McCarthy, Joseph R.

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Joseph R. McCarthy

Born November 14, 1908
Appleton, Wisconsin
Died May 2, 1957
Bethesda, Maryland

U.S. senator

J oseph McCarthy, an infamous and highly controversial U.S. senator from Wisconsin, became America's leading anticommunist figure. His influence peaked between 1950 and 1953. McCarthy gained national attention by asserting that communists had infiltrated the U.S. government at its highest levels. Some called McCarthy a patriot; others accused him of making vicious, untrue charges against innocent Americans, ruining their careers. McCarthy's sensationalized committee investigations greatly contributed to the anticommunist hysteria sweeping the country. The United States' diplomatic efforts toward the communist countries of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Asia were adversely affected for several decades.

Pre-Senate years

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was the fifth of seven children born to Timothy and Bridget McCarthy. The McCarthys, of Irish descent and faithful Roman Catholics, worked long, hard hours on their isolated rural 142-acre Wisconsin farm. McCarthy's father, a strict disciplinarian, expected his son to take on many farm responsibilities. McCarthy's mother, realizing her son possessed a strength of character and deciding at least one of her children had to rise above the family's simple rural life, urged her son to become "somebody." However, at fourteen, McCarthy dropped out of school to work in the family's potato and cabbage fields. Uncomfortable working under his father's supervision, he soon began raising poultry on an acre of land rented from his father. He was an amazingly successful poultry entrepreneur until a cold spell killed his flock.

At nineteen, McCarthy moved to the nearby town of Manawa, worked as a store manager, and talked and argued ceaselessly about community issues with his customers. Realizing his gift of oratory and perhaps even then thinking in terms of running for a town office, McCarthy decided he must have a formal education. He returned to high school at age twenty. After completing high school in one year, he entered Marquette University. After two years of engineering studies, he switched to the field of law, which accommodated his love of debate and drama. McCarthy also was a member of the university boxing team where, even when clearly outclassed, he was known for boxing with fierce aggression until thoroughly bloodied. McCarthy graduated from Marquette in 1935.

McCarthy opened his first law practice in the Wisconsin town of Waupaca and joined a number of civic organizations. As a Republican in 1939, he made his first successful run for office, a circuit judgeship in Wisconsin's tenth district. World War II (1939–45) interrupted McCarthy's budding political career. He joined the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific primarily at a desk assignment as an intelligence officer. Riding in the tail gunner section of an aircraft, McCarthy apparently flew several times on noncombat missions. Always keenly aware of appearances for political purposes, however, he made sure he was photographed sitting in the tail gunner (back) section. Suggesting he served as a tail gunner of a dive bomber, the pictures would be widely used in his later Senate campaigns in Wisconsin.

In 1944, McCarthy returned to Wisconsin on a thirty-day leave and ran against incumbent (currently serving) U.S. senator Alexander Wiley (1884–1967) in the Republican primary. "Tail-Gunner Joe," as McCarthy referred to himself, lost but won a great deal of name recognition. Following the war, in 1946, he ran for the Senate again, this time taking on popular incumbent senator Robert M. La Follette Jr. (1895–1953), who had served for twenty-one years. With a surprise victory over La Follette, McCarthy took his place as the new U.S. senator from Wisconsin in January 1947. Soon, McCarthy would play a major role in the second "Red Scare" that was sweeping over America (see box).

Troublemaker in the Senate

By the end of 1949, McCarthy's Senate career had been ineffective. His only accomplishment had been to team with Pepsi-Cola Company to lift controls on sugar rationing. He had developed a reputation in the Senate as a troublemaker. With arrogant, rude, and inconsistent behavior, he had made many enemies. He knew he had little support in Wisconsin for reelection in 1952. McCarthy needed control of a powerful issue to draw attention and support his way. Friends suggested that a forceful anticommunism campaign, a subject he had never expressed any interest in before, might just resonate with voters. Communism is a governmental system in which a single party controls all aspects of society. In economic theory, it bans private ownership of property and businesses, so that goods produced and wealth accumulated are shared equally by all.

With little knowledge or preparation, McCarthy latched onto the anticommunism idea and launched his campaign on February 7, 1950, in a speech before the Ohio County Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. McCarthy would dub himself the exposer of communists, and the American people and press listened intently. McCarthy played on Cold War (1945–91) and Red Scare fears by maintaining that the communist world, particularly the Soviet Union, was in a showdown with the democratic nations led by the United States. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling just short of military conflict. In the Wheeling speech, McCarthy held up a list he claimed contained 205 names of U.S. State Department employees who supposedly were known members of the Communist Party. McCarthy refused to reveal his sources or give all but a few names on the list. Sometime later, it was discovered that the list he held up was his laundry list. But he had caught Americans' attention and became an instant celebrity as the nation's leading anticommunist, appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines.


McCarthy's strategy was attack then avoidance. He attacked by casting doubt on an individual's political loyalties, forcing the individual to defend himself publicly. He then avoided producing any real evidence, saying that his job was not to provide all the evidence but to make the charges. However reckless and irresponsible the charges, they were nevertheless unnerving. By early 1951, many Americans did not care if the charges were true or not—they were mesmerized by McCarthyism. The term McCarthyism entered the U.S. vocabulary permanently and came to mean challenging a person's individual freedoms and character with lies and mean-spirited suggestions.

Simply being named by McCarthy as a possible subversive was career ending. (A subversive is a person who attempts to overthrow or undermine an established political system.) Many innocent Americans were devastated. Republican leadership knew the outrageousness of McCarthy's charges but also knew it was political suicide to try and reel him in. McCarthy stayed on the offensive, suggesting anyone who criticized his tactics must also be a communist. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) energetically investigated all those on whom McCarthy cast suspicion. Not only did he attack many lower-level government officials, but knowing no bounds, he attacked at the highest levels. McCarthy went after celebrated former army general and current secretary of defense George C. Marshall (1880–1959; see entry), eventually contributing to his resignation. He attacked Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson (1893–1971; see entry) as the "Red Dean," and proceeded right to personal attacks on President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry). McCarthy's talent lay in just the right timing and drama to grab headlines. He became the center of the Red Scare hysteria. He was reelected to his Senate seat in 1952. In 1953, McCarthy, a bachelor, showed a human side by marrying his political assistant, Jean Kerr. Together, they adopted a baby daughter in January 1957.

Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee

In 1952, Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–1961; see entry) was elected president. McCarthy was assigned to a seemingly unimportant committee called the Government Operations Committee in an effort to take him largely out of public view. However, McCarthy figured out a way to regain headlines once again. He created and made himself chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. With the assistance of a bright young lawyer, Roy Cohn (1927–1986), McCarthy again attacked the State Department. The committee became known as the "McCarthy Committee."

Among other things on the committee, McCarthy charged that communists within the State Department were subverting the radio programming of Voice of America. Voice of America routinely broadcast democratic messages to over eighty foreign countries. The program barely survived the assault. The McCarthy Committee also targeted public libraries, demanding the removal of any book that appeared to support communism. Even President Eisenhower was constantly under attack. Angered over McCarthy's antics, the president nevertheless wanted to avoid any public confrontations with him. However, McCarthy's plans to investigate the CIA were stopped.

By early 1954, public criticism of McCarthy began to rise. In March, noted television journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) contended in his television program that McCarthy was exploiting America's fears for personal gain and was intimidating honest Americans. Finally, McCarthy pushed too far when he attacked the U.S. Army. McCarthy

had declared that the U.S. Army's base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, harbored a communist spy ring. In hearings, no evidence was uncovered to back McCarthy's charges. Ultimately, in the spring of 1954, the army's lawyer, Joseph N. Welch (1890–1960), was able to bring McCarthy's long stream of unjustified attacks to an end with the famous utterance: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" During the hearings, known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy's bullying tactics had been thoroughly exposed to the public.

The Senate voted to censure, or officially reprimand, McCarthy, meaning his behavior from 1950 to 1954 had been highly dishonorable. Though he remained in the Senate, he was ostracized, or ignored, by his colleagues. McCarthy, who sometimes drank heavily, died on May 2, 1957, of an inflamed liver at the age of forty-eight.

Through the following decades, Americans struggled to comprehend how a person in a place of authority could use fear to discredit innocent lives and so thoroughly trample their constitutionally protected rights. Many Americans would consider McCarthy's tactics not much different in spirit than the terror orchestrated by harsh communist rulers in the Soviet Union on Soviet citizens. The Red Scare and McCarthyism shook the foundation of individual liberties in America during the early Cold War years.

For More Information


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

Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Kutler, Stanley I. The American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

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

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

Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

Sherrow, Victoria. Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1999.

Second Red Scare

Red Scares occurred during a time when Americans were especially fearful that communists would edge closer to the United States and eventually take over. The term "red" was used to refer to communists. The first Red Scare occurred after World War I between 1918 and 1920. The second Red Scare peaked after World War II between 1947 and 1953. This time period paralleled the first years of the Cold War, an intense ideological battle between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union.

Americans became obsessed with the fear and hatred of communism and subversive elements, real and imagined, within their homeland. By the end of 1948, Americans believed if they were not constantly vigilant the Cold War could be lost right on U.S. soil. Contributing to this viewpoint were the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Reinstated in 1945, the HUAC, charged with investigation of subversive activities that posed a threat to the U.S. government, labeled roughly forty organizations as communist "front" groups. Front groups had patriotic names but, according to the HUAC, really were organizations intent on promoting communist ideas.

Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; see entry), then a young Republican congressman from California, was an aggressive member of the HUAC. In late 1947, the HUAC investigated ten members of the Hollywood film industry for communist leanings. In 1948, the strange case of former U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss (1904–1996) went before the HUAC. Eventually, in early 1950, Hiss was found guilty of supplying State Department documents to the Soviets. The HUAC also charged that civil rights groups were filled with communists.

Other occurrences leading to heightened apprehensions were repeated public statements by J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972; see entry), director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), that communism could spread like a disease across America. The most chilling news to reach Americans came in the fall of 1949, when President Harry S. Truman revealed that the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. Within a few years, several spies who had funneled U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviet Union were unmasked, tried, and convicted. Meanwhile, Chinese communist rebels had overtaken Mainland China in October 1949. By 1950, loyal Americans, to protect their country, were on the lookout for communists even in the smallest village. Americans were highly sensitive and receptive to the dramatic and aggressive communist charges that Senator Joseph McCarthy began to level in February 1950.

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