Recently, New York Representative Peter King began a series of hearings looking into “Radical Muslim Activity” in America. In his view, he is simply trying to protect the country by rooting out terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. He feels he is simply being “vigilant”, as any American should. But, for many Americans, this can’t help but remind them of another “champion of America and freedom”. Another “servant of the people” protecting us from an internal menace that we were just too blind to see. Throughout the late 40’s and early 50’s, Joseph McCarthy began a one man campaign against Communism. A threat, in his mind, that was greater than any America had faced. Forget that Hitler guy we just finished off. The real enemy has always been Communism.This is the story of McCarthyism and how it crippled mid 20th century America with fear and paranoia, and brought about an anger and mistrust of American government that still holds strong to this day.
Joseph McCarthy was born in Wisconsin in 1908. He led a largely uneventful mid-western childhood. At age 14 he dropped out of school to help his family maintain their farm. At age 20 he entered high school and graduated in one year. McCarthy later attended college at Marquette University and eventually received a law degree after a little dabbling in engineering in 1935. That same year he passed his bar exam. The following year he launched an unsuccessful campaign for district attorney as a Democrat. In 1939 he switched Parties to Republican and eventually won the circuit judge position in Wisconsin’s 10th district. Officials were said to have been “shocked” by McCarthy’s dirty campaign tactics. He lied about his opponent openly and was even accused of publishing forged writings attributed to his opponent. But he won. Though inexperienced and highly deliberate with his cases, few of his decisions were ever overturned. He became a very respected judge in the state but still somewhat mistrusted by many
In 1942, with America at war, McCarthy was commissioned into the Marines even though his judicial status would have exempted him. McCarthy would often brag that he voluntarily enlisted with the Marines as a “buck private” but he was actually promoted to an officer due to his education the very first day. He often claimed a wound he suffered during his service was received while in action as a tail gunner. It was actually from an accident aboard ship during a ceremony for soldiers crossing the equator for the first time. Not very manly. Truth is that McCarthy was a desk jockey who rarely flew some training missions here and there. But he needed something he could sell. In 1944, McCarthy decided to run for Senate as a Republican in Wisconsin while still enlisted. He lost the Republican primary and after leaving the Marines in 1945, he ran unopposed and took back his old circuit court job. He then began work on his next campaign for the Senate.
The 1946 Wisconsin Senate campaign was a tough one. McCarthy went dirty early and often, starting in the primaries. His opponent was respected politician Robert La Folette. La Folette was a former Republican who left the Party to help shape the ideas that would eventually become the Progressive movement. He had returned to the Republican Party for this election, most likely to stop McCarthy. McCarthy went after him right away. He first chastised La Folette for not serving during WW2. La Folette was almost 50 when the war began. He was legally to old to join. But the truth hardly matters in politics. He then accused La Folette of war profiteering. Of “staying behind to make money” while McCarthy “fought for the country”. He claimed La Folette of making shady investments into companies profiting from the war. The money was actually invested into a radio station. McCarthy won by more than 5,000 votes. La Folette was so hurt and damaged by the accusations made against him that he retired from politics and it is claimed he committed suicide after numerous attacks against him following the election. Though established medical reports state he passed away months after the election from health issues. McCarthy was a U.S. Senator. God help us all.
McCarthy’s first day in the Senate set the tone for the rest of his career. One of the big issues of the day was a coal miner’s strike in Pennsylvania. McCarthy suggested a solution. All the cola miners should be drafted into the Army. If they then still refused to mine coal, they should be court-martialed and shot. Few people were impressed. In fact, his whole first year was terribly unimpressive. As were the next two. He had no legislation with his name on it, people were figuring out he lied about his war record, and he was being questioned for bribes and tax dodging. After he actually called for a stay of execution against former SS Nazi guards who had murdered dozens of American POWs in the Malmedy massacre, he was voted “the worst U.S. Senator”. It was looking like he would be one term and done. He pulled his closest advisers together and asked for suggestions on how he can keep his seat. One idea in particular stuck with him. Edmond Walsh, A roman Catholic priest and McCarthy’s closest confidant, suggested that McCarthy begin a campaign against communism. Specifically rooting out communist activity in the Democratic Party.
First let’s go down a side street here. McCarthy was originally a Democrat. Raised by Democrats. But Democrats were different when he was young. The Democrats were the Party of segregation, war, overbearing government, and all the things we associate with current Republicans. But FDR changed it all with the New Deal. The New Deal began a mass exodus of people from the Democratic Party that lasted on into the mid 6o’s. McCarthy’s loss in the Democratic Primary early in his political career and his deep mistrust of Communism made him an easy target for Republican manipulation. They convinced him the New Deal was destroying America. It was a socialist agenda with roots in Communism and the Democrats are using it to turn us into Russia. This was really all the motivation McCarthy needed to take America down a dark path. He was already a well known anti-communist activist having many clashes with President’s Truman and Eisenhower. Now back to the main road.
McCarthy needed some people he could work with. People who enjoyed “favors”. Reporter Jack Anderson was a friend of McCarthy and he called him up to offer a deal. McCarthy would allow him to listen in on private conversations with other lawmakers and people of interest, if Anderson would provide him with names and info on people he suspected of “communist” activity. Anderson later said that he went along because he feared McCarthy and wanted to be on his good side but he seemed awful enthusiastic about spying on Americans. One of the first names Anderson gave McCarthy was Truman aide, David Demarest Lloyd.
The genesis of McCarthyism seems to be a speech given on February 9, 1950 to the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. In an earlier Salt Lake City speech he had attacked the Secretary of State for being, among other things, a”pompous diplomat in striped pants” and made accusations of Communist sympathizing. Here he would go much much further. The details of the speech are debated as, apparently, no audio recording of the speech was saved. The key moment goes like this, McCarthy pulls out a sheet of paper he claims has the names of 205 people working in the State Department who are all Communists. He tells the audience that these names have all been brought to the attention of the Secretary of State and he knowingly refuses to do anything to address Communist activity in our own State Department. Claiming they are all known members of the American Communist Party. The 205 number was later shortened to 57. McCarthy seems to be basing his claim on a 1946 letter written by former SoS James Byrnes in which he recommends the State Department disqualify 284 people for permanent employment and that 79 of them had already been removed. But McCathy latched on to those 205 still remaining and ran with it. But by the time this speech was given, only 65 of the people in that letter still worked at the State Department and they had all undergone extended security checks. McCarthy got his “media buzz”, America got a fresh helping of paranoia. About a month after the speech, the term McCarthyism was first used by cartoonist Herbert Block in the Washington Post. McCarthy loved it.
Communism was a lingering fear in America already. The First Red Scare contributed to a rise in membership for the Communist Party of America thanks in large part to their pro-union stance and early opposition to fascism, the primary target of the First Red Scare. But not long after WW2, feelings on Communism began to split. Russia’s aggressive posture and China’s fall to Mao and the Communist Party left many wondering if another war was around the corner. Russia had just detonated an atomic bomb that we soon found out was built with stolen Allied intelligence by a Russian spy. Americans were on edge whenever talk turned to Communism. McCarthy was more than ready to exploit it. Communism was the Republican go to card. Much the way Islam is now for many Republican politicians. Conservative politicians held a deep seeded hatred of the New Deal policies and any progressive legislation that spawned from it. They argued against Child Labor laws and women’s suffrage. Calling them “Communist plots” to take over America. That’s right. The Communists were trying to take our child workers away. And the Republicans would have none of it!
McCarthy was countered on all sides by Democratic politicians. They pushed back against McCarthy’s narrative by pointing out that McCarthy’s list was deceitful as only a handful of those on it were still employed at the State Department.Even President’s Truman and Eisenhower initiated broad “loyalty programs”to weed out Communist subversives. But none of this pleased McCarthy. And none of it got through to the majority of American people who were concerned with the deteriorating war in Korea and the permanent placement of Communist rule in China. With the East seemingly aligned against them, many Americans saw infiltration and indoctrination as a very serious thing. The Communists were invading from within.
McCarthy found a kindred spirit in FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. If McCarthy was the king of anti-Communists, Hoover was the GOD he received his divine authority from. Many agree that without the FBI, McCarthy’s crusade would have failed before it ever began. A Washington reporter, no matter how many connections he has, could only get you so far. The FBI could give you almost anything you wanted. And Hoover needed no prodding. He was a fervent anti – Communist and had been conducting “probes” into Communist activity in America for years. Even before he had gained the title of Director. He was leading his own witch hunt that had already cost hundreds of federal employees their jobs. Never knowing who their accuser was or what the charges actually were. Hoover was more than happy to supply McCarthy with all the “information” he needed to carry out his upcoming Senate hearings.
At this point McCarthy had gone from political dead weight to, possibly, the most powerful man on Capital Hill. Many political opponents from earlier in his career dared not cross him now. Once McCarthy won re-election he was made chair of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations. Many on the Republican side were starting to tire of his methods so they put him here instead of the Interior Security Subcommittee, which dealt more directly with anti-Communist activities, so he would “be out of the way”. But this panel also contained a subcommittee(think Russian nesting dolls) with rules flexible enough for McCarthy to continue his witch hunt. His first target was Voice of America. The official radio station of the United States Federal Government.
For several days McCarthy badgered VOA employees on camera with blatant lies and veiled threats. Another man is claimed to have committed suicide following McCarthy’s public humiliation of him. VOA survived but it would be crushed for some time to come. Next, McCarthy decided it was time to burn some books. McCarthy sent his lackey, Roy Cohn, overseas to Europe to go through various State Department libraries and log all books with a Communist leaning or by a supposedly Communist author. Cohn returned with the list and McCarthy immediately went public with it. The State Department caved and ordered all overseas libraries to pull the books from their shelves. Some libraries decided hat wasn’t enough and burned the “forbidden books”. On a personal note here, I can watch a pile of dolphins burn and not shed a tear. Show me a pile of burning books wand I’ll cry you a river. Where was this country going?
McCarthy brought in J.B. Matthews from the House Un-American Activities Committee early on to be his staff director. The move quickly became controversial when it was learned that Matthews had written a recent article entitled, “Reds and Our Churches” , in which he smears the entire Protestant religion with accusations of Communism in their upper ranks. Catholics attacking Protestants. Who would have guessed? Anyways, pressure mounted to a degree that McCarthy eventually cut ties with him. His opponents took this as a sign of weakness or failing on McCarthy’s part and he lost his air of invincibility.
McCarthy’s next target the American Army. Quite a big target. McCarthy immediately began on a bad note. He charged that there was an active spy ring in a research laboratory at Fort Monmouth. After weeks of “investigations”, McCarthy gave up on the spy ring theory and moved on to someone else. Specifically New York dentist, Irving Peress. Peress was drafted in 1952 and received the rank of major in 1953(this will be relevant later). The source of the controversy is that Peress, a member of the left wing American Labor Party, had declined to state his political affiliation on a “loyalty review” form. This meant he had to be discharged within the next 90 days. McCarthy thought he had found his straw man and he subpoenaed Major Peress to appear at his hearings. McCarthy carried out his usual one sided interrogation but Peress cited the 5th Amendment and refused to answer any of McCarthy’s questions. McCarthy was, of course, furious and sent amessage to Secretary of the Army, Robert Stevens insisting that Peress be court-martialed. That same day Peress asked his commanding officer that his discharge be moved up. As a major, Peress was given an honorable discharge from the Army. A rallying cry sprung up, at McCarthy’s encouragement, among his supporters and other anti-Communists: “Who promoted Peress?” McCarthy, of course, knew exactly who. It was him. Peress was promoted through the Doctor Draft Law that McCarthy himself had voted for. But McCarthy just wanted the drum beat to get his next target in his crosshairs. The man who had discharged Major Peress, Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker. Zwicker refused to answer many of McCarthy’s questions and reportedly changed his story at least 3 times regarding his knowledge of Peress’ loyalty test before his discharge. McCarthy verbally berated him and calle dhim “unfit to wear that uniform”.
This was a mistake. A huge mistake. Zwicker was a highly decorated hero of WW2. This brought the anger of the military, newspapers, politicians on both sides, and, most importantly, President Eisenhower. Eisenhower was no fan of McCarthy but he had kept a distance thus far from his activities. This blatant insult to a war hero and personal friend could not be ignored. With Eisenhower’s encouragement, the Army began a counter campaign against Senator McCarthy. The Army decided to fight fire with fire. They accused McCarthy and his flunky Roy Cohn of pressuring the army to give favorable treatment to an enlisted friend of theirs. McCarthy denied the charges and said it was merely payback for his earlier questioning of Zwicker. Regardless, McCarthy ws pulled in front of his own committee to answer these charges. Poetic justice, I’m sure. After weeks of debate McCarthy was exonerated but Cohn got a slap on the wrist. But McCarthy had taken a huge hit. The American public had 6 straight weeks of his nonsense shoved in their faces and they were not impressed. His popularity waned, even among his supporters. The Republican party began to see him as a serious liability.
A particularly damning piece on Senator McCarthy was aired later that year on Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now documentary series. Followed by an equally destructive piece the following week. Murrow laid out for all to see, McCarthy’s bullying and fear mongering. The cap to it all was when McCarthy later appeared on See It Now and made allegations that Murrow was linked to a known Communist propaganda group, VOKS. Murrow was a popular journalist with people of all political stripes and his viewership quickly turned on McCarthy and his popularity plummeted further.
It was over. McCarthy had ruined himself. His inability to control his anger and paranoia had driven him to the fringe of the fringe. No one wanted anything to do with him on either side. The Republican Party had abandoned him as one Repub. Senator compared him to Adolph Hitler in a speech on the Senate floor. In August of 1954, hearings were held to censure Senator McCarthy. A list of 46 “breaches of Senate etiquette” were attached to the resolution. After 2 months of debate, two charges were filed:
- That McCarthy had “failed to cooperate with the Subcommittee on Rules and Administration,” and “repeatedly abused the members who were trying to carry out assigned duties…”
- That McCarthy had charged “three members of the [Watkins] Select Committee with ‘deliberate deception’ and ‘fraud’…that the special Senate session…was a ‘lynch party,'” and had characterized the committee “as the ‘unwitting handmaiden,’ ‘involuntary agent’ and ‘attorneys in fact’ of the Communist Party,” and had “acted contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity.”
McCarthy was censured by a vote of 67 to 22. His political career was over. He no longer chaired any committees, the press ignored him, and he gave speeches to empty chambers. He left politics 2 years later but continued to rail against Communism.
And so ends a dark period in American politics when paranoia and fear were the rule, and common sense and decency was shouted down by raving lunatics. But McCarthy’s legacy is ongoing. Many conservatives still think McCarthy was right. You still see this unfounded fear of Communism and Socialism in their media. Hear it from their politicians. Rep. King’s hearings being the closest we have gotten to McCarthy in quite some time. McCarthy, and his shill Roy Cohn, basically wrote the playbook on fear and intimidation for modern politicians. One they still use today.
Well, hope you enjoyed the story and maybe learned something you didn’t know.
Ya’ll come back now! Ya hear!
- Wisconsin Republicans Seek Return to McCarthy Era (skydancingblog.com)
- Congressional hearings may reignite McCarthyism (rt.com)
- Peter King and Joseph McCarthy: More than Just Wishful Thinking. (libelstateofaffairs.wordpress.com)
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