Senator Joseph McCarthys political career was in danger when he walked into
the Colony Restaurant in Washington, DC for dinner with three of his friends. The date
was January 7, 1950. A month earlier, he had been voted worst U.S. Senator in a poll of
Senate correspondents. In his earlier years as Senator, he had been known for taking
loans and funds from businesses totaling $30,000. This included the Pepsi-Cola
company, which earned him the nickname Pepsi-Cola Joe1, and the Lustron
Corporation, which dealt in prefabricated houses. About this time McCarthy was also
deemed responsible for the resignation of Senate subcommittee chairman Raymond E.
Baldwin, who left politics citing McCarthys abuse towards him during the Malmedy
WWII hearings the last straw 2.
Not only was his political career in danger, but McCarthy was also suffering from
financial troubles. He had squandered all the money from his political funds into soybean
investments and horse racing, which left him nearly broke3. With these things in mind,
McCarthy and his three associates- William Roberts, a Washington lawyer; Charles
Kraus, a political science professor at Georgetown; and Father Edmund Walsh, a dean
also at George University set out to discover that fateful night what could possibly
rejuvenate the political career of Joseph McCarthy before the upcoming election of 52.
The trio of Roberts, Kraus, and Walsh recommended that McCarthy should try
taking up a cause, and to do so seriously and passionately. But what should it be? Ideas
and issues were tossed about the group concerning old age pension to the St. Lawrence
Seaway. McCarthy dismissed them all. But then Walsh suggested communism, and
McCarthys ears realized that they had just struck gold.
Thats it! exclaimed an excited McCarthy. The government is full of
Communists. We can hammer away at them. 4 And with that statement, Senator Joseph
McCarthys witchhunt against communism had begun.
33 days later in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy stood on a
podium before the Ohio Valley Womens Republican Club. I have in my hand, he
began, a list of 205 card-carrying Communists who are now employed in the State
Department and whose identities are well known to the State Department as being
members of the Communist party. 5
On that night his life, as well as the lives of many other Americans, would forever
change. McCarthy would begin a brief but astounding crusade against the so-called
Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. During a span of about 4 years,
McCarthy accused hundreds of government and former government workers of being
Communist with little or no concrete evidence. Even so, McCarthy was able to win many
convictions and victories without much protest and opposition.
Why did McCarthy go relatively unscathed throughout his witchhunt until he was
finally censured by the Senate in 1954? According to a nationwide poll taken during the
era of McCarthyism, 50% of those polled said they approved of his methods, with 21%
undecided6. What allowed him to do this for so long with the approval rather than the
condemnation of the people? The key to the success and tolerance of McCarthy was due
to a combination of several things. First, there was the recent espionage cases of Hiss and
the Rosenbergs. McCarthy also greatly benefited from the pro-McCarthy media, which
took up and glamorized his cause. There was also the fact that communism was in many
cases a viable scapegoat for a frightened and restless people. McCarthyism was also
Americanism; it represented the duty of the patriotic American. McCarthyism became an
offensive tool against the threat of the spread of communism.
At the time of McCarthys infamous Wheeling speech, the nation had just learned
that the threat of Communists in high level positions in Washington was in fact real.
Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and at the time President of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, had been convicted of perjury just one month prior
to McCarthys speech7. Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist himself, had charged
Hiss with supplying classified information to the Soviet Union. The guilty verdict in this
case rose many eyebrows and gave many people cause for alarm.
A couple of months later, McCarthys cause was helped along even more by the
arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg8. Julius Rosenberg, an army electrical engineer, and
his wife, Ethel, were both arrested in the spring of 1950. The two had given sketch
blueprints of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union back in 1945, which had accelerated
Soviet development of the atomic bomb. The Soviets managed to detonate an atomic
bomb by September of 19499, which created a new atmosphere of tension in America.
These two specific cases of espionage and treason were the main catalysts in the
peoples fear of Communist infiltration within the government. The Alger Hiss case
easily set the stage for Joe McCarthys crusade against communism. The Rosenberg case
worked even better for McCarthy in gaining the favor and concern of the people. Extra
concern grew out of the fact that not only had the Rosenbergs gained access to high
security documents, but that they were also American-born citizens, not immigrants. The
fear that possibly more spies disguised as American citizens existed was what
McCarthy successfully preyed on.
The people also welcomed communism as a scapegoat to all the post WWII peace
problems around the world. The Iron Curtain, Berlin Blockade, trouble in Eastern
Europe, formation of NATO, Soviet possession of the atomic bomb, the crisis in Korea,
and other things were able to be successfully blamed on Communism. Communism and
its followers were quickly rallied against in America, much to the benefit of people such
as Joe McCarthy.
McCarthy was also able to take full advantage of the press and media. He became
a favorite of the press, being given nicknames such as the tough new kid on the block10
and being compared to Huey Long. McCarthy became the man of the headlines. Front
page headlines would often begin with something like MCCARTHY CHARGES or
NEW MCCARTHY INVESTIGATIONS BEGIN or MCCARTHY OUTLIN4ES
NEW REDHUNTING PLAN11. Rarely would a newspaper refute or dispute a McCarthy
charge or accusation. If it did, it would never be on the front page, however.
In the early 1950s, a person often resorted to the newspaper as the first source of
news and information. What they learned and thought was greatly affected by the writer
of the news articles. A great deal of people trusted the word of the paper a little too much
when it came to the subject of McCarthy. McCarthy had manipulated the press into
painting a portrait too worthy of himself. To many people, McCarthy was a hero. He was
the good guy in the struggle between the good, democratic American and the evil
McCarthyism therefore began to be take up its cause in the name of
Americanism. Americanism became an attractive lure to the restless people of the early
1950s, who were seeking stability and what they thought was a way to peace. Many
people began to personally take up McCarthys cause, whether from high ranking State
Department officials to the poor rural farmer. Perhaps inspired by the reckless ambition
of McCarthy, many people believed that it was the duty of the American to help and
promote McCarthys cause. McCarthy received donations from all over the nation, from
amounts of $1 to $10,000; all from average American citizens12.
In the face of the Cold War and the spread of communism, McCarthyism also
became part of Americas containment policy. The fear of the spread of communism was
not limited to just uneducated citizens; it went all the way up to the highest positions of
government. By holding this fear, McCarthyism held the full support of the Republican
party and many members of the State Department. In the minds of the people, the threat
of communism someday controlling the lives of Americans loomed too large to ignore.
Those members of the government in support of McCarthyism also found it to be a
matter of national security. It had already been proven that Communists and Communist
spies had already infiltrated the federal government. The smuggling out of the atomic
bomb blueprints had already demonstrated the severe consequences which could occur if
a security breach occurs again. Even if some of the good went down with the bad, they
felt it was unfortunate but necessary in the long run. Among the most brilliant of the
victims of the McCarthy witchhunt was Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer13, also known as the
father of the atomic bomb.
The peak of McCarthyism was achieved in 1953, which included the famous
burning of the Communist books14 in State Department libraries overseas as ordered by
the State Department. McCarthy had previously enjoyed a relatively unmolested time
during his years leading the witchhunt. But that suddenly changed when the Army
decided to challenge McCarthy once and for all. Before a set of nationally televised
hearings, McCarthys true character was revealed to the public. After witnessing more
than enough of his bullying and condescending behavior, he quickly lost his followers.
The final nail in the coffin came in the form of a Senate censure, which effectively ended
his political career. McCarthy would officially die of peripheral neuritis just three years
later, but rumors exist that he actually died of liver cirrhosis due to his heavy drinking15.
While McCarthy lived a short and pathetic life after he was censured in 1954, he
is still perhaps the most famous and most intriguing Senator in U.S. history. Never before
and since has one U.S. Senator commanded so much power and control at one time.
McCarthy was able to do this because his entrance into the national spotlight was timed
perfectly. It was during a time of fear and restlessness, when a fear of communism had
penetrated the lives of restless and impatient Americans. It was during a time of wars- the
Cold War and the Korean War, which brought the threat of Communist infiltration closer
than ever before. It was during a time of a national media growing in size, power, and
technology, with widespread use of the television right around the corner. It was during a
time where America recognized it was the largest power in the world, but with the power
came a great deal of responsibility. It became of time of McCarthyism-a time of fear, a
time of injustice, and a time of captivation. All this proceeded without argument and
began and ended with just one man from the town of Appleton, Wisconsin- Senator
Senator Joseph McCarthys political career was in danger when he walked into