In the early 1950s, with the United States in the grip of the Red Scare, thousands of Americans were accused of communist involvement or sympathies. Many of these accusations were made without substantive evidence, due process or any right of reply. Those named as communists or communist sympathisers were publicly shamed, marginalised, persecuted or hounded from their chosen careers. This culture of accusation and denunciation became known as McCarthyism. It takes its name from Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin senator who led a crusade against suspected communists working inside the US government. In February 1950 McCarthy, acting on his own steam, delivered a controversial speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. The world, McCarthy argued, was “engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity”. He then went on to attack the Truman administration and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, alleging the State Department had 205 members of the Communist Party among its employees. McCarthy offered no credible evidence for this, nevertheless, the claims in his Wheeling speech caused a sensation in the media.
Emboldened by this press attention, McCarthy escalated his attack on suspected communist agents in US government departments. Over the coming months, McCarthy named hundreds of people as communists in public speeches, press conferences and Senate hearings. His allegations were rarely supported by any evidence – but at a time when being identified as a communist was akin to having the plague, the mere suggestion of links with communism could 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 the Marshall Plan was a product of “minds in Moscow”. McCarthy’s attack on the government even extended to president Harry Truman, who he considered soft on communism and unfit to lead America’s involvement in the Korean War. These slurs prompted a sharp response from the president. In a March 1950 press conference, Truman described McCarthy as “the best asset the Kremlin has”. When Dwight Eisenhower replaced Truman in 1952, McCarthy was no less severe on the new president, even though Eisenhower was a decorated war hero and both were members of the Republican party.
McCarthy’s fondness for denouncing suspected communists and making claims without evidence gave rise to a new concept: ‘McCarthyism’. The phenomenon was not confined to politics: 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 also became a useful weapon against unpopular developments or reforms. Vaccination, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, mixed marriages, racial integration and water fluoridation were all declared to be communist plots at one time or another. McCarthyism created a dark mood of mistrust and suspicion, stunting freedom of speech and public debate. It also 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’s claims and public behaviour became so outlandish that it embarrassed his fellow Senators. In 1953 they shuffled McCarthy into the leadership of a Senate committee on government operations, hoping it would keep him too busy to continue his anti-communist demagoguery. The move backfired, however; the committee’s terms were so broad that McCarthy used it to continue his war on suspected communists. McCarthy ordered his committee to investigate government agencies, the Voice of America (the government’s international radio network) and State Department libraries; he 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 appeared before the committee, McCarthy launched 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.”
McCarthy’s treatment of Zwicker – a decorated war hero and one of the first men to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day – was covered widely in the press. In March 1954, journalist Edward R. Murrow delivered a stinging editorial on television, accusing McCarthy of betraying the American rights and values he claimed to be defending. The following month, McCarthy embarrassed himself again in a televised committee hearing with the Army. For many Americans, this was the first time they were able to see McCarthy in action – and with his questioning and tone even more aggressive and malicious, many disliked 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 not only made news, he made news-makers. Whenever he accused an opponent by name, he thrust his target into the public eye. Obscure government functionaries and behind-the-scenes players would become celebrities and sought-after guests on the forum shows. Once dragged into the spotlight by McCarthy they gained a television platform to attack McCarthyism. No target of McCarthy better exploited the ricochet effect than James Wechsler, editor of the anti-McCarthy tabloid, the New York Post. In September 1951 the paper ran a 17-part series that for sheer vitriol probably ranks as the nastiest hatchet job on any American politician during the 1950s, a blistering assault on McCarthy’s personal finances, military record and patriotism. ‘Three things are clear about Sen. Joe McCarthy’ the series asserted in summation: ‘He’s a bore. He’s a fake. He’s trouble.’
Thomas P. Doherty, historian
McCarthy was now subjected to attacks from other politicians and the press, confident that his star was fading and that McCarthy was unable to return fire. In December 1954 the US Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy for bringing Congress into disrepute. McCarthy no longer enjoyed a public platform where he could proselytise, condemn or reel off names. He returned to life as an ordinary senator but found himself an outcast, shunned by his colleagues. This, along with his heavy drinking, took a toll on McCarthy’s health, and in January 1957 he died from liver disease. McCarthy had married in 1954, despite widespread rumours of his homosexuality; six months before his death the Senator and his wife had adopted a baby daughter. To many observers, Joseph McCarthy became so determined to defend the values of his country that he forgot to uphold them. To others, McCarthy was an attention-seeking, self-serving bully, whose time in the national spotlight came at the expense of those he denounced.
1. McCarthyism refers to a period in the early 1950s when hundreds of Americans were accused of communist involvement or sympathies, usually with little or no supporting evidence.
2. It takes its name from Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Senator who in February 1950 delivered a speech and claimed to have a list of communists employed in the State Department.
3. McCarthy’s claims attracted significant press attention. He became a prominent figure on the national stage, attacking government employees and officials including President Truman.
4. The culture of McCarthyism added to anti-communist paranoia and seeped into ordinary life. Many individuals, policies and behaviours were declared to be supportive of communism.
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 the end of his credibility. He died from alcoholism-related problems in 1957.
Joseph McCarthy’s ‘Enemies within’ speech (February 1950)
Joseph McCarthy’s letter to Truman on the State Department (February 1950)
Harry Truman responds to McCarthy’s claims in Wheeling (March 1950)
Joseph McCarthy condemns George Marshall in the Senate (June 1951)
Edward R Murrow’s editorial on Joseph McCarthy (March 1954)
Joseph McCarthy responds to Edward R Murrow (April 1954)
The US Senate resolution censuring Joseph McCarthy (December 1954)
Movie: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “McCarthyism”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/mccarthyism/.