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Joseph McCarthy

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Were you looking for another McCarthy?
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)
Don't look — commies behind you.
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Joseph Raymond "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy (1908–1957) was a 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 innocent people of disloyalty 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 sit as a judge and took to wearing his uniform on the bench. He also had developed a strong professional relationship with Joseph Kennedy, 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.

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's W.svg During the Battle of the Bulge, a German 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.[4] 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 a Congressman known as 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,[5] but never actually proved a single case thereof.[6][5]

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.[7] 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.[8] Quite anti-business, in retrospect.

Army Hearing and downfall[edit]

McCarthy's excesses later caught up with him in 1954 when he started going after the Army, resulting in 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?"[9][10] 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.[11][12]

The John Birch Society refused to admit that McCarthy had been wrong about any of it and subsequently began claiming that President Dwight 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) and Russell Kirk, to distance themselves from the society.[13]

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

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 owned up), 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 US and UK collaborated on a project decrypting Soviet diplomatic cables known as Venona. In 1995, the documents were made publicly available.[14] 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.[15] They also provided further evidence for the guilt of Alger Hiss.[16] 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. 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.[17]

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[18] and Ann Coulter,[19] 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,[20] 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,[21] none of McCarthy's unhinged accusations were substantiated.[6]

See also[edit]


  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. David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, pp. 76-77
  5. 5.0 5.1 This Day in History: McCarthy Says Communists Are in State Department, history.com, retrieved 2012-04-18.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Cold War-McCarthyism, globalsecurity.org, retrieved 2012-04-18.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Hollywood blacklist.
  8. Ronald Reagan: B Film Actor, Ladies' Man and FBI Snitch
  9. “Have You No Sense of Decency”: The Army-McCarthy Hearings, History Matters, George Mason University
  10. McCarthyism and the Red Scare: A Reference Guide, William T. Walke, ABC-CLIO, March, 2011, p. 108.
  11. Murrow on McCarthy, no fear, 1954 by pmw8000 (Nov 12, 2011) YouTube.
  12. Edward R. Murrow vs. McCarthyism The Cold War Museum.
  13. Buckley, William F. Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me. Commentary: March 2008.
  14. VENONA project homepage, National Security Agency
  15. Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies, PBS Nova
  16. The VENONA Files and the Alger Hiss Case, Douglas O. Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
  17. Chapter One: The Soviet Espionage Threat, excerpt from Athan Theoharis' Chasing Spies.
  18. Glenn Beck Misses Joe McCarthy, Salon
  19. Does Ann Coulter Know What She's Talking About? History News Network
  20. 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.
  21. The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage, Rosalee McReynolds, Louise S. Robbins, Greenwood Publishing Group, March 2009.