Friday, April 12, 2024

The Mystery of the Helms Incident

A photograph of a typed letter.One of the more interesting phenomena in reading archived correspondence is the realization that everyone’s discussing the same event without explaining what actually happened. The writers and the recipients know what they’re talking about and don’t need to summarize for some outside audience — they’re private letters after all. But as a result, a researcher can read pages and pages of reactions to something apparently significant enough to elicit commentary, all while missing out on the instigating incident.

In looking through our collection of papers for the activist and philanthropist W. H. Ferry, we recently came to the conclusion that a man named Paul Helms once got himself in big, big trouble. What kind of trouble, you might ask? The details are frustratingly elusive, but it sounds like he said something about Senator Joseph McCarthy that struck a nerve. Helms was a businessman with friends in politics, including President Eisenhower. He must have put his foot in it, because in 1954 the letters between him and Ferry all begin turning towards the subject of Helms’s apparent censure in the public eye. Helms forwards copies of some of the letters he’s received, containing sentiments such as “I understood you were a real helper in the field of humanity — now I know it was just a cover up for your communist aims” and “We wish you were a good enough American to unlatch Joe McCarthy's shoes.” He warns Ferry not to tell him that he deserved it and in response Ferry assures him that he did the right thing, intimating that the fallout is in fact Eisenhower’s fault. However juicy this sounds, the details of the incident aren’t readily identifiable. 

To try to untangle this particular piece of gossip, ask for ML-21, Box 18 Folder 14.

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