During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the prospect of communist subversion at home and abroad seemed frighteningly real to many people in the United States. These fears came to define–and, in some cases, corrode–the era’s political culture. For many Americans, the most enduring symbol of this “Red Scare” was Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Senator McCarthy spent almost five years trying in vain to expose communists and other left-wing “loyalty risks” in the U.S. government. In the hyper-suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War, insinuations of disloyalty were enough to convince many Americans that their government was packed with traitors and spies. McCarthy’s accusations were so intimidating that few people dared to speak out against him. It was not until he attacked the Army in 1954 that his actions earned him the censure of the U.S. Senate.
The Cold War
In the years after World War II ended, events at home and abroad seemed to many Americans to prove that the “Red menace” was real. In August 1949, for instance, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. Later that year, Communist forces declared victory in the Chinese Civil War and established the People’s Republic of China. In 1950, North Korea’s Soviet-backed army invaded its pro-Western neighbors to the South; in response, the United States entered the conflict on the side of South Korea.
At the same time, the Republican-led House Un-American Activities Committee (known as HUAC) began a determined campaign to extirpate communist subversion at home. HUAC’s targets included left-wingers in Hollywood and liberals in the State Department. In 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act, which required that all “subversives” in the United States submit to government supervision. (President Truman vetoed the Act—he said it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights”—but a Congressional majority overrode his veto.)
Joseph McCarthy and the Rise of McCarthyism
All of these factors combined to create an atmosphere of fear and dread, which proved a ripe environment for the rise of a staunch anticommunist like Joseph McCarthy. At the time, McCarthy was a first-term senator from Wisconsin who had won election in 1946 after a campaign in which he criticized his opponent’s failure to enlist during World War II while emphasizing his own wartime heroics.
In February 1950, appearing at the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy gave a speech that propelled him into the national spotlight. Waving a piece of paper in the air, he declared that he had a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party who were “working and shaping policy” in the State Department.
The next month, a Senate subcommittee launched an investigation and found no proof of any subversive activity. Moreover, many of McCarthy’s Democratic and Republican colleagues, including President Dwight Eisenhower, disapproved of his tactics (“I will not get into the gutter with this guy,” the president told his aides). Still, the senator continued his so-called Red-baiting campaign. In 1953, at the beginning of his second term as senator, McCarthy was put in charge of the Committee on Government Operations, which allowed him to launch even more expansive investigations of the alleged communist infiltration of the federal government. In hearing after hearing, he aggressively interrogated witnesses in what many came to perceive as a blatant violation of their civil rights. Despite a lack of any proof of subversion, more than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy’s investigations.
“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
In April 1954, Senator McCarthy turned his attention to “exposing” the supposed communist infiltration of the armed services. Many people had been willing to overlook their discomfort with McCarthyism during the senator’s campaign against government employees and others they saw as “elites”; now, however, their support began to wane. Almost at once, the aura of invulnerability that had surrounded McCarthy for nearly five years began to disappear. First, the Army undermined the senator’s credibility by showing evidence that he had tried to win preferential treatment for his aides when they were drafted. Then came the fatal blow: the decision to broadcast the “Army-McCarthy” hearings on national television. The American people watched as McCarthy intimidated witnesses and offered evasive responses when questioned. When he attacked a young Army lawyer, the Army’s chief counsel thundered, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The Army-McCarthy hearings struck many observers as a shameful moment in American politics.
The Fall of Joseph McCarthy
By the time the hearings were over, McCarthy had lost most of his allies. The Senate voted to condemn him for his “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” “vulgar and insulting” conduct “unbecoming a senator.” He kept his job but lost his power, and died in 1957 at the age of 48.
Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was an American lawyer and politician, famous for instigating and leading witch hunts against suspected communists in the 1950s.
McCarthy was born in rural Wisconsin, the fifth of nine children to Irish working-class parents. He dropped out of school aged 14 to work on his father’s farm, then for a time managed a grocery store. McCarthy returned to high school at age 20 and graduated as an adult. He began an engineering degree at college before switching to law and obtaining his degree in 1935. He struggled to make a living from the law so supplemented his income by playing poker.
McCarthy had his mind set on a career in politics, so 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. Within four years he had obtained a position as a circuit judge, where he became famous for dealing with cases quickly, some in a matter of minutes.
In 1942, McCarthy volunteered for the US Marines and served in the Pacific theatre of World War II, chiefly as an instructor. In 1946, McCarthy stood as a Republican candidate for the US Senate. His campaign featured relentless and often scurrilous attacks on his opponents, as well as exaggerated and dishonest claims about McCarthy’s war service. Despite this, McCarthy was elected and at age 38 became the youngest sitting member of the US Senate.
His first three years in Congress were remarkable only for McCarthy’s inflammatory remarks and frequent disregard for Senate rules and conventions. In 1949, a group of political journalists voted McCarthy the “worst senator currently in office”, while 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.
McCarthy’s rise to public attention began in February 1950, when he delivered a speech to a women’s Republican group in Wheeling, West Virginia. In his Wheeling address, McCarthy claimed to hold details of communists working for the State Department. “The State Department is infested with communists”, he told his enthralled listeners. “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy”.
McCarthy did not provide or publish details of his list, in fact, it is unlikely he had such a list. In the paranoid milieu of the early Cold War, however, McCarthy’s claims kickstarted a wave of rumours, accusations and investigations. The Wheeling address is considered the starting point for what became known as ‘McCarthyism‘: an anti-communist witch hunt that quickly broke its banks and led to countless individuals being unfairly accused and persecuted.
McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the Army hearings
The attacks escalate
Buoyed by his increased public profile, McCarthy began to accuse government agencies and individual politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats of being sympathetic to or soft on communism. These attacks were extended to the highest levels of government, including former Secretary of State George C. Marshall and President Truman himself. Truman said little about McCarthy or his claims in public but privately described the Wisconsin senator as a “pathological liar”.
McCarthy’s eventual downfall came in 1954. In March that year, the respected American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow delivered a scathing editorial on McCarthy, accusing him of exploiting Cold War paranoia for his own personal advantage. The following month McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, instigated and oversaw hearings into alleged communist sympathisers in the US Army. These hearings, which were televised live, exposed McCarthy’s bullish interrogations and Cohn’s personal agenda.
With his tactics known to a wider audience, McCarthy became subject to greater criticism and accountability. In December 1954, the US Senate voted to censure McCarthy for “acting contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonour and disrepute”. McCarthy had faded from prominence by mid-1955. He remained in the Senate for a further two years, continuing to rage and fume about alleged communists in the government and its agencies.
McCarthy died in 1957, aged just 48, from a liver condition caused by his alcoholism. His funeral in Washington was attended by 2,000 mourners and dozens of his fellow senators.
Little in the early career of Joseph McCarthy marked him as exceptional, but beginning in 1950, his political activities spawned an entirely new word that has become a permanent part of the American lexicon — McCarthyism. Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born to devout Catholic parents on November 14, 1908, in Grand Chute, Wisconsin. A third-generation American and the fifth of nine children, McCarthy traced his ancestry to Ireland and Germany. Educated through the eighth grade in a one-room country school, he moved to Manawa, Wisconsin, in 1929, and completed high school in one year. After graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee, in 1935, he was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar. After failing to win election on the Democratic ticket for district attorney, he switched to the Republican ticket and was elected judge of the 10th judicial circuit of Wisconsin in 1939. During the campaign against his opponent, Edgar Werner, McCarthy shocked local officials by publishing slanderous material about him. McCarthy had originally supported Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, but later spent much of his time discrediting proponents of it. Between 1942 and 1945, he served in the U.S. Marines, resigning as a lieutenant. While still in the marines, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1944. After World War II, he was successful, winning the Republican nomination against Robert M. La Follete, in the general election of 1946. During his smear campaign, McCarthy accused La Follete of profiting from the war while he (McCarthy) was away fighting in it, and for not joining the military to fight. Actually, LaFollete had purchased a radio station with a slim profit margin and was too old to enlist during the war. La Follete was so disturbed by the campaign waged against him by McCarthy, that he retired from politics and later committed suicide. On McCarthy’s first day in office, he called a press conference to air his proposal for the end of a coal miner’s strike led by labor leader John L. Lewis. His proposal was for the coal miners, including Lewis, to be drafted into the military, and then when they refused to mine coal, they were to be court martialed for insubordination and then shot. During his first years in the senate, McCarthy voted along generally conservative lines, although he did not follow the Republican line. He worked against sugar rationing and fought for housing legislation. Nevertheless, after three years in [1932:Washington^, he was little known nationally. He would, however, become a household name quite suddenly. The truth about McCarthy's highly embellished military service began to be revealed and an investigation had begun regarding allegations that McCarthy had taken bribes from the Pepsi-Cola Company. Faced with possible expulsion, McCarthy consulted with his closest advisers, including a Roman Catholic priest who suggested that he begin a campaign to rid the government of communists. In a speech given at Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, McCarthy took the priest’s advice and held up a piece of paper announcing that it contained the names of known communists working for the State Department. He also verbally attacked Secretary of State Dean Acheson for being "a pompous diplomat in striped pants." The list had already been published by the State Department in 1947, based on a screening of 3,000 people. Some of those listed had been members of the Communist Party of America but others were allegedly fascists, alcoholics, and “sexual deviants.” A Senate investigation by the Tydings Committee did not substantiate his charges, but McCarthy realized that slander and innuendo would keep him in the headlines and discourage nearly all opposition. When he successfully brought down Senator Millard E. Tydings, a four-term Democratic incumbent, in the 1950 elections, the power of his tactics became obvious. Because of the election results, most senators became wary of speaking out against him, fearing they would be next on McCarthy’s hit list. An exception that proved the rule, Connecticut Senator William Benton, spoke out against McCarthy’s smear techniques. Benton introduced a resolution to remove McCarthy from the Senate body, stating that he had "lied" and "practiced deception" with his assertion that he had a list of communists working for the State Department. Benton, owner of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, was then accused by McCarthy of aiding communists in the State Department, purchasing and displaying “lewd artworks,” and for printing his encyclopedias in England. In the November 1951 elections, Benton was defeated because of McCarthy’s smear campaign against him — paid for with American tax dollars. Benton retired from politics. The Republicans returned to congressional power in the November 1952 elections, and many considered McCarthy's efforts to have helped bring down a number of liberal Democrats — including Harry S. Truman, whom McCarthy labeled a “dangerous liberal,” and Adlai E. Stevenson. He was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its subcommittee, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy began to receive information from Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover. Confrontational hearings led to sensational charges, but there was little hard evidence to support McCarthy's charges. He identified Johns Hopkins University professor Owen Lattimore as the number one Soviet spy in America. Notwithstanding the fact that the federal government was now controlled by Republicans, McCarthy continued his attacks on purported subversives working for it, to the growing irritation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. McCarthy’s investigation and attempts to discredit Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens in 1953, along with many others in the military, convinced Eisenhower that something had to be done to stop McCarthy’s “witch hunts.” Next, McCarthy turned to book banning. His researchers found that the Overseas Library Program contained 30,000 books written by "communists, pro-communists, former communists, and anti-anti-communists." After the list was published, those books were banished from the library. Finally, McCarthy overreached his power. His 1953 investigation of the U.S. Army resulted in the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954. The first televised hearings in American history, they exposed McCarthy's tactics and led to a decline in his prestige and power. As a result of the hearings, his nasally “point of order” phrase became a national cliché and members of the subcommittee became household names and faces. The Army-McCarthy Hearings live on in the memories of millions of Americans, aided by filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s documentary, Point of Order. Even during the height of McCarthy's power, a few members of the U.S. Senate had opposed him. The first was Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine and the only woman in the Senate at the time. Smith issued a “declaration of conscience” speech in June 1950, which identified McCarthy without naming him. As a result, McCarthy ousted Smith from a key investigation subcommittee and attempted to foil her 1954 re-election bid, but to no avail. Others also rebuked McCarthy for his tactics, including Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. After the Army-McCarthy Hearings had sufficiently wounded McCarthy, the Senate finally recovered its nerve and voted an official censure against McCarthy on December 2, 1954, for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." The censure cost McCarthy his committee chairmanship and effectively ended his power. McCarthy died on May 2, 1957, in a Bethesda, Maryland, naval hospital at age 49, of acute hepatitis brought on by alcoholism. Services were held in the U.S. Senate Chamber, and he was interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Republican Joseph R. McCarthy first won election to the Senate in 1946 during a campaign marked by much anticommunist Red-baiting. Partially in response to Republican Party victories, President Harry S. Truman tried to demonstrate his own concern about the threat of Communism by setting up a loyalty program for federal employees. He also asked the Justice Department to compile an official list of 78 subversive organizations. As the midterm election year got underway, former State Department official Alger Hiss, suspected of espionage, was convicted of perjury. McCarthy, in a speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, mounted an attack on Truman’s foreign policy agenda by charging that the State Department and its Secretary, Dean Acheson, harbored “traitorous” Communists. There is some dispute about the number of Communists McCarthy claimed to have known about. Though advance copies of this speech distributed to the press record the number as 205, McCarthy quickly revised this claim. Both in a letter he wrote to President Truman the next day and in an “official” transcript of the speech that McCarthy submitted to the Congressional Record ten days later he uses the number 57. Although McCarthy displayed this list of names both in Wheeling and then later on the Senate floor, he never made the list public.
Speech of Joseph McCarthy, Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950
Ladies and gentlemen, tonight as we celebrate the one hundred forty-first birthday of one of the greatest men in American history, I would like to be able to talk about what a glorious day today is in the history of the world. As we celebrate the birth of this man who with his whole heart and soul hated war, I would like to be able to speak of peace in our time—of war being outlawed—and of world-wide disarmament. These would be truly appropriate things to be able to mention as we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.
Five years after a world war has been won, men’s hearts should anticipate a long peace—and men’s minds should be free from the heavy weight that comes with war. But this is not such a period—for this is not a period of peace. This is a time of “the cold war.” This is a time when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile armed camps—a time of a great armament race.
Today we can almost physically hear the mutterings and rumblings of an invigorated god of war. You can see it, feel it, and hear it all the way from the Indochina hills, from the shores of Formosa, right over into the very heart of Europe itself.
The one encouraging thing is that the “mad moment” has not yet arrived for the firing of the gun or the exploding of the bomb which will set civilization about the final task of destroying itself. There is still a hope for peace if we finally decide that no longer can we safely blind our eyes and close our ears to those facts which are shaping up more and more clearly . . . and that is that we are now engaged in a show-down fight . . . not the usual war between nations for land areas or other material gains, but a war between two diametrically opposed ideologies.
The great difference between our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral. For instance, the Marxian idea of confiscating the land and factories and running the entire economy as a single enterprise is momentous. Likewise, Lenin’s invention of the one-party police state as a way to make Marx’s idea work is hardly less momentous.
Stalin’s resolute putting across of these two ideas, of course, did much to divide the world. With only these differences, however, the east and the west could most certainly still live in peace.
The real, basic difference, however, lies in the religion of immoralism . . . invented by Marx, preached feverishly by Lenin, and carried to unimaginable extremes by Stalin. This religion of immoralism, if the Red half of the world triumphs—and well it may, gentlemen—this religion of immoralism will more deeply wound and damage mankind than any conceivable economic or political system.
Karl Marx dismissed God as a hoax, and Lenin and Stalin have added in clear-cut, unmistakable language their resolve that no nation, no people who believe in a god, can exist side by side with their communistic state.
Karl Marx, for example, expelled people from his Communist Party for mentioning such things as love, justice, humanity or morality. He called this “soulful ravings” and “sloppy sentimentality.” . . .
Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time, and ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down—they are truly down.
Lest there be any doubt that the time has been chosen, let us go directly to the leader of communism today—Joseph Stalin. Here is what he said—not back in 1928, not before the war, not during the war—but 2 years after the last war was ended: “To think that the Communist revolution can be carried out peacefully, within the framework of a Christian democracy, means one has either gone out of one’s mind and lost all normal understanding, or has grossly and openly repudiated the Communist revolution.” . . .
Ladies and gentlemen, can there be anyone tonight who is so blind as to say that the war is not on? Can there by anyone who fails to realize that the Communist world has said the time is now? . . . that this is the time for the show-down between the democratic Christian world and the communistic atheistic world?
Unless we face this fact, we shall pay the price that must be paid by those who wait too long.
Six years ago, . . . there was within the Soviet orbit, 180,000,000 people. Lined up on the antitotalitarian 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 9 to 1 in our favor to 8 to 5 against us.
This indicates the swiftness of the tempo of Communist victories and American defeats in the cold war. 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.” . . .
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.
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. . . .
As you know, very recently the Secretary of State proclaimed his loyalty to a man guilty of what has always been considered as the most abominable of all crimes—being a traitor to the people who gave him a position of great trust—high treason. . . .
He has lighted the spark which is resulting in a moral uprising and will end only when the whole sorry mess of twisted, warped thinkers are swept from the national scene so that we may have a new birth of honesty and decency in government.
Joseph McCarthy to President Harry Truman, February 11, 1950
In the Lincoln Day speech at Wheeling Thursday night I stated that the State Department harbors a nest of Communists and Communist sympathizers who are helping to shape our foreign policy. I further stated that I have in my possession the names of 57 Communists who are in the State Department at present. A State Department spokesman promptly denied this, claiming that there is not a single Communist in the Department. You can convince yourself of the falsity of the State Department claim very easily. You will recall that you personally appointed a board to screen State Department employees for the purpose of weeding out fellow travelers—men whom the board considered dangerous to the security of this Nation. Your board did a painstaking job, and named hundreds which had been listed as dangerous to the security of the Nation, because of communistic connections.
While the records are not available to me, I know absolutely of one group of approximately 300 certified to the Secretary for discharge because of communism. He actually only discharged approximately 80. I understand that this was done after lengthy consultation with the now-convicted traitor, Alger Hiss. I would suggest, therefore, Mr. President, that you simply pick up your phone and ask Mr. Acheson how many of those whom your board had labeled as dangerous Communists he failed to discharge. The day the House Un-American Activities Committee exposed Alger Hiss as an important link in an international Communist spy ring you signed an order forbidding the State Department’s giving any information in regard to the disloyalty or the communistic connections of anyone in that Department to the Congress.
Despite this State Department black-out, we have been able to compile a list of 57 Communists in the State Department. This list is available to you but you can get a much longer list by ordering Secretary Acheson to give you a list of those whom your own board listed as being disloyal and who are still working in the State Department. I believe the following is the minimum which can be expected of you in this case.
1. That you demand that Acheson give you and the proper congressional committee the names and a complete report on all of those who were placed in the Department by Alger Hiss, and all of those still working in the State Department who were listed by your board as bad security risks because of their communistic connections.
2. That you promptly revoke the order in which you provided under no circumstances could a congressional committee obtain any information or help in exposing Communists.
Failure on your part will label the Democratic Party of being the bedfellow of international communism. Certainly this label is not deserved by the hundreds of thousands of loyal American Democrats throughout the Nation, and by the sizable number of able loyal Democrats in both the Senate and the House.
Joseph McCarthy: Biography
The following biographical essay was prepared by the Reference staff of the Appleton Public Library, based primarily on information from The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography by Thomas C. Reeves.
Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born on a farm in the Town of Grand Chute, near Appleton, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1908. He attended the Underhill School, a one-room schoolhouse, where he completed eighth grade. Bored with farm work, McCarthy started his own chicken business as a teenager, but disease wiped out his flock. Broke at age 20, he worked as a clerk in an Appleton grocery store, quickly becoming manager.
In 1929, McCarthy was transferred to Manawa to manage a new grocery store. While there, he entered Little Wolf High School, completing the four-year curriculum in nine months. McCarthy’s excellent grades enabled him to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, which he entered in the fall of 1930. In school, he coached boxing, and was elected president of his law school class, all while working a series of part-time jobs. Immediately after gaining his law degree in 1935, McCarthy opened a practice in Waupaca. He later joined a law firm in Shawano, becoming a partner in 1937.
McCarthy's first attempt at public office was an unsuccessful run for the post of Shawano District Attorney as a Democrat in 1936. In 1939, he sought the nonpartisan post of judge in the Tenth Judicial Circuit, covering Langlade, Shawano, and Outagamie Counties. He campaigned tirelessly, defeating the incumbent judge, who had served for 24 years. At age 30, McCarthy became the youngest circuit judge ever elected in Wisconsin.
Borrowing the money, McCarthy made a down-payment on a house at 1508 Lorain Court in Appleton, not far from his new office at the Outagamie County Courthouse. As a judge, McCarthy was credited with being hard-working and fair, but he was also rebuked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court for an "abuse of judicial authority" after destroying court records. He was later censured for violating the ethical code that prohibited sitting judges from running for non-judicial posts.
In July, 1942, shortly after the start of World War II, McCarthy took a leave of absence from his judicial office and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Marines. As an intelligence officer stationed in the Pacific, he participated in combat bombing missions, although he was not wounded in action as he later claimed.
While still on active duty in 1944, McCarthy challenged incumbent Alexander Wiley for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, but was soundly defeated. In April, 1945, having resigned his military commission, McCarthy was re-elected without opposition to the circuit court. He immediately began planning for the 1946 Senate campaign.
Initially, McCarthy was given little chance of defeating incumbent Robert M. La Follette, Jr. for the Republican Senate nomination. La Follette, the son of the famous "Fighting Bob" La Follette, was well known in Wisconsin, having served as senator for 21 years. But La Follette had only recently rejoined the Republican Party after years as a leader of the Progressive Party, and many Republicans resented his return. Aided by the support of the Republican organization, McCarthy ran a typically energetic campaign and beat La Follette by a tiny margin. In the general election, McCarthy easily defeated his Democratic opponent and went to Washington at age 38, the youngest member of the new Senate.
As a senator, McCarthy’s voting record was generally conservative, although he did not follow the Republican Party line. The main accomplishments of his first years came with his successful fight for housing legislation and his work to ease sugar rationing. The biggest national issue at the time was the suspicion of communist infiltration of the United States government following a series of investigations and espionage trials. McCarthy engaged this issue on February 9, 1950, in a speech before a Republican women’s group in Wheeling, West Virginia. In his address, McCarthy charged that U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson knew of 205 communists in the State Department. Later, McCarthy claimed to have the names of 57 State Department communists, and called for an investigation.
McCarthy’s charges caused a furor. In response, the Senate appointed a committee under the direction of Senator Millard Tydings, Democrat of Maryland, who opened hearings on March 8, 1950. Though McCarthy had hired investigators of his own, all the names he eventually supplied to the committee were of people previously examined. McCarthy failed to name a single current State Department employee. On July 17, 1950, the Tydings committee issued a report that found no grounds for McCarthy’s charges. McCarthy, however, refused to back down, issuing further accusations of communist influence on the government. These charges received extensive media attention, making McCarthy the most famous political figure in the nation after President Harry Truman. He was also one of the most criticized. McCarthy’s enemies began a smear campaign against him, spreading lies that have permeated his biographies ever since.
Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government, though he failed to provide evidence. McCarthy himself was investigated by a Senate panel in 1952. That committee issued the "Hennings Report," which uncovered unethical behavior in McCarthy’s campaigns and tax returns, but found no basis for legal action. Despite that report, McCarthy was re-elected in 1952 with 54% of the vote, although he ran behind all other statewide Republicans and had a lower vote total than in 1946.
With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the subcommittee on investigations. In that capacity, he so angered Democrats that they resigned from the committee in protest. McCarthy also angered the new president and fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower by accusing the administration of sheltering communists. Eisenhower refused to publicly rebuke McCarthy, but worked behind the scenes to isolate him.
The Army McCarthy Hearings
In the fall of 1953, McCarthy investigated the Army Signal Corps, but failed to uncover an alleged espionage ring. McCarthy’s treatment of General Ralph W. Zwicker during that investigation causedmany supporters to turn against McCarthy. That opposition grew with the March 9, 1954, CBSbroadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s "See It Now," which was an attack on McCarthy and his methods. The Army then released a report charging that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army to give favored treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide who had been drafted. McCarthy counter-charged that the Army was using Schine as a hostage to exert pressure on McCarthy.
Both sides of this dispute were aired over national television between April 22 and June 17, 1954, during what became known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings. McCarthy’s frequent interruptions of the proceedings and his calls of "point of order" made him the object of ridicule, and his approval ratings in public opinion polls continued a sharp decline. On June 9, the hearings climaxed when McCarthy attacked a young lawyer who worked for the law firm of Joseph Nye Welch, the Army’s chief counsel. Welch’s reply to McCarthy became famous: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?" After that, the hearings petered out to an inconclusive end, but McCarthy’s reputation never recovered.
In August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy. On September27, the committee released a unanimous report calling McCarthy’s behavior as a committee chairman "inexcusable," "reprehensible," "vulgar and insulting." On December 2, 1954, the full Senate, by a vote of 67-22, passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for abusing his power as a senator. Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy now had little power and was ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.
Throughout his Senate career, McCarthy was troubled by ill health. Severe sinus problems caused many hospital stays, and a herniated diaphragm led to a difficult operation. With his friends, McCarthy was a gregarious, kind, warm-hearted man, but in later years he seemed to lose his sense of humor. Always a heavy drinker, McCarthy’s drinking increased to dangerous levels, especially after the Senate’s actions against him. The drinking eventually caused liver ailments, leading to his hospitalization in April, 1957. On May 2, 1957, McCarthy died of acute hepatitis at the Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington. With him when he died was his wife, the former Jean Kerr, who had worked as a researcher in his office. The couple had married on September 29, 1953. They had adopted a baby girl, Tierney Elizabeth, in January, 1957.
Joseph Raymond McCarthy was buried on a bluff overlooking the Fox River in Appleton’s St. Mary’s cemetery.
Fact from Fiction: Joseph McCarthy the Tail Gunner
Joe McCarthy didn’t have to go to war. His job as an elected circuit judge in Appleton, Wisconsin, was important enough to exempt him from military service. It would be nice to say that he volunteered for the best of reasons: a strong sense of duty, a hatred of fascism. It would also be untrue. To his thinking, frontline action was an essential requirement for young politicians. There was but one rule to remember: One had to survive in order to exploit it.
The judgeship bored McCarthy. He viewed himself as a politician, and he had told everyone within earshot of his desire to seek “real” political office. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like many office seekers, McCarthy knew the value of a war record, and he told a fellow judge, Urban Van Susteren, that he must enlist at once. Van Susteren remembered advising him: “Look, if you’ve got to be a hero to be a politician, join the marines.” McCarthy agreed. Early in 1942 he entered a leatherneck recruit- ing office in Milwaukee and signed on the dotted line.
The news that a circuit judge had traded in his robes for a helmet and rifle traveled quickly through Wisconsin. And McCarthy helped the story along by implying that he wanted no special favors. He said he would serve “as a private, an officer, or anything else.” In fact, McCarthy had already written a letter on court stationery requesting an officer’s rank. He was sworn in as a first lieutenant.
On August 4, 1942, McCarthy began his tour of duty in the Pacific. For almost three years he served as an intelligence officer at Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, debriefing combat pilots who returned from bombing runs over Japanese–held islands. By all accounts, he did a creditable job his assignment, while hardly dangerous, was vital to the fliers who took the risks and got most of the glory. In his spare time, McCarthy played poker and acted as the island’s “procurer”—not of women, but of such things as liquor and exotic food. One Christmas he rounded up a few pilots and flew to Guadalcanal, where the men bartered for medicinal brandy, canned turkeys, pineapple juice, and other luxuries. On returning, he held an open house, passing out free food and drink to those who happened by.
But McCarthy was not about to be viewed as a small cog in a big machine. Not when his political instincts told him that those who came home with military honors would be rewarded at the ballot box. Before long, stories about his military exploits began filtering back to Wisconsin. In 1943 the Post-Crescent printed the following dispatch:
Guadalcanal—Every evening the “judge” holds court in a dilapidated shack just off a jungle air strip deep in the South Pacific combat zone. The folks in Wisconsin might be a trifle shocked at his lack of dignity now. He stands bare-chested before his bench, an ancient table reeling on its last legs, and opens court with: “All right, what kind of hell did you give the Japs today?”
That was only the beginning. News reached Wisconsin that McCarthy had become a tail gunner with Scout Bomber Squadron VMSB-235, flying dangerous missions and spraying more bullets (4,700 in one sortie) than any marine in history. As McCarthy carefully molded his image for the folks back home, he told of ever more impressive exploits. In 1944 he spoke of 14 bombing missions in 1947 the figure rose to 17 in 1951 it peaked at 32. He requested—and received—an Air Medal with four stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for 25 missions in combat. Honors poured in from the American Legion, the Gold Star Mothers, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In 1949 the Madison Capital-Times received a letter from Marine Captain Jack Canaan, a flyer who was stationed with McCarthy at Bougainville. It claimed that McCarthy’s only combat experience had been two missions in one day. “He told me that he did it for publicity value,” wrote Canaan. “In fact, in a hospital in the New Hebrides he personally showed me the Associated Press clipping about firing more rounds than any gunner in one day….I believe on the day he fired them, the Jap planes at Rabaul were all dead.” Canaan advised the newspaper to check McCarthy’s “official jacket in Washington.” It would, he thought, “expose the guy for the fraud he is.”
The Capital-Times didn’t pursue the tip, but other reporters got wind of it and started their own inquiries. Before long the real story of McCarthy’s Pacific exploits had emerged. In 1943 his squadron was assigned to Henderson Field, Guadalcanal. The work varied—from routine “spotting” flights on New Georgia, the largest of the Solomon Islands, to bombing runs over the island of New Britain in western New Guinea. Sometimes, to ease the boredom, the pilots would try to break every flight record on the books—most missions in a day, most ammunition expended, and the like. According to one marine, “Everyone at the base who could possibly do so went along for the ride on some of these missions—it was hot, dusty, and dull on the ground, and a ride in an SBD [“Scout Bomber Douglas”] was cool and a break in the monotony. It was also quite safe—there weren’t any Jap planes or anti-aircraft gunners around.”
McCarthy wanted to break the record for most ammo used in a single mission. So he was strapped into a tail-gunner’s seat, sent aloft, and allowed to blast away at the coconut trees. As a matter of routine, the public relations officer gave him the record and wrote up a press release for the Wisconsin papers. A few weeks later, McCarthy came into the fellow’s hut waving a stack of clippings. “This is worth 50,000 votes to me,” he said with a smile. The two men then had a drink to celebrate the creation of “Tail-Gunner Joe.”
All told, McCarthy made about a dozen flights in the tail-gunner’s seat. He strafed deserted airfields, hit some fuel dumps, and came under enemy fire at least once. His buddies recalled that he “loved to shoot the guns.” They gave him an award for destroying the island’s plant life, and they laughed hysterically when he lost control of the twin 30s and pumped bullets through the tail of his plane.
It was on one of these missions that McCarthy claimed to have been wounded in action. Later, in his Senate campaigns, he would walk with a limp, saying that his plane had crash-landed or that he carried “ten pounds of shrapnel” in his leg. When pressed for details, he would refer to a citation from Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet: “Although suffering from a severe leg injury, [Captain McCarthy] refused to be hospitalized and continued to carry out his duties as an intelligence officer in a highly efficient manner. His courageous devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service.”
Citations like this were easy to come by. In McCarthy’s case, he apparently wrote it himself, forged his commanding officer’s signature, and sent it on to Nimitz, who signed thousands of such documents during the war. What bothered some newsmen was that McCarthy had never been awarded a Purple Heart. Could it be that his wound was not war related? “Maybe he fell off a bar stool,” mused Robert Fleming, the Milwaukee Journal’s crack reporter, as he began piecing together the incident. Fleming soon discovered that McCarthy had been aboard the seaplane tender Chandeleur on the day the injury occurred. It was June 22, 1943, and the Chandeleur’s crew was holding a “shellback” initiation as the ship crossed the equator. During the hazing, McCarthy was forced to attach an iron bucket to one foot and run the gantlet of paddle-wielding sailors. He slipped, fell down a stairwell, and suffered three fractures of the metatarsal (middle foot) bone. That was the extent of his “war” wounds.
It is not unusual for someone, particularly a politician, to exaggerate his war record. Nor is it the sort of falsehood that generally hurts the feelings or the reputations of others. Why, then, the controversy over “Tail-Gunner Joe”? The question can be answered in several ways. For one thing, McCarthy’s puffed-up gallantry was not an isolated instance of deception, but rather an example of the way he consistently misrepresented his actions. For another, McCarthy used his war record to shameless advantage. He thought nothing of attacking political opponents as cowardly slackers or of claiming the exclusive right to speak for veterans with disabilities and for “dead heroes.” Finally, like some compulsive braggarts, McCarthy seemed increasingly unable to differentiate fact from fancy. He lied so often and so boldly about his exploits that he himself came to accept their veracity. His friends insisted that McCarthy always stuck by his war record, even in private. When Urban Van Susteren once asked about the wound, McCarthy rolled up his pants, exposed a nasty scar, and growled, “There, you son of a bitch, now let’s hear no more about it.”
It would be an understatement to say that McCarthy launched his campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1944 as a long shot. He was, after all, a political novice residing some 9,000 miles from Wisconsin and running against an incumbent. And his hastily fashioned campaign platform consisted of two vaguely worded statements about “job security for every man and woman” and “lasting peace throughout the world.” Still, the very thought of a two-fisted marine running for political office was both novel and patriotic.
But there was a complication. According to Wisconsin law, judges can “hold no office of public trust, except a judicial office, during the term for which they are elected.” Was McCarthy violating the law? The secretary of state thought so, but the attorney general took a more liberal approach. McCarthy could run, he decided, and the courts could untangle the mess if he happened to win. Of course, McCarthy did not expect to win. He was in the race for the experience, the publicity, and the chance to position himself for a serious run in 1946. With the campaign in high gear, he got a 30-day leave and returned to a hero’s welcome. “When Joe set foot on Main Street this morning,” wrote the Shawano Evening Leader, “he did not have to walk far to find a friend. It was ‘Hello, Joe,’ left and right, to the young judge who left a seat on the bench…to take another…behind the rear guns of a dive bomber.”
On returning to the Pacific, he applied for another leave, claiming that his judicial duties had been too long overlooked. When it was denied, he resigned his commission, obtaining his official discharge in February 1945. While the war was far from over, the “fighting judge” had other things on his mind. A major national election was only a year away, with another Senate seat up for grabs. That it belonged to Robert M. La Follette Jr., a figure of heroic proportions, meant little to McCarthy. Less than a month after his discharge he was busily preparing to challenge La Follette in the GOP Senate primary.
Stalwarts of the GOP establishment in Wisconsin may not have liked McCarthy, but they thought he was the best bet to defeat La Follette. They therefore made every resource available to him, including a public relations firm, a campaign staff, and a big budget. The Committee to Elect Joe McCarthy spent more than $75,000 during the race. The La Follette figure was about $13,000. For McCarthy, money became the great equalizer.
Much of it was used to produce a slick brochure (“The Newspapers Say”) with pages of photographs and short favorable quips from the local press. The reader learned that McCarthy was a man with small-town, working-class roots a self-made man, free of inherited wealth and privilege a robust man who had been a farmer, a boxer, a tough marine gunner. It was an exceptional piece of campaign literature, emphasizing the very qualities that set him apart from La Follette. McCarthy loved the brochure. He told Van Susteren that most people “vote with their emotions, not with their minds. Show them a picture and they’ll never read.”
Much of the literature played strictly on McCarthy’s war record. Combat veterans have always done well at the polls, and 1946 was a fine year for patriotic chest-thumping. His newspaper ads were misleading but effective. They explained how he turned down a soft job exempt from military duty how he joined the marines as a private how he and millions of other Joes kept Wisconsin from speaking Japanese. And they all ended the same way: “Today Joe M c Carthy is home. He wants to serve America in the Senate. Yes, folks, congress needs a tailgunner.”
McCarthy then zeroed in on La Follette’s failure to enlist. (The senator, 46 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, remained in Washington with virtually all his congressional colleagues.) “What, other than draw fat rations, did La Follette do for the war effort?” asked one campaign flyer. Another called La Follette a war profiteer, a charge that McCarthy pressed with great relish. The senator, it seemed, had invested in a Milwaukee radio station and was rewarded with a $47,000 profit during 1944–45. Noting that the Federal Communications Commission licensed the station, McCarthy alleged that La Follette had made “huge profits from dealing with a federal agency which exists by virtue of his vote.”
The charge was absurd. All stations are licensed by the FCC. While McCarthy didn’t try to prove that collusion occurred, his claims awakened liberal voters to the fact that La Follette had made a financial killing on a limited investment. His image as the archenemy of privilege had begun to wear thin.
McCarthy said little about his own campaign platform. He supported veterans’ pensions and the creation of an all-volunteer army—issues he knew to be popular with returning veterans and their families. His speeches on foreign affairs were laced with generalities that appealed to both isolationists and internationalists. His main theme was that America had the duty either to lead the world or to play no part in it at all. He never said which alternative he favored.
McCarthy edged La Follette by 5,000 votes. A few months later he won the general election as part of a GOP landslide that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 18 years.
As a freshman U.S. senator, McCarthy was known mainly for his raucous behavior. Angry colleagues accused him of lying, of manipulating figures, and of disregarding the Senate’s most cherished traditions. By 1950 his political career was in deep trouble. He was up for reelection in 1952, and most political analysts expected him to lose. He felt that he needed an issue to attract attention—something to make his importance felt beyond the walls of the Senate chamber.
On February 9, 1950, during a routine dinner speech before a women’s Republican club in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy declared that he held a list of 205 communists actively shaping policy in the State Department. Overnight, his notoriety grew a thousandfold.
Although McCarthy had hardly “discovered” the political exploitability of communist infiltration, he was uniquely gifted in using it to promote himself publicly. He convinced an increasingly frightened America that the Reds and their fellow travelers had orchestrated a conspiracy so immense that he—and he alone—could be trusted to deliver the nation from it.
But soon McCarthy’s life would rapidly disintegrate. In February 1954 the Senate had authorized his investigation by a vote of 85–1. Eight months later it had condemned him by a vote of 67–22. And eight months after that it would crush his spirit—and what remained of his career—by voting, 77–4, to censure him.
In the interval between his famous Wheeling speech in 1950 and his official Senate censure some four years later, McCarthy lost his identity as a man to that of an “ism,” his name touted by his enemies as a symbol of political opportunism, coercion, and reckless accusation. McCarthyism is still a dirty word in the American political vocabulary.
Although the censure had humiliated McCarthy, his physical decline had been obvious for years. In the latter part of 1956 McCarthy was treated at the Bethesda Naval Hospital for a variety of ailments: hepatitis, cirrhosis, delirium tremens, and the removal of a fatty tumor from his leg. Between visits, his friends pleaded with him to stop drinking, but to no avail. “I would scream at him,” Van Susteren recalled. “I’d say, ‘You’re killing yourself, Goddamit.’ And he’d say, “Kiss my ass, Van.’ And that was that.”
McCarthy entered Bethesda again on April 28, 1958. He died on May 2. The official cause of death was listed as acute hepatitis—or inflammation of the liver. There was no mention of cirrhosis or delirium tremens, though the press hinted, correctly, that he drank himself to death.
David M. Oshinsky, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, is a professor of history at New York University and the director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU Langone Health. He is the author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (Free Press, 1983), from which this article is adapted.
This article appears in the Spring 2020 issue (Vol. 32, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: War Stories | The Tail Gunner
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!
The Senator Who Stood Up to Joseph McCarthy When No One Else Would
“It is high time we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.”
Those words, spoken by Margaret Chase Smith, freshman senator from Maine, never mentioned Joseph McCarthy by name, but it was abundantly clear to all who listened that her criticisms were leveled directly at him. Her speech represented a highlight for the congressional maverick with a career full of similar moments of bipartisanship.
Earlier that day, June 1, 1950, Smith had bumped into the bombastic Wisconsin senator as they made their way to work. Only four months earlier, McCarthy had delivered an inflammatory speech claiming 205 people working in the State Department were secretly communists. Since then, Smith had been closely following his words and actions, meant to undermine the Democratic party and seed suspicion everywhere.
According to journalist Marvin Kalb, the senators’ interaction that morning was a prelude of what was to come. McCarthy regarded Smith and noted, “Margaret, you look very serious. Are you going to make a speech?”
“Yes, and you will not like it,” she responded.
After passing out copies of the speech to the press gallery, Smith approached the Senate floor and began her “Declaration of Conscience.” In it, she addressed what she saw as McCarthy’s dangerous accusations and the partisan bickering it resulted in.
“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” Smith said, in another thinly veiled jab at McCarthy’s tactics. Importantly, she was also quick to point out the Truman administration had failed to do enough to prevent the spread of communism at home and abroad. But her conclusion called on all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, to stand for the defense of civil liberties.
“It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques—techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life,” said Smith.
It was a remarkable moment, not only because Smith was a woman, or the first person to speak out against McCarthy, but because she was willing to speak out against her fellow Republicans. Again and again over the 32 years she spent in Congress, Smith defended her values, even when it meant opposing the GOP—and even when it cost her personally.
Smith’s political career began shortly after she married Clyde Harold Smith, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936. Margaret traveled with her husband to Washington, D.C., where she managed his office, and, in 1940, before the end of his term, Clyde asked Margaret to run for his seat just before he died of a fatal heart condition. Not only did she win the special election to finish his term, she won her own full term in Congress by running on a platform of supporting pensions for the elderly and military expansion.
Over the next eight years, Smith repeatedly won reelection to the House as a Republican, though she mostly followed her own conscience and frequently voted across party lines. She sponsored legislation to make women recognized members of the military rather than volunteers and voted against making the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities (which investigated communism) a permanent committee. She would also support Democratic legislation like FDR’s Lend-Lease program.
When one of Maine’s senators chose not to return in 1947, she decided to run for his seat. According to a biography from the United States House of Representatives, “The state Republican Party, stung by Smith’s many votes across party lines, opposed her candidacy and supported Maine Governor Horace A. Hildreth in the four-way race.” But Smith earned far more votes than any of her opponents, becoming the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate.
When McCarthy began his accusations of communism run amok in the American government, Smith, like many others, was initially concerned that he might be right. She had been a fervent anti-communist throughout her political career and introduced a bill to outlaw the Communist Party in 1953, three years after her speech against McCarthy. What she didn’t agree with were her colleague from Wisconsin’s tactics—the fearmongering, the smearing of reputations, and finding people guilty before they had a chance to defend themselves.
“She was worried that what [McCarthy] was doing was undermining the anti-communism movement, that his methods were going too far,” says historian Mary Brennan, author of Wives, Mothers, and the Red Menace.
It soon became clear that McCarthy had grossly exaggerated his claims. By the spring of 1950, Smith said, “Distrust became so widespread that many dared not accept dinner invitations lest at some future date McCarthy might level unproved charges against someone who had been at the same dinner party.” Smith decided to act, since no one else seemed willing to, and gave her speech with the support of only six other Republican senators.
McCarthy’s response was typical of his behavior to any critics: he dismissed her, nicknaming Smith and her colleagues “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.” Meanwhile, media outlets like the Saturday Evening Post shamed Smith and her co-signers for being communist-sympathizers, calling them “the soft underbelly of the Republican Party.”
Yet Smith received a large share of praise as well as censure. Newsweek pondered whether Smith might be the next vice president, while financier and statesman Bernard Baruch went even further, stating that if a man had given such a speech “he would be the next president.” Smith received campaign donations from across the country for the 1952 elections, Brennan says, all of which she politely returned, saying she was running in a state race, not a national one.
But for all the furor her speech produced, Smith quickly fell out of the limelight when North Korean forces invaded the South at the end of June. “The boiling intensity of the Cold War had the ironic effect of sidelining Smith and elevating McCarthy, whose anticommunist crusade only grew wider and stronger,” Kalb writes in Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy.
The one person who didn’t forget Smith’s speech was McCarthy himself. “Her support for the United Nations, New Deal programs, support for federal housing and social programs placed her high on the list of those against whom McCarthy and his supporters on local levels sought revenge,” writes Gregory Gallant in Hope and Fear in Margaret Chase Smith’s America. When McCarthy gained control of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (which monitored government affairs), he took advantage of the position to remove Smith from the group, replacing her with acolyte Richard Nixon, then a senator from California. Although she remained a member of the Republican party, party leaders never quite knew how to make sense of her, Brennan says.
“I don’t know that she would’ve felt a lot of loyalty to the Republican Party the way some others did. There was a sense that they didn’t like what McCarthy was doing, but he was attacking the Democrats and that was good. And she came along and said, that’s true, but he’s undermining our cause and that’s bad.”
Despite being briefly sidelined by McCarthy for standing her ground, Smith remained a savvy enough politician to survive. She held a record for casting 2,941 consecutive roll call votes between 1955 and 1968, which was interrupted only by her recovery from hip surgery. And in 1964, she announced she was running for President. Though she never made it past the primaries, she still became the first woman to have her name put in for nomination for the presidency by a major political party.
As for the incident with McCarthy, Smith wasn’t the one who to bring him down or spur others to action. He wouldn’t fall until 1954, after considerable damage had been done. But Smith did vote to censure him in 1954, and, Brennan says, she refused to sign a card from other Republicans apologizing for censuring him.
“That was the thing about her,” Brennan says. “She was very much what you’d think of when you think of a stereotypical Yankee. This is the principal, this is what I’m standing for, and I’m not deviating from this.”
McCarthy's Notorious Legacy
Match book cover distributed by the Superior Match Company of Chicago. The front cover says, "I like McCarthy and his Methods. I am with Joe McCarthy in his fight against treason and dishonor." The inside cover reads "I will not betray those who help me ferret out traitors - Joseph R. McCarthy. Strike a light for Freedom." View the original source document: WHI 47759
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy held the nation in his grasp with his anti-Communist rhetoric for four years in the early 1950s. To his enemies, McCarthy was evil incarnate, but to his supporters, he was an ardent champion of freedom. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946, Joseph McCarthy created a sensation in 1950 when he announced during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that communist members of the State Department were influencing American foreign policy. At the time, communist expansion in Eastern Europe and Korea fueled Americans' anxiety that their way of life was under attack. Proclaimed just as Americans were preparing to fight in Korea, McCarthy capitalized on people's fears of encroaching communism to launch a public campaign aimed at eliminating the supposed communist infiltration of government.
Re-elected in 1952, McCarthy, as chair of a Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, took it upon himself to expose communists and their sympathizers throughout all of American cultural and political life. The Subcommittee interrogated more than 500 people under his leadership, often refusing to reveal their sources of information under the veil of national security. In 1953, however, McCarthy took it too far when he accused the Army of harboring communists. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings that ensued exposed many Americans to McCarthy's bullying tactics and ruined his public reputation. The next year, the Senate officially censured McCarthy for "conduct unbecoming a senator." His ostracism from his party, coupled with chronic alcoholism, led to his death three years later.
Visual materials in the Archives do not circulate and must be viewed in the Society's Archives Research Room.
For the purposes of a bibliography entry or footnote, follow this model:
Wisconsin Historical Society Citation Wisconsin Historical Society, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at (copy and paste image page link). Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Citation Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Creator, Title, Image ID. Viewed online at (copy and paste image page link).
Joseph McCarthy - HISTORY
He could destroy political careers on a whim. Even the president of the United States treaded warily around Joe McCarthy. Said Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Never get in a pissing match with a skunk."
A charismatic demagogue, Joseph McCarthy grew up on a Wisconsin farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse. While still a teenager, he established a thriving business as a chicken farmer. He dropped out of school after finishing eighth grade, but returned at the age of 20 and finished four years of work in nine months. He worked his way through law school and, at the age of 30, because the youngest circuit court judge in Wisconsin history. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as an intelligence officer in the South Pacific. In 1946, at the age of 38, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
McCarthy had an unsavory side. While a Marine, he forged a letter from his commander to obtain a citation for a phony combat wound. He also cheated on his taxes and violated campaign laws.
In an address in 1950 to a Republican women's club in Wheeling, W. Va., Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican of Wisconsin) claims to have a list of a great many "known Communists" employed by the state department:
I have here in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who are nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy in the State Dept. When asked by a reporter to produce his list, McCarthy replied: "That was just a political speech to a bunch of Republicans. Don't take it seriously."
McCarthy's stock-in-trade was reckless accusations. Centering around communist victories in China and Eastern Europe in the later 1940s, McCarthy charged that Secretary of State Dean Acheson had sold the country out to the Communists that the Truman administration was riddled with subversion and that the men who guided the country for the previous twenty years were dupes of the communists. In 1951, Senator McCarthy he called George C. Marshall a communist agent. Senator Millard E. Tydings (D. Md.) attacked McCarthy for perpetrating "a fraud and a hoax."
In 1954, Sen. McCarthy charges that a Communist spy ring was operating at a U.S. Army Signal Corps installation in New Jersey. McCarthy also accuses the Secretary of the Army of concealing evidence. The Secretary retains a Boston attorney, Joseph Nye Welch, to represent him. When McCarthy makes a vicious charge, Welch says:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness. Have no sense of decency, sir, at long last?
For More Information
Cook, Fred J. The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Random House, 1971.
Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000.
Rovere, Richard H. Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
Sherrow, Victoria. Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1998.