Roy M. Cohn, a young ambitious attorney, gained fame in the 1950s for the intense pursuit of communist sympathizers during his tenure as chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (R-WI) Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee. Cohn was born in 1927 in New York City, the son of Al Cohn, a New York State judge and Democratic Party functionary and Dora Cohn, the daughter of a wealthy banker.
Cohn’s legal career became linked very early to anticommunism. A graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, Cohn was admitted to the New York bar in 1948 and immediately became an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City. In this capacity he participated in the Smith Act prosecution of the eleven top Communist party leaders in the country of that same year and also played an active part in the espionage prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951. In 1952 Cohn landed in Washington, D. C. as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General James McGranery. Cohn’s first assignment was running a grand jury searching out communist sympathizers on the U.S. staff at the United Nations Secretariat. He soon went on to prosecute Johns Hopkins professor Owen Lattimore for perjury. Lattimore, a sometime State Department advisor on China, had been on the board of the left wing journal Amerasia, in the office of which federal agents had found stolen classified State Department documents in 1945. Senator Joseph McCarthy had denounced Lattimore in 1951 as the top Soviet espionage agent in the United States. The charges were eventually dismissed, but Cohn’s role as prosecutor and the efforts of several right wing admirers brought Cohn to the attention of McCarthy, who selected the young attorney to be chief counsel of his investigating subcommittee in 1953.
Intelligent, although intense and often abrasive, Cohn became McCarthy’s most trusted aide. Cohn drew headlines almost immediately on his appointment when he and his young millionaire friend, G. David Shine, took off on a well-publicized trip through Europe checking for pro-Communist literature in U.S. Information Agency libraries overseas. The boondoggle highlighted the arrogant naivete´ of the two young men who spent much time enjoying, at State Department expense, the food and lodgings of the continent. Their crusade also brought the frenzied removal of hundreds of books from the American embassy libraries including works of Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, and Langston Hughes.
Cohn’s fortunes, however, became inextricably linked with McCarthy’s during the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954. In fact, it was Cohn’s actions in seeking favorable treatment by the military for his friend, Shine, which instigated those proceedings and set in motion the events that resulted in McCarthy’s downfall. When McCarthy leveled charges against the U.S. Army of harboring and even promoting communists and called General Ralph Zwicker ‘‘not fit to wear the uniform.’’ the Army retaliated with its own charges, producing a chronology of Cohn’s efforts to keep Shine, who had just been drafted, out of the Army. The chronology also documented subsequent demands from Cohn that resulted in preferential treatment for Army Private Shine, including suspension of rigorous training activities and extraordinarily frequent weekend passes. The televised hearings regarding the charges and countercharges gave audience to McCarthy’s brutish behavior, ultimately producing the Senator’s humiliation at the hands of Army counsel Robert Welsh and Cohn’s eventual resignation.
Not one to creep quietly away into the night, Roy Cohn returned to New York and private practice, embarking on what would become a controversial legal career. Until his death, Cohn represented dozens of high-profile clients, including several Mafia bosses, gaining a reputation as a skillful powerbroker. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous at New York’s celebrity gathering spots and was well connected to the media. He encountered his own legal difficulties during the 1960s and 1970s when he was tried, although never convicted, of bribery and fraud, as well as jury tampering. His refusal to pay income taxes brought prosecution for tax evasion.
Cohn’s high-energy lifestyle included the company of numbers of young men, and it was widely assumed that Cohn was homosexual. He never acknowledged it, however, nor his did he admit to his subsequent infection with AIDS. He died of the disease in 1986.
References and Further Reading
See also Communist Party