about a Marder story, no one ever accused him of deft or imaginative prose, but he was above all else careful and fair.”

Mr. Marder was among a cadre of print journalists — including Anthony Lewis of the old Washington Daily News and Philip Potter of the Baltimore Sun — who shunned a stenographic approach to reporting on McCarthy’s charges of spy rings and rampant security threats.


Longtime Washington Post reporter Murrey Marder, right, with Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee in an undated photo. (THE WASHINGTON POST FILE)

According to Halberstam’s account, Mr. Marder spent long hours at the office, agonizing over his stories to add nuance and perspective — often testing the patience of editors who wanted shorter, punchier articles. Not entirely as a compliment, future Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee once described Mr. Marder as “one of the world’s most thorough reporters.”

To Mr. Marder, the stakes were too high to work any faster. As Mr. Marder and other journalists would later reveal, McCarthy (R-Wis.) ruined lives and careers through threat and innuendo. His bully pulpit was the chairmanship of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Mr. Marder’s biggest story came in the autumn of 1953, when McCarthy held closed-door hearings into an alleged spy ring at the Army Signal Corps laboratories at Fort Monmouth, N.J. After the hearings, as many as 42 people were suspended without pay. Many of them did not know the precise nature of the charges brought against them.

Mr. Marder spent a week at Fort Monmouth and learned that a vast majority of the security cases had already been investigated and dismissed by the Army. In an interview years later, Mr. Marder described the accusations as “even flimsier than most — reading the Daily Worker or [knowing] somebody who had gone to school with somebody else who was thought to be a Communist.”

He called the charges the “dregs” of the security investigations from that era but noted that McCarthy “had built the thing so highly that it was sort of waiting for someone to come along and look at it. And nobody wanted to bother.”

Mr. Marder laid out his findings in four stories in early November 1953. At a news conference soon afterward, he successfully pressed Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens to admit there was no evidence of espionage at Fort Monmouth.

Stevens’s confirmation was politically delicate. McCarthy was at the apex of his power, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower had yet to speak out forcefully against his fellow Republican.

Stevens was “a very timid man and had every reason to believe if he were too critical of McCarthy, he might not be supported by the president,” said Anthony Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for his Daily News stories about people who had been removed from government service for alleged communist sympathies.

Lewis, who became a New York Times columnist, called Mr. Marder one of the key “avenging angels” against McCarthy’s tactics.

The Fort Monmouth episode was one of several attempts by the senator to target armed forces personnel for supposed communist leanings. It was a harbinger of McCarthy’s political demise in 1954 in a nationally televised showdown known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. The senator drew almost unanimously critical coverage and, that December, was censured by the Senate. He died three years later.

In 1957, Mr. Marder opened The Post’s first foreign bureau, in London, and roamed the world as chief diplomatic correspondent. He participated in coverage of the disputed Tonkin Gulf clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese sea forces in 1964 that led President Lyndon B. Johnson to commit U.S. ground forces to the Vietnam War effort.

In 1971, Mr. Marder was one of the chief Post reporters assigned to write stories based on the Defense Department’s secret multi-volume history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers. He was brought into discussions among Post publisher Katharine Graham and top editors about whether to publish the papers at all.

“If The Post doesn’t publish, it will be in a much worse shape as an institution than if it does,” Mr. Marder had argued, as quoted in Graham’s memoir. He said the paper’s “credibility would be destroyed journalistically for being gutless.”

The Nixon Administration tried to prevent the New York Times and The Post from printing the documents, but the Supreme Court ruled in the newspapers’ favor, citing First Amendment rights.

Murrey Marder was born Aug. 8, 1919, in Philadelphia, where his father was a merchant. At 17, Mr. Marder began working as a copy boy at the Evening Public Ledger of Philadelphia. He retired from The Post in 1985.

His wife, the former Frances Sokoloski, died in 1996. As a widower with no immediate survivors, he used $1.3 million of his Post stock — a vast portion of his retirement savings — to start a public watchdog program affiliated with Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

“It all goes back to 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution,” Mr. Marder told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “I was convinced from the beginning that if the press and Congress had fulfilled their proper watchdog function about that alleged ‘unprovoked attack’ on a U.S. destroyer by North Vietnamese torpedo boats, we would never have gotten into the scale of warfare we did in Vietnam.

“That weighed on me for the rest of my career,” Mr. Marder said.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”