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“”Were the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the pay of the Communists he could not have done a better job for them.
|—Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-VT)|
McCarthyism involves rabidly accusing innocent people of disloyalty for political gain, especially by means of red-baiting. Named after Joseph "Joe" McCarthy (no relation to Jenny), possibly the most infamous Senator from Wisconsin. Hey, at least we had the LaFollettes to make up for it.
The Red Scare of the 1950s
In the late 1940s, international tensions were high. The Soviet Union had thrown up an Iron Curtain between themselves and the "capitalist pigs" in the West. Mainland China fell to Communism, and Americans feared that they and the Soviets would now be buddy-buddies and gang up on the rest of the world. And probably worst of all, in 1949 the Soviets test-detonated their own Atomic Bomb, meaning the U.S. was no longer the only country on Earth with nuclear weapons. The stage was set for another wave of anti-Communist hysteria.
Joseph McCarthy's legacy was being the embodiment of the 1950s rebirth of the Red Scare, a period in which lives were routinely ruined due to accusations that the people in question were Commies. Apparently the First Amendment right to freedom of association was abrogated at some point in the late 1940s by the "House Un-American Activities Committee."
Enter Senator Joe
McCarthy took the Red Scare ball and ran with it in the Senate, as an attempt at grandstanding, which began after he claimed that a honeydew note from his wife (or, at least, that's what legend says it was) was a list of over 200 Communist infiltrators in the State Department (the actual number of claimed infiltrators changed from interview to interview after that bit of political theatre).
Accusations flew fast and furious, especially in Hollywood (one of conservative America's favorite targets), where a long list of actors, directors, producers, and production help had their careers more or less ruined within the United States due to backstabbing and informing. The most famous snitch, Saint Reagan, head of the Screen Actors Guild, eventually got himself elected president through his anti-union activities and fingering fellow actors as commies. Quite anti-business, in retrospect.
McCarthy's undoing came when he started going after the Army, resulting in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in front of a live television audience. US Army attorney Joseph Welch told McCarthy off in the middle of the hearings with the now-famous line "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"  McCarthy was ultimately censured by the Senate in a 67-22 vote after Edward R. Murrow delivered a brutal and well-deserved hatchet job on the CBS News show See It Now.
The McCarthy hearings spawned several major works of pop culture, including Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, a Marlon Brando vehicle generally believed to be Kazan's defense for cooperating with McCarthy (Kazan's collaboration made him many enemies in Hollywood, and Kazan never owned up), and The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play using a dramatization of the Salem witch trials as a vehicle to criticize McCarthyism.
A few people[CP] still believe that McCarthy's work was a just and necessary defense of the national security of the United States. These people are uneducated in history and are generally considered wrong.
- Blanchard, Margaret A., Revolutionary sparks: freedom of expression in modern America. Oxford University Press, 1992, p.261
- Which is a pure shame, from a snarky point of view.
- Ronald Reagan: B Film Actor, Ladies' Man and FBI Snitch
- McCarthyism and the Red Scare: A Reference Guide, William T. Walke, ABC-CLIO, March, 2011, p. 108.