Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957), a charismatic Republican from Wisconsin, became one of the most reviled and feared figures in the history of U.S. politics. His aggressive campaign to remove perceived communists from positions of influence during the anticommunist movement is known as McCarthyism.
McCarthy’s campaign began with an unsubstantiated statement during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, when he held up a piece of paper that purported to be a list of 205 subversives employed by the U.S. Department of State. The irony of McCarthyism was that the heyday of American communism had ended with the outbreak of World War II (1939–1945). Droves of communist sympathizers in the United States had withdrawn support for the movement after the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939, and then Germany invaded Poland.
“Tail-gunner Joe,” as McCarthy was nicknamed, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946. By that time, the House Un-American Activities Committee had been operating for eight years. The committee’s unrelenting probes into anyone suspected of even the slightest link to communism served as a model for McCarthy, who accused the American left, most notably presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, of selling out Eastern Europe, betraying China, and precipitating the invasion of South Korea. Another target was George C. Marshall, a former U.S. secretary of defense, five-star general, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The post–World War II period was an ideal time for McCarthy’s brand of conservatism. In highly publicized trials, the U.S. Department of Justice had used the Smith Act of 1940, designed to prevent the spread of communist subversion in the United States, to convict eleven communists of trying to overthrow the government. The discovery that Alger Hiss, a state department employee, had sold secret information to the Soviet Union had further outraged the entire country. Loyalty oaths requiring government employees to attest that they had never been members of the Communist Party had become commonplace.
Following the 1950 election, in which McCarthy claimed credit for the defeat of four Democratic senators, the Republican leadership selected him as the chair of the Government Operations Committee, in which it was believed he would be forced to keep a low profile. Instead, McCarthy used that position to pursue his highly publicized campaign. One of his early targets was the Voice of America. He claimed that American libraries overseas were filled with communist doctrine.
Television had entered the homes of most Americans by 1952, and party conventions were broadcast nationally for the first time. Always a showman, McCarthy used the Republican Convention to accuse Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson (1900–1965) of being a communist sympathizer. By 1953, McCarthy was insisting that communists had also infiltrated the Army Signal Corps. The Army-McCarthy hearings of the following year were broadcast on television, and by that time it was clear that McCarthy was on a witch hunt with few facts to back his outrageous claims.
McCarthyism lasted only half a decade. During that time, however, jobs were lost and lives were destroyed. Leftist Americans, particularly those in the entertainment and academic fields, were accused and convicted of seditious conduct in the minds of McCarthy and a segment of the public, without benefit of judicial process. It was only when McCarthy targeted the army that his own party turned completely against him and put a stop to his activities.
In December 1954, twenty-two Republicans and the entire Democratic delegation in the Senate censured McCarthy. His flamboyant political career was over. Afterwards, whenever he spoke on the floor of the Senate, his colleagues walked out. McCarthy’s death, three years later due to alcoholism, was met with joy by many people. A British journalist wrote that America was made “cleaner” by the absence of McCarthy. On the other hand, the ultraconservative John Birch Society moved its headquarters to Appleton, Wisconsin, where McCarthy is buried, to pay homage to him.
Some scholars have tried to redeem McCarthy posthumously by pointing out that documents made public after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 have indicated that there were a number of communists in U.S. government positions in the 1950s, and they insist that activities of the Communist Party of the United States were financed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
- Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000.
- Landis, Mark. Joseph McCarthy: The Politics of Chaos. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1987.
- Lately,Thomas. When Even Angels Wept: The Senator Joseph McCarthy Affair—A Story Without a Hero. New York: Morrow, 1973.
- Reeves,Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy. Lanham, Md.: Madison, 1997.
- Sates, Shelby. Maurice Rosenblatt and the Fall of Joseph McCarthy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.
- Wicker,Tom. Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2006.