Joseph McCarthy was born to Irish parents in the state of Wisconsin in 1908. He dropped out of school aged 14 to work on his father’s farm, returning to high school to graduate as an adult. McCarthy then began an engineering degree at college before switching to law and obtaining his degree in 1935. McCarthy had by then set his mind on a career in politics, and he chose his jobs accordingly. He lobbied unsuccessfully to become a district attorney, before becoming Wisconsin’s youngest judge at age 30. His contemporaries describe McCarthy as a fast-moving, no-nonsense judge, not fond of overseeing long cases or delivering wordy judgements. With the outbreak of World War II McCarthy left the judiciary and joined the Marines, again because he believed this would help his political ambitions in the future. His war service was unremarkable, though he later exaggerated it to the point of telling outright lies, such as falsely claiming that he was injured during an aerial battle.
Upon returning from the war McCarthy ran as a Republican candidate for one of Wisconsin’s seats in the US Senate. He won this election in a landslide, but his first years in the Senate were entirely unremarkable. In 1949 a group of political journalists voted McCarthy the ‘worst senator currently in office’, while his fellow senators found him stubborn, hot-tempered, aggressive and thoroughly unlikeable. There were also reports from his first years in the Senate that McCarthy was an alcoholic: he rarely missed social functions and was often seen drinking in his Senate office. His mediocrity came to a sudden end in February 1950, after McCarthy delivered a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claimed the State Department was filled with fully-fledged communists. With the ‘Red scare’ in full swing, this pronouncement caused a sensation, and the press began to show much more interest in the junior senator from Wisconsin.
On the attack
Thomas P. Doherty, historian
Emboldened by the attention, McCarthy continued his attack on communists and suspected communist agents in US government departments. McCarthy named hundreds of people as communists, in public speeches, press conferences and senate hearings. His allegations were rarely supported by any evidence of substance, but in a time when being identified as communist was akin to having the plague, the mere suggestion of links with communism was sufficient to dramatically alter your life. McCarthy’s allegations went all the way to the top. He slandered Secretary of Defence George C. Marshall, claiming he was responsible for the victory of communists in China and that his ‘Marshall Plan’ was a product of “minds in Moscow”. His attack on executive government also extended to president Harry Truman, who he considered soft on communism and unfit to lead America’s military campaign in the Korean War. These slurs prompted a sharp response from Truman himself: in a March 1950 press conference Truman described McCarthy as “the best asset the Kremlin has”. When Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Truman in 1952 McCarthy was no less severe on him, even though both men were of the Republican party.
McCarthy’s predilection for making claims without evidence gave rise to a new concept: ‘McCarthyism’. This phenomenon wasn’t purely political: it seeped into all corners of American life. Individuals became all too willing to make political allegations about their work colleagues, their neighbours, even members of their family. McCarthyism was also a useful weapon against unpopular developments or reforms; vaccination, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, racial integration and water flouridation were all declared to be communist plots at one time or another. McCarthyism had a divisive effect on American communities, as people lost their jobs or became social outcasts because of tenuous doubts about their political views and loyalty.
McCarthy vs. the US Army
In 1953 McCarthy was shuffled into the leadership of a Senate committee on government operations, his fellow senators believing this would keep him busy enough that he would tone down his demagoguery. But the committee’s terms were so broad that McCarthy was able to use it to continue his war on suspected communists. His committee investigated government agencies, the Voice of America (the US government’s international radio network) and State Department libraries; McCarthy even had these libraries extract and burn left-wing books. In late 1953 McCarthy went so far as to pick a fight with the US Army over the political affiliations of several officers. When their commanding officer General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated war hero, appeared before the committee, McCarthy engaged in a barrage of bullying and abuse:
McCarthy: All right. You will answer that question unless you take the Fifth Amendment. I don’t care how long we stay here, you are going to answer it.
Zwicker: Do you mean how I feel towards communists?
McCarthy: I mean exactly what I asked you, General, nothing else. And anyone with the brains of a five-year-old child can understand that question….
Zwicker: I do not think he should be removed from the military.
McCarthy: Then, General, you should be removed from any command. Any man who has been given the honour of being promoted to general and who says ‘I will protect another general who protects communists’ is not fit to wear that uniform, General.
‘You’re not fooling anyone’
McCarthy’s treatment of Zwicker was covered widely in the press. In March 1954 a television journalist, Edward R. Murrow, took McCarthy to task for ignoring the American rights and values he claimed to be defending:
The following month McCarthy again embarrassed himself in a televised committee hearing with the Army. For many Americans this was their first chance to see McCarthy in action – and with his questioning and tone even more aggressive and malicious, many didn’t like what they saw. One senator noted portentously: “The American people have had a look at you for six weeks and you’re not fooling anyone”. Later, the army’s chief lawyer stood up to McCarthy’s brow-beating and asked “Have you no sense of decency?” McCarthy was now subjected to attacks from other politicians and the press, now confident that his star was fading and that he was unable to return fire. In December 1954 the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy for bringing the Congress into disrepute.
McCarthy no longer had a public platform to reel off names of suspected communists with barely a shred of evidence. He returned to life as an ordinary senator, though he was an outcast, shunned by his colleagues. This – and probably his heavy drinking – took a toll on McCarthy’s health, and in January 1957 he died from liver disease. Despite widespread rumours that he was homosexual McCarthy had married in 1954; six months before his death the senator and his wife had adopted a baby daughter. To many observers, McCarthy epitomised the Cold War – a man so determined to defend the values of his country that he forgot to uphold them. To others he was little more than a self-serving bully, determined to exploit national paranoia to make the most of his time in the spotlight.
1. Joseph McCarthy was a Wisconsin lawyer, judge and World War II war veteran who entered the US Senate in 1946.
2. In 1950 he gave a speech in Wheeling and claimed to have a list of communists employed in the State Department.
3. McCarthy became a prominent ‘communist hunter’, making regular allegations about public officials and departments.
4. McCarthy’s claims were often unsupported by reliable evidence, while his questioning was intimidating and provocative.
5. In 1954 McCarthy was exposed to public view when his interrogation of US Army officials was televised live. This, along with a rising tide of criticism, led to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate and an end to his credibility.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Joseph McCarthy”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/joseph-mccarthy/.