In the 1950s Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Appleton, Wisconsin, waged a years-long battle against subversive conduct in the United States and against the Communists whom he believed to be hiding in all walks of American life—particularly in government, Hollywood, and academia. McCarthy's unsubstantiated claims led to upheaval, the destruction of careers, and to a concentrated attack on the freedoms guaranteed to Americans in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Despite attempts by conservative scholars to reinstate McCarthy's tarnished reputation, no one has proved that he ever identified an actual subversive. Nowhere were his bullying tactics more obvious than when he accused the United States Army of harboring Communists. The hearings on these activities and McCarthy's belligerent behavior were broadcast on network television in 1957.
Specifically, McCarthy targeted an army dentist who was in the process of being voluntarily discharged due to the illness of his wife and daughter. Irving Peress, who had been drafted under the McCarthy-supported Doctors and Dentists Draft Act, had checked "Federal Constitutional Privilege" instead of "Yes" or "No" when he signed the required Loyalty Oath. This was all that McCarthy needed to launch an attack against the dentist and the United States Army.
In a broader sense, McCarthy was responding to information in a letter that was later proved to be false. The letter named 34 scientists, engineers, and technicians at Fort Monmouth as subversives. In his history of the hearings, John G. Adams, a major player in the debacle and lawyer for the army, maintains that McCarthy was mad at the army for refusing to give special treatment to David Schine, a wealthy member of McCarthy's staff who had been drafted. At any rate, 26 of the 34 accused subversives were cleared by a loyalty board, and the other eight convictions were ultimately overturned by the courts. The Loyalty Board, made up of high-ranking officers and well-respected civilians, quickly became the target of McCarthy's ire. He demanded the right to question them. The army, determined to protect the Board's identity and its own reputation, refused. While President Dwight Eisenhower had been elected on the wave of anti-Communism fueled by McCarthy, the two were poles apart ideologically. When McCarthy went after the army, Eisenhower refused to remain on the sidelines.
Backed by the White House, the army belatedly stood up to McCarthy and refused to offer their officers as lambs to McCarthy's slaughter. Robert T. Stevens, Secretary of the Army, issued a press release stating that he had advised Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker of Camp Kilmer not to appear before the senator's committee. As part of the attack on the army, McCarthy, with his typical outrageousness, had accused Zwicker of being unfit to wear the army uniform and of having the brains of a five year-old, and he demanded his immediate dismissal. McCarthy ignored the fact that it was Zwicker who reported the allegedly subversive Peress. When a transcript from the closed hearings was leaked to the press and published by the New York Times, McCarthy's supporters—including several prestigious newspapers—began to back away.
Eisenhower used the diary of army lawyer John G. Adams to illuminate the extent of McCarthy's out-of-control behavior, including the fact that Roy Cohn, McCarthy's committee counsel, was being subsidized by the wealthy Schine. Reporter Joseph Alsop, who had secretly seen the diary in its entirety before it was commandeered by the White House, joined his brother in releasing additional information indicating that McCarthy was very much under the influence of Cohn, who had promised to end the attack on the army if Schine were given the requested special treatment. McCarthy then counterattacked, providing additional information to challenge the integrity of the army.
McCarthy's nemesis proved to be Joseph Nye, Chief Counsel for the army. With admirable skill, Nye led McCarthy into exhibiting his true arrogance and vindictiveness. Beforehand, McCarthy had agreed not to attack Fred Fisher, a young lawyer who had withdrawn from working with Nye on the case because he had once belonged to a Communist-front group known as the "Lawyer's Guild." When McCarthy reneged, Nye counterattacked: "Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad … Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
It was a fitting epitaph for the horror that was the political career of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His lack of decency was evident, and he was subsequently censured by the United States Senate. In 1998, Godfrey Sperling, a reporter who dogged McCarthy's footsteps during the 1950s, responded to the newly developed efforts to reinstate McCarthy's reputation: "The Joe McCarthy I covered was a man who, at best, had overreached his capacity, he simply wasn't all that bright. At worst, he was a shifty politician who didn't mind using lies or guesses to try to destroy others." While the individuals attacked by McCarthy were often weak, the institution of the United States Army was not—it survived his attacks. Yet the Army-McCarthy hearings demonstrated the dangers inherent in politicians with too much power, too few controls, and the ability to manipulate a gullible public.
Adams, John G. Without Precedent: The Story of the Death of McCarthyism. New York and London, W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.
Merry, Robert W. "McCarthyism's Self-Destruction." Congressional Quarterly. Vol. 54, No. 11, 1995, 923-26.
Sperling, Godfrey. "It's Wrong to Rehabilitate McCarthy—Even ifHe Was Right." Christian Science Monitor. November 17, 1998, 9.
Wannal, Ray. "The Red Road to McCarthyism." Human Events. Vol. 52, No. 5, 1996, 5-7.