Joseph McCarthy

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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.[1]
—Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-VT)

Joseph Raymond "Tailrammer Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy (1908–1957) was a United States Senator who cashed in on the Second Red Scare by screeching hysterically about "Reds under the bed," thus placing all criticism of communism under a pall of disgrace. McCarthyism involves rabidly accusing people of disloyalty, regardless of the presence or absence of evidence thereof, for political gain, especially by means of red-baiting.

Hey, at least we had the LaFollettes to make up for it.

Early biography[edit]

McCarthy would always say his allegations "fit a pattern", so it's fair to ask what sort of pattern his biography fit.

McCarthy was a circuit (trial) court judge in Wisconsin when World War II broke out. He joined the Marines because he thought this branch of the service would be most helpful to him in a future political career. After the war, he returned to sitting as a judge and took to wearing his uniform on the bench. He also had developed a strong professional relationship with Joseph Kennedy, Sr, and actually visited the Hyannis Port family home, the (in)famous Kennedy Compound, several times throughout his career, leading to son Bobby being appointed to the House Un-American Activities Committee.[2]

When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1946, he adopted the slogan "Congress Needs a Tailgunner," falsely claiming to have served in such capacity (McCarthy had been an intelligence officer who had flown along on some less-dangerous missions as an observer and had fired the tail guns of the planes he was in several times).[3] McCarthy defeated Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., the three-term senator and son of the progressive icon, in the Republican primary and then went on to defeat his Democratic opponent, Howard McMurray. In the GOP primary, McCarthy lambasted LaFollette for not enlisting during the war (even though he was 46 at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack), accusing him of being a war profiteer (even though he just owned part of a radio station that netted him $47,000 in two years and McCarthy himself invested in the stock exchange with money from unknown provenance, making a profit of $42,000 in 1943—equivalent to $604,000 in 2017). More curiously, McCarthy got support from a Communist-controlled trade union hell-bent on a vendetta against his opponent who was known to be strongly anti-Communist.[4]

McCarthy's career as America's self-appointed ultra patriot got off to a strange start by defending German soldiers on trial for the Malmedy Massacre.Wikipedia During the Battle of the Bulge, a German Waffen-SS unit massacred 84 American prisoners of war; in 1946, 73 German officers and enlisted men involved were convicted of war crimes. McCarthy claimed that the soldiers didn't receive a fair trial and spent several months attacking the prosecutors as biased, the witnesses as liars, and the investigators as probably Jewish.[5] This performance only embarrassed McCarthy, who decided to find a trendier issue than defending Nazis.

Spooky scary Communists[edit]

Wheeling speech[edit]

McCarthy first came to wider public attention after he gave a speech to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. The topic of his speech was communism. He was opposed to it.

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.

McCarthy started off his speech by contrasting the Soviet Union with the "Christian West." Most importantly, fourteen days prior, Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury for lying about spying for the USSR and passing documents to a borderline-lunatic named Whittaker Chambers, who had been an editor at Time before apparently having some sort of breakdown because of his closeted homosexuality and going all Jesus. The country had been watching for months as it was proved that Alger Hiss was a spy but also that Congressman Richard Nixon was willing to make American democracy itself seem like it was under attack from something so insanely terrible in breadth and scope that everyone was ready to make like the Boston Tea Party. It was the kind of speech that the junior senator from Wisconsin was expected to give to a Republican Women's Club, and the audience was foaming at the lips.

First, there was bad news. America was "losing":

Six years ago, … there was within the Soviet orbit, 180,000,000 people. Lined up on the anti-totalitarian side there were in the world at that time, roughly 1,625,000,000 people. Today, only six years later, there are 800,000,000 people under the absolute domination of Soviet Russia—an increase of over 400 percent. On our side, the figure has shrunk to around 500,000,000. In other words, in less than six years, the odds have changed from nine to one in our favor to eight to five against us.

How could this happen? McCarthy had the answer:

As one of our outstanding historical figures once said, "When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within."

Who were these "enemies from within"?

The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores … but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this Nation, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer … the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.

Then McCarthy got specific:

This is glaringly true in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been most traitorous… 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…

All bark[edit]

McCarthy repeated his accusations several times, garnering considerable public attention, but the number of names on the list kept changing. He claimed at various times that there were 87, 51, or 10 communists in the State Department[6] but never actually proved a single case thereof.[7][6]

McCarthy evidently based his initial list on a State Department report from 1946 assessing security risks among employees within the US government. He neglected to mention that (A) the term "security risks" was a deliberately broad term, meant to include not only political undesirables but people suspected of incompetence, carelessness or unreliability, and (B) the vast majority of those so named had either been fired or voluntarily resigned long before 1950.[8] He also plagiarized large portions of his speech verbatim from an address given by Richard Nixon a few weeks earlier, much to Nixon's chagrin.[9]

Lights, camera, reds[edit]

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.[10] 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.[11] Quite anti-business, in retrospect.


Most people whom McCarthy directly targeted were low- and mid-level government bureaucrats, especially in the State Department, whose access to classified materials or ability to influence policy were more limited than McCarthy suggested. One notorious example was Annie Lee Moss, a clerk working at the Pentagon whom McCarthy accused of stealing Defense Department secrets. While Moss was probably a member of the Communist Party (though McCarthy may also have confused her with another person of the same name), nobody proved the charge of espionage, and McCarthy got some criticism for publicly browbeating a middle-aged black woman who seemed guilty of, at worst, questionable politics.[12]

McCarthy also targeted the Voice of America, the government-funded radio propaganda network, accusing its broadcasters of pushing a pro-Communist line. His accusations led to the firing and resignation of dozens employed by the network—one of whom, engineer Ray Kaplan, committed suicide after being accused.[13] He was also instrumental in the so-called Lavender Scare, equating homosexuality with political disloyalty and causing the firing of up to 5,000 gay, bisexual, and lesbian government employees—ironically, considering that his chief aide, Roy Cohn, was gay (though extremely closeted)[14][15] and he himself was also very likely closeted.[16][17]:280-282

One of McCarthy's best-known targets was Owen Lattimore, a historian and travel writer whose sympathies towards Mao Zedong and criticisms of Chiang Kai-Shek were blamed for China's fall to Communism. Although Lattimore never held a government post and was never proven to be a Communist, he did occasionally advise the State Department and American diplomats on Asian policy. On this slender evidence, McCarthy deemed him the "architect of our Far Eastern policy" and a leading Soviet agent. After two years of investigations and several public hearings, Lattimore was indicted for perjury; a judge dismissed the charges, finding them unsubstantiated.[18]

McCarthy's most sensational, and widely criticized accusation, came in 1951 when he attacked George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II and Harry S. Truman's Secretary of State. He accused Marshall of being part of what he termed “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” McCarthy's attack on Marshall was widely ridiculed but this did little to dampen his power within Washington.[19]

Army–McCarthy hearings[edit]

Army legal counsel Joseph Welch being questioned by McCarthy. Welch understandably looks so done with this shit.

McCarthy's excesses later caught up with him in 1954 when he started going after the Army. McCarthy's criticisms began after the exposure of Irving Peress, an Army dentist who received a promotion despite his left-wing political views.[20] In this case, McCarthy's investigation began with reasonable concerns about a lapse in military security that, under other circumstances, might be genuinely harmful. However, he alienated many supporters and allies (not the least General-turned-President Dwight D. Eisenhower) with his overemphasis on Peress (who was, after all, only a dentist and not a senior officer or atomic scientist) and vitriolic attacks on the Army as an institution which were, at the very least, decidedly disproportionate.

McCarthy's investigations were spurred by his chief counsel, Roy Cohn. Cohn worked to gain preferential treatment for his assistant (and possible lover), G. David Schine, after the latter's induction into the Army; when the Army refused, Cohn vowed revenge.[21] The resulting furor led to the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in front of a live television audience. Special Counsel for the Army 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?"[22][23]

Censure and downfall[edit]

Senator Flanders, (R-VT), who started the takedown.

After the Army fiasco, McCarthy's colleagues in the Senate began to decisively turn against him. One of the killing blows came from Vermont Republican senator Ralph E. Flanders, who rightfully pointed out that McCarthy was sowing division and confusion, saying that, "were the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the pay of the Communists he could not have done a better job for them."[24] Flanders then unsuccessfully tried to have McCarthy removed from his committees, but there still wasn't quite enough support for that. Flanders then introduced a resolution calling for McCarthy to be censured instead.[25]

During the hearings over the resolution, McCarthy disgraced himself by verbally attacking many of his colleagues repeatedly while some of his political allies, like William Jenner, (Republican-IN) laughed mockingly and attempted to turn the proceedings into a clown show.[26] The defenders especially latched on to the fact that the amended resolution read "condemn" rather than "censure."

Interestingly, all 44 Democrats, even the Southern Democrats, supported the measure against McCarthy. Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat-TX) did a good job of urging his caucus to be supportive but quiet, leaving the arguments against McCarthy to be handled by the Republicans.[25] He and the other Democrats saw the entire affair as a nice way to give the Republicans a political bloody nose by allowing the party to fight among their own. And McCarthy sure gave them what they wanted, by ranting about how the censure committee was an "unwitting handmaiden of the Communist Party," by attacking the chairman Arthur Watkins (Republican-UT) as "cowardly", and by denouncing the entire proceeding as a "lynch party."[25]

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.[27][28]

The John Birch Society refused to admit that McCarthy had been wrong about any of it and subsequently began claiming that President Eisenhower was a communist agent who had been elected for the sole purpose of discrediting McCarthy. This was one of the factors that prompted saner conservatives, such as William F. Buckley (who had earlier written a defense of McCarthy, McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning[29]) and Russell Kirk, to distance themselves from the society.[30]

McCarthy died in 1957 from hepatitis, probably exacerbated by his alcohol addiction. He was 48 years old.

In a nutshell[edit]

Popular culture[edit]

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".

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 apologized), and The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play using a dramatization of the Salem witch trials as a vehicle to criticize McCarthyism.

Attempted rehabilitation of reputation[edit]

Venona project[edit]

In 1943, the governments of the United States and United Kingdom collaborated on a project decrypting Soviet diplomatic cables known as Venona. In 1995, the documents were made publicly available.[31] The decrypted cables provided a smoking gun for instances of Soviet espionage, such as in the case of the "atomic spies" Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.[32] They also provided further evidence for the guilt of Alger Hiss.[33] However, McCarthy had nothing to do with either of these cases. Alger Hiss was called before, and perjured himself in front of, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, where his chief tormentor was Richard Nixon. Though McCarthy and HUAC are often conflated, McCarthy never served in the House and HUAC predated McCarthy's rise by over a decade. The Rosenbergs were brought before a grand jury by the U.S. Justice Department, a part of the Truman Administration, which McCarthy was accusing of being soft on communism. The extent of Soviet espionage and infiltration is still a matter of debate.[34]

Political reaction[edit]

While the cases of figures such as the Rosenbergs and Hiss were once causes célèbres on the left and right (for differing reasons, of course), they are now largely used by those of a more wingnut bent in service of attempting to rehabilitate McCarthy's reputation. Glenn Beck[35] and Ann Coulter,[36] for example, have defended McCarthy as an all-American hero. Conservative writer M. Stanton Evans published a book-length apologia for McCarthy in 2007, entitled Blacklisted by History,[37] which was predictably praised by Coulter and other right-wingers.

In retrospect[edit]

While the Venona papers have demonstrated that Soviet espionage did indeed occur, the more obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that, by crying wolf so many times, McCarthy's demagoguery was a hindrance to rooting out Soviet spies. Other than Mary Jane Keeney,[38] none of McCarthy's unhinged accusations was substantiated.[7] It took Venona and Keeney's diaries, which were also posthumously released, to confirm she was a Soviet spy. Even with Keeney, he didn't accuse her of spying, only being a leftist, and he (along with everyone else) remained ignorant about this at the time. So it's a matter of chance that Keeney, among all those accused, turned out to be a real enemy agent.

Summed Up[edit]

It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Good night, and good luck.
—Edward R. Murrow, who had just exposed McCarthy for what he was.[39]

See also[edit]

External link[edit]

  • Five myths about McCarthyism by Larry Tye (July 17, 2020 at 7:20 a.m. PDT) The Washington Post. A somewhat different take on the McCarthy mythos that does not exactly contradict the above.


  1. Blanchard, Margaret A., Revolutionary sparks: freedom of expression in modern America. Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 261.
  2. Emile de Antonio, Point of Order (documentary film).
  3. Reeves, Thomas C., Tail Gunner Joe: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Marine Corps, Wisconsin Magazine Of History. Volume: 62, Issue: 4 (1978–1979), pp. 307–8.
  4. Beichman, Arnold (February–March 2006). "The Politics of Personal Self-Destruction". Policy Review. 
  5. David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, pp. 76–77.
  6. 6.0 6.1 This Day in History: McCarthy Says Communists Are in State Department,, retrieved 2012-04-18.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cold War-McCarthyism,, retrieved 2012-04-18.
  8. Oshinsky, p. 109.
  9. Oshinsky, p. 108.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Hollywood blacklist.
  11. Ronald Reagan: B Film Actor, Ladies' Man and FBI Snitch
  12. Mark Reynolds, "Good Night, Annie Moss, and Good Luck." Pop Matters, 7 December 2005.
  13. Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth Century America (2004), pp. 435–440.
  14. Lorena O'Neil, "Lavender Scare: A Look Back at LGBT McCarthyism." OZY, 5 February 2014.
  15. Where's My Roy Cohn? (2019).
  16. Joseph McCarthy, Part 2 of 28 (Sen. Joseph (Joe) McCarthy Part 3 of 56) Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bufile No. 62-96332. Pages 26, 39, 46, 61, 68.
  17. The Homosexual Matrix by C. A. Tripp (1987) New American Library. 2nd ed. ISBN 0452008476.
  18. Oshinsky, pp. 144–153.
  19. Oshinsky, pp. 197–202.
  20. Sam Roberts, "The Dentist McCarthy Saw as a Threat to Security", New York Times.
  21. Geoffrey C. Ward, "Roy Cohn," American Heritage (May 1988).
  22. “Have You No Sense of Decency”: The Army-McCarthy Hearings, History Matters, George Mason University.
  23. McCarthyism and the Red Scare: A Reference Guide, William T. Walke, ABC-CLIO, March, 2011, p. 108.
  24. Woods, Randall Bennett (1995). Fulbright: A Biography. Cambridge University Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-521-48262-3.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 The Censure Case of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (1954). US Senate.
  26. Senate votes to condemn Joe McCarthy, Dec. 2, 1954. Politico.
  27. Murrow on McCarthy, no fear, 1954 by pmw8000 (November 12, 2011) YouTube.
  28. Edward R. Murrow vs. McCarthyism The Cold War Museum.
  29. McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning by William F. Buckley Jr. & L. Brent Bozell (1954) Henry Regnery.
  30. Buckley, William F. Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me. Commentary: March 2008.
  31. VENONA project homepage, National Security Agency
  32. Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies, PBS Nova.
  33. The VENONA Files and the Alger Hiss Case, Douglas O. Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
  34. Chapter One: The Soviet Espionage Threat, excerpt from Athan Theoharis' Chasing Spies.
  35. Glenn Beck Misses Joe McCarthy, Salon.
  36. Does Ann Coulter Know What She's Talking About? History News Network.
  37. Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies by M. Stanton Evans (2009) Crown Forum. ISBN 1400081068.
  38. The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage, Rosalee McReynolds, Louise S. Robbins, Greenwood Publishing Group, March 2009.
  39. See It Now, March 9, 1954