McCarthy Hearings Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy launched investigative hearings into the possible communist infiltration of the U.S. government. In combination with the House of Representatives’ similar hearings, McCarthy’s rhetoric and his investigations came to symbolize the dangers posed to democracy and civil rights of the wanticommunist paranoia that characterized the Cold War.

Summary of Event

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin addressed the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. He said, “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” Later, McCarthy revised his figures downward to fifty-seven, but the shocking allegations were that the secretary of state knew of these persons, and that they continued nonetheless to shape U.S. government policies. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];Senate hearings [kw]McCarthy Hearings (Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954)[Maccarthy Hearings] [kw]Hearings, McCarthy (Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954)[Hearings, Maccarthy] Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];Senate hearings [g]North America;Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954: McCarthy Hearings[04070] [g]United States;Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954: McCarthy Hearings[04070] [c]Cold War;Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954: McCarthy Hearings[04070] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954: McCarthy Hearings[04070] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 15, 1953-Dec. 2, 1954: McCarthy Hearings[04070] McCarthy, Joseph Cohn, Roy M. Hiss, Alger Lattimore, Owen Smith, Margaret Chase Velde, Harold R. Watkins, Arthur V.

McCarthy was exploiting a sensitive and emotional issue, for it was a known fact that there had been communists in the government, the labor movement, certain intellectual circles, and “popular front” organizations shortly before, during, and after World War II. Communist cells had functioned in Washington, D.C., during the 1930’s, numbering among their members government officials such as Alger Hiss, whom an admitted communist agent, Whittaker Chambers Chambers, Whittaker , had named on August 3, 1948, as a prewar member of the Communist Party Communist Party, U.S. . Hiss brought a libel suit but was eventually indicted on charges of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison. Hiss had been highly regarded, and his conviction fueled growing Cold War fear that if he could be a communist, almost anyone might be guilty of such subversion.

Fear of communism, to be sure, had existed well before World War II. In the early 1920’s, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer Palmer, A. Mitchell and a young J. Edgar Hoover Hoover, J. Edgar had led the charge against “foreign” elements in public life, resulting in such phenomena as the Red Scare of 1919-1920. Boom and depression also encouraged people to look for enemies outside the mainstream “American” ideals of motherhood, apple pie, and patriotism. America-first movements manifested themselves in a variety of ways, from Huey P. Long to Father Coughlin to the Ku Klux Klan. Anticommunist fervor seemed justified by events such as the Russian purge trials and executions of 1936-1938 and, more important, the signing of the Russo-Nazi Pact in August, 1939.

After World War II, the Soviet determination to build a world power led President Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;Cold War to form his policy of containment and, on March 22, 1947, to institute a “loyalty order” to ensure detection and removal of subversive elements within the government. Bolstered by the Smith Act of 1940—which required that aliens in the United States register with the government and which made it unlawful for anyone to preach the overthrow of the U.S. government—such policies led to the conviction and sentencing of communist spies but also threatened innocent people with unfashionable political affiliations.

Lives were being ruined, such as those of the Hollywood Ten, Hollywood Ten a group of film writers and directors who in 1947 appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities House Committee on Un-American Activities[House Committee on UnAmerican Activities];investigation of Hollywood HUAC;investigation of Hollywood Hollywood studio system;investigation by HUAC (HUAC), chaired by Harold R. Velde, and refused to “name names”; they were supported by a cadre of famous actors who flew to Washington for the event. The Ten were subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood executives and did not work in their chosen profession for years afterward. Some in the entertainment community did inform, but many more—actor Zero Mostel and folksinger Pete Seeger among them—appeared at the hearings and denounced HUAC’s investigations, refusing to inform. Although many Americans recognized the dangers of a growing paranoia, others wanted action to eradicate what seemed a communist conspiracy in their midst.

Thus, when the specter of a home-grown communist conspiracy was raised, a fearful nativist element existed to give it legitimacy, and Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, appeared as the incarnation of that nativism and the nemesis of communism. After his appearance before the women’s club in Wheeling, McCarthy—unable to name two hundred five, eighty-five, or even fifty-seven communists in the State Department—shifted his attack to Professor Owen Lattimore, whom he called “the top espionage agent” in the United States, and to certain diplomats.

Some Republicans thought that McCarthy had struck a rich vein that might yield political treasures (perhaps the presidency in 1952), but other Republicans, including Senator Margaret Chase Smith, disagreed. She did not want the Senate being used for “selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity.” A committee headed by Millard Tydings Tydings, Millard , Democratic senator from Maryland, investigated McCarthy’s accusations and concluded that McCarthy had perpetuated “a fraud and a hoax” on the Senate and the American people, and that his statements represented “perhaps the most nefarious campaign of half-truths and untruth in the history of the Republic.” McCarthy’s defenders rushed to his support, and he was able to continue his crusade for another four years.

In 1953, McCarthy became the chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations Senate Committee on Government Operations , giving him control of its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He used this position to hold hearings of his own, becoming more sensational, strident, and unbelievable and even associating the Democratic Party with communist tendencies. The first hearing held by the subcommittee under McCarthy’s leadership was on January 15, when Russell W. Duke Duke, Russell W. was questioned. McCarthy also used his position to denounce Charles E. Bohlen’s Bohlen, Charles E. appointment as ambassador based on his close alignment with the foreign policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman (Bohlen was confirmed anyway), and he then claimed that the Democratic Party was a perpetrator of twenty years of treason.


Senator McCarthy caused his own downfall in the late spring of 1954, when he displayed ruthlessness during the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings Army-McCarthy hearings (1954)[Army Maccarthy hearings] before an audience of more than eighty million people. McCarthy had charged Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens Stevens, Robert T. , along with Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker Zwicker, Ralph W. , of covering up espionage activities at Ft. Monmouth’s Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories. The Army countercharged that McCarthy and Roy M. Cohn, counsel to McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee, were attempting to exert pressure on the Army and the War Department. Cohn resigned on July 20, although McCarthy was cleared. Finally, on September 27, a Senate committee headed by the venerable Arthur V. Watkins of Utah recommended that McCarthy be censured.

McCarthy’s reign of terror was effectively ended on December 2, 1954, when the Senate condemned him for bringing the Senate “into dishonor and disrepute” and thus impairing that institution’s “dignity.” It was later proven that many communist cells had as many double agents working for the United States as there were die-hard converts. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of the McCarthy hearings is that, when a people allows the freedoms they cherish to be compromised by innuendo, fear, and finger-pointing, those freedoms may be in greater danger from their supposed defenders than from any other threats, no matter how real they may be. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];Senate hearings

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, Roy. McCarthy. New York: New American Library, 1968. Written by one of McCarthy’s main associates, this book proffers a flattering account of McCarthy’s rise and fall.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Fred J. The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Random House, 1971. Cook, a former FBI agent, sees McCarthy as a person who was able to twist fact and fiction together to create the type of reality he wanted, and needed, to see.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fried, Richard. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A study of the anticommunist movement in the United States after World War II up to the beginning of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency in 1952.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names. New York: Viking Press, 1980. The editor of the liberal periodical The Nation provides a meticulously researched history of the HUAC hearings in this “moral detective story” that seeks answers to the question, “What happens when a state puts pressure on its citizens to betray their fellows?”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Robert. Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. One of the major suspected “spies” accused by McCarthy and the political and ideological storms waged around him. An excellent picture of life in the United States during the McCarthy years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oshinsky, David M. A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Exploration of the Cold War mentality in the West, Joseph McCarthy’s exploitation of it, and the effects of McCarthyism on American society. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. An excellent overview of the McCarthy years, collecting many important primary documents.

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Categories: History