Joseph McCarthy

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Joseph McCarthy

Born November 14, 1908
Grand Chute, Wisconsin
Died May 2, 1957
Washington, D.C.

American politician

Joseph McCarthy rose to fame in 1950 when he shocked the nation with his claims that communists had infiltrated every segment of American society, including the government. His timing for making these accusations was impeccable, with the cold war heating up in post-World War II Europe and in the battlegrounds of Korea. McCarthy was a master of drumming up emotions and making powerful implications. From the winter of 1950 to the summer of 1954, he made outrageous charges and prompted numerous unnecessary investigations, always accompanied by tremendous publicity and minimal evidence. A little-known senator from Wisconsin, he had somehow stumbled onto a means to manipulate America's anxieties over communism, a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property and that is at odds with the American economic system of capitalism, in which individuals, rather than the state, own property and businesses. McCarthy's slanders caused untold hundreds to suffer. Journalists, professors, senators, generals, cabinet members, presidents—no one was safe from his attacks. He was able to disrupt the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, lower morale throughout the entire federal government, and impede serious congressional business for months at a time.

Early years

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born on November 14, 1908, in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, the son of Timothy Thomas McCarthy, a farmer, and Bridget McCarthy. The McCarthy family was a happy one: hardworking, devoutly Catholic, and proud of its Irish ancestry. One of seven children, Joe grew up on farms outside Appleton and Manawa and was educated in the one-room Underhill country school. He completed the eighth grade at age fourteen and then quit to work on the family farm, run his own chicken farm, and manage a Cash-Way grocery store. In the fall of 1929, at age twenty, he decided to go back to school. He entered Manawa's Little Wolf High School, where he completed the whole four-year program in nine months with honors. Enrolling in Marquette University in 1930, he graduated with a law degree five years later. Throughout his school years, McCarthy supported himself by part-time jobs as a grocery worker, flypaper salesman, theater usher, construction worker, dishwasher, and manager of a filling station.

Admitted to the Wisconsin bar, McCarthy first practiced law in Waupaga, then in Shawano. In 1936, he ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for district attorney. A strong admirer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), he adamantly supported New Deal relief programs, programs Roosevelt developed in the 1930s during the Great Depression to help the needy and unemployed and stimulate the economy. McCarthy voted for Roosevelt three times.

Three years later, McCarthy was elected circuit judge. At age thirty, he was the youngest circuit judge in Wisconsin history and he was known for being loose with the law, but many local attorneys liked working with him.

In 1941, World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific. Though too old to be drafted into the military, McCarthy enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was commissioned a lieutenant and assigned to intelligence. His job was to gather data about enemy forces in the Pacific area from fighter and bomber pilots returning from raids over enemy territory. He returned to the United States with awards for his devotion to duty, a Distinguished Flying Medal and an Air Medal. He would later use his war effort in political campaigns, inaccurately claiming a leg injury from a shipboard fall as a war wound.

In July 1944, while still on active duty, McCarthy returned to Wisconsin. Campaigning that year on his war record as "Tail Gunner Joe," he entered the Republican senatorial primary against Alexander Wiley, the incumbent (someone already holding the office). He was easily beaten.

Elected to the Senate

In 1946, McCarthy again sought the Republican Senate nomination. This time he made his bid against another Republican incumbent, Robert M. La Follette, Jr. Backed by the conservative Republican Voluntary Committee, McCarthy received the nomination. In his campaign against Democratic nominee Howard J. McMurray, McCarthy branded McMurray as "communistically inclined." In part of a general Republican sweep that encompassed both houses of Congress, he won seventy of the state's seventy-one counties. (Political conservatives, also known as the right-wing, generally seek to maintain traditions and establish strong, authoritative governments. They tend to favor big business and power in the hands of an elite and are always anticommunist, since communists tend to be concerned with the plight of the common people.)

At thirty-eight years old, McCarthy was the Senate's youngest member. He rapidly developed a reputation for his brash, arrogant, and unpredictable behavior. He often questioned the integrity (truthfulness) of witnesses and fellow senators. He made many enemies even among conservative Republicans, but there were some within his closest circles who found him kind and amusing. Disliking formality, he asked everyone to call him "Joe."

The crusade against communists

When faced with reelection, McCarthy could see that he had little to recommend him. The State of Wisconsin was preparing to investigate him for tax evasion and ethics violations. His record in the Senate was fairly weak. He needed an issue. At a dinner party in January 1950, McCarthy and his friends determined a strategy that would grab public favor: he would take up a crusade against communists in the government.

On February 9, 1950, McCarthy made his famous speech at Wheeling, West Virginia. What attracted everyone's attention was one claim: "And ladies and gentlemen, while I cannot take time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department" (as quoted from Congressional Record of the Senate, 81st Congress 2nd Session, February 20, 1950). Most of the text for the Wheeling speech had been prepared by a newspaper man from the ultraconservative Washington Times-Herald.

McCarthy's source for the number 205 was a letter written almost four years earlier by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to Congressman Adolph Sabath, an Illinois Democrat, in which Byrnes spoke in general of State Department personnel policies. The letter did not mention Communist Party membership, any list of names, or the current secretary of state, Dean Acheson (1893–1971; see entry). Nevertheless, with this speech, McCarthy ushered in an era of anticommunist hysteria.

McCarthy's timing was perfect, because fears about communism in the United States were on the rise. Three weeks earlier, evidence in a trial had shown that a former State Department official, Alger Hiss (1904–1996), had been part of a spy ring while serving in the Roosevelt administration. And the world was still adapting to two major communist feats of 1949: the Communist Chinese victory over the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, and the Soviet Union's successful testing of an atom bomb. Unfortunately, the people in the government who were experts on the Chinese and the Soviets— and therefore the most crucial to understanding the demands of the communist North Koreans—were the ones in most danger of being accused of being communists. Driven out of the State Department, they were unable to advise on American foreign policy during the Korean War (1950–53), when their expertise was most needed.

How to stop McCarthy?

For anyone seriously trying, it was easy to refute McCarthy's accusations. His figures varied: first there were 205 communists in the State Department and then it was 57. When it was clear that McCarthy was basing his accusations on the four-year-old list of employees, the matter would no doubt have been dropped if the public wasn't already in a state of panic.

The Democrats made an early move to stop McCarthy's irresponsible accusations. Senator Millard Tydings, a Democrat from Maryland, headed a congressional investigation into McCarthy's accusations and found them unsubstantiated. But somehow McCarthy was able to skillfully use the hearings as a personal forum. At one point in the investigation, lacking any evidence, McCarthy accused left-wing Asian expert Owen Lattimore of being a top Russian spy and Philip C. Jessup, State Department ambassador-at-large, of having too much sympathy for communist causes.

McCarthy faced another investigation, this one held in the fall of 1951, to examine his financial dealings. It failed to turn up any irregularities. In the meantime, McCarthy's language became increasingly reckless. In June 1951, in the wake of President Harry S. Truman 's (1884–1972) dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), commander of the U.S. forces in the Far East, for insubordination, McCarthy claimed that Truman was a drunkard. Furthermore, McCarthy claimed, Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall (1880–1959) was involved in some vast conspiracy. Marshall soon resigned from his position. Perhaps the most savage attack of all came against Secretary of State Dean Acheson, whom McCarthy implied was a tool of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entries). "It has not been," McCarthy said in his Wheeling speech, "the less fortunate or members of minority groups who have been selling this Nation out, but rather those who have had all the benefits the wealthiest nation had to offer—the finest homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in Government we can give." McCarthy's accusations were so specific, they sounded as if they must have been the result of an investigation. He professed to have documents and names, but they never appeared. If one of his charges proved to be untrue, he was already on to another.

In 1953, with the Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; see entry) in office and a Republican majority in Congress (Republicans are conservative and tend to be fiercely anticommunist), McCarthy got himself appointed chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its investigative arm, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Chief counsel was Roy Cohn, a twenty-five-year-old lawyer whose arrogance made him detested by everyone on the senator's staff, but his intelligence and breadth of knowledge made McCarthy increasingly dependent upon him. The Republicans had hoped to rein McCarthy in with the new administration, but this was not to be. Within a month he was accusing the Eisenhower administration of communist subversion as well. His Senate investigations were often irresponsible witch-hunts.

Senate holds Army-McCarthy hearings

In the fall of 1953, McCarthy claimed that a communist spy ring operated at the Army Signal Corps Center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. From April to June 1954, the Senate's "Army-McCarthy hearings" were held. Its aim: to investigate all the recent charges and countercharges. At Eisenhower's request, they were conducted before a television audience. In fact, twenty million viewers—two-thirds of American televisions—caught this show. At last McCarthy's bad temper and irrational behavior were fully exposed to a disgusted nation. Yet fear of communism was so great that not a single subcommittee member questioned the validity of the Fort Monmouth investigation, nor did a senator challenge any of McCarthy's claims concerning an America permeated with subversion (disloyalty to a society and its institutions). In many ways, the climax of the hearings took place on June 9. McCarthy had just attacked the secretary of the army, saying he had once belonged to a procommunist organization, when finally, the army's chief attorney, Joseph Welch, challenged the senator, as quoted in Thomas Reeves' biography: "Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.

Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?"

In the end, the American public was turned against McCarthy because, as Welch pointed out, he seemed to have no sense of decency. McCarthy spent the hearings bullying and badgering witnesses, interrupting loudly, making vicious personal attacks, and making very long speeches.


On June 11, 1954, Senator Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican, introduced a resolution calling for McCarthy's censure (formal criticism). Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (a Democrat) formed a special committee to investigate the accusation, carefully handpicking conservatives in an effort to maximize the credibility of the committee. Arthur V. Watkins of Utah, a Republican who was an isolationist and moderate on domestic policy, chaired the group. Charges included contempt of the Senate and its committee and abuse of fellow senators and of an army general. Particularly appalling to the committee were McCarthy's attacks on Senate colleagues, which were vicious and demeaning, and unsupported.

McCarthy left the spotlight far more rapidly than he entered, spending his last years in relative obscurity, totally ostracized by former colleagues and by the Eisenhower administration. Full of despair and self-pity, he would arise late in the morning and watch television soap operas all day. He increasingly skipped Senate sessions. In 1957, he and his wife, former staff member Jean Fraser Kerr, adopted a child but little else interested him. McCarthy had always been a big drinker. On May 9, 1957, at the age of forty-eight, he drank himself to death.

Where to Learn More

Bayley, Edwin R. Joe McCarthy and the Press. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Cohn, Roy. McCarthy. New York: New American Library, 1968.

Cook, Fred J. The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of McCarthy. New York: Random House, 1971.

Crosby, Donald F. God, Church, and Flag: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Catholic Church, 1950–1957. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Ewald, William Bragg, Jr. Who Killed Joe McCarthy? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Fried, Richard M. Men Against McCarthy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1970.

Matusow, Allen J. Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

McCarthy, Joseph R. America's Retreat from Victory: The Story of George Catlett Marshall. Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1951.

McCarthy, Joseph R. McCarthyism: The Fight for America. Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1951.

Oshinsky, David M. A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. New York: Stein & Day, 1982.

Rovere, Richard. Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Harcourt, 1959.

Words to Know

censure: an official scolding.

intelligence (military): information about the enemy.

isolationism: the view that a country should take care of its problems at home and not interfere in conflicts in other countries.

ostracize: to exclude from the rest of the group.

resolution: the formal statement of an organization's intentions or opinions on an issue, usually reached by vote or general agreement.

subversion: the destruction or overthrow of an institution or government by people within it.

witch-hunt: an extreme form of seeking out and harassing people whose views are for some reason against the standard.

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Joseph McCarthy

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