U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In a speech to a Republican women’s club, U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to possess a list of communist subversives working in the U.S. State Department. Over the next four years, he conducted a widely publicized Red-baiting campaign in which he repeatedly violated the civil liberties and impugned the reputations of the people whom he investigated. His campaign finally ended when he was formally censured by the U.S. Senate.

Summary of Event

In the years immediately following World War II, anticommunist sentiments pervaded American politics and culture in reaction to the rise of the Soviet Union, the communist revolution in China, and the arrest and trial of Alger Hiss, a prominent former U.S. government employee, on charges of spying for the Soviet government. In this Cold War environment, politicians such as Richard Nixon reaped significant success from adopting staunch anticommunist stances, while others perceived as “soft” on communism saw their careers diminished as a result. [kw]McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt, U.S. Senator Joseph (Feb. 9, 1950) [kw]Communist Witch Hunt, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches (Feb. 9, 1950) McCarthy, Joseph Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Zwicker, Ralph W. Welch, Joseph Nye Communism;"witch hunts"[witch hunts] State Department, U.S.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Cold War;and McCarthyism[MacCarthyism] McCarthy, Joseph Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Zwicker, Ralph W. Welch, Joseph Nye Communism;"witch hunts"[witch hunts] State Department, U.S.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Cold War;and McCarthyism[MacCarthyism] [g]United States;Feb. 9, 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt[00880] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 9, 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt[00880] [c]Espionage;Feb. 9, 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt[00880] [c]Government;Feb. 9, 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt[00880] [c]Politics;Feb. 9, 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt[00880] [c]Corruption;Feb. 9, 1950: U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Launches Communist Witch Hunt[00880]

Joseph McCarthy.

(Library of Congress)

At the outset of the 1950’s, U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy was little known outside his home state of Wisconsin, his lackluster career in the Senate colored by allegations of chronic alcohol abuse and questionable financial dealings. His political fortunes improved dramatically, however, during the 1950’s, as he leveled dramatic allegations of communist activity at the highest level of the U.S. government and used these allegations as a springboard for launching a personal crusade against communism. McCarthy reportedly adopted his fervent anticommunist stance upon the advice of friends to increase his political profile and deflect growing scrutiny of his personal conduct. Whether or not McCarthy acted primarily from genuine concern over communist activity or to deflect criticism and advance his career remains a controversial question.

The movement that became known as McCarthyism began in early 1950, as Republican Party leaders began organizing speaking appearances for Lincoln Day dinners in February that marked the traditional start of campaigning for the November general elections. McCarthy volunteered to join the slate of speakers who would be dispatched across the United States to address attendees at these local dinners. As an obscure figure even within his own party, McCarthy drew a relatively low-profile assignment to address a local Republican Women’s Club at the McLure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia, on the evening of February 9. It was here that McCarthy would first level allegations of communist infiltration at the highest levels of the federal government.

According to journalistic accounts of the speech, McCarthy began by characterizing the postwar global climate as a struggle between Christianity and the so-called communist atheism of the Soviet Union Soviet Union, in which the future of Christianity was threatened by an alleged complacency on the part of the American people and government following the end of World War II. Criticizing the alleged reluctance of the administration of U.S. president Harry S. Truman to ferret out domestic communists, McCarthy then leveled his most famous allegation, holding aloft a document that he claimed contained a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party employed by the U.S. Department of State. The true contents of the document, which were never made available to the public, remain unknown.

Initially, there was little indication of the historic significance of the February 9 speech; a local radio station recorded the address but erased the tape soon afterward. News of the sensational allegations soon rippled through the national news media, adding validation and impetus to growing fears among Americans of international communism.

The publicity surrounding these allegations brought McCarthy to the forefront of American politics virtually overnight, leading to a series of subsequent high-profile appearances in which he repeated his claims, varying the number of alleged communist conspirators in the U.S. State Department to suit his audience. In one such speech delivered in Salt Lake City, Utah, McCarthy claimed that fifty-seven “known” communists worked in the department. In a February 20 address before the Senate that lasted approximately six hours, McCarthy revised the number to eighty-one “known” communists, repeatedly refusing the requests of his colleagues that he reveal the names of the alleged conspirators and other details concerning the origins and accuracy of his statements.

McCarthy’s claims never were definitively verified; yet many Americans accepted them without question. McCarthy’s notoriety and influence continued to increase as his crusade intensified, contributing to the passage of the Internal Security Act of Internal Security Act of 1950 1950, which prohibited Americans with alleged communist ties from working in the defense industry, required the registration of purportedly communist organizations, and permitted the deportation or internment of accused communists during times of national emergency. President Truman vetoed the bill but was easily overridden, provoking further accusations from McCarthy that the Truman administration did not take the threat of communism seriously. Several Democratic senators who publicly criticized McCarthy were defeated in the 1950 election, and his allegations that Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson was soft on communism led to the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the presidency in 1952.

McCarthy also won reelection that year and was made chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Government Operations, a position that he used to broaden his investigation into alleged communist activity in the U.S. government. Republican leaders in the Senate had made McCarthy chairman of this committee instead of appointing him to the Internal Affairs Committee (whose primary duty was investigating communist activity) in the hope that this position of relatively little influence would circumscribe his power. Leadership of this committee also gave McCarthy control of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a position he would use to launch further investigations against alleged communists in the executive branch. He proceeded to employ the power of the subcommittee to target a variety of persons and departments, calling numerous government employees to testify before his committee and subjecting them to hostile, intrusive questioning that was often based upon fabricated, erroneous, or nonexistent evidence. Those who refused to cooperate saw their reputations, careers, and lives destroyed, as McCarthy leaked derogatory information about them to employers and the media. A significant number of his targets were members of the Republican leadership that he had helped elect.

As the depth and breadth of his undertakings intensified, support for McCarthy and his tactics began to decrease. His escalating attacks against his fellow Republicans, including insinuations that even Eisenhower was soft on communism, drove even many of his erstwhile supporters to fear and resent him. McCarthy questioned the patriotism of even his mildest critics, creating an atmosphere of personal destruction and intimidation that rendered him virtually untouchable. After he was accused of assaulting journalist Drew Pearson in a restroom, he defiantly admitted to the assault and was not punished. Reports of his inappropriate behavior, including shady financial dealings and rampant alcohol abuse, were largely ignored. Many Americans considered McCarthy a hero and McCarthyism a defense of the American way against an evil foe. To a growing minority, however, McCarthy and his tactics showed an anti-American disregard for due process, civil liberties, and personal dignity.

One of the first targets of the subcommittee under McCarthy was Voice of America (VOA), a radio network run by the State Department, whose mission was to broadcast pro-American and anticommunist content to foreign countries. McCarthy called several VOA employees before the subcommittee, leveling unfounded accusations of communist influence that significantly disrupted the operations of the agency and reportedly drove one employee to suicide. Despite growing evidence of his excesses, the attack on the VOA only increased the stature of McCarthy in the news media, which gave heavy coverage to the investigations.

Emboldened, McCarthy then accused the U.S. Army of harboring communist sympathizers, launching formal investigations on January 15, 1953. In February, 1954, during the course of these investigations, McCarthy called Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker, a decorated World War II battlefield commander, before the subcommittee. McCarthy proceeded to insult Zwicker, questioning both his intelligence and his fitness for duty. Reports of the exchange angered supporters of the military and contributed to a decline in popular support for McCarthy, which had peaked at 50 percent according to a Gallup poll taken in early January. In March, 1954, CBS television aired a documentary on McCarthy as part of its See It Now series hosted by the popular journalist Edward R. Murrow. The documentary contained numerous film segments of McCarthy attacking a number of persons and organizations, and included footage of his attack upon Zwicker. It ended with a scathing criticism by Murrow of McCarthy and his tactics. McCarthy’s popularity declined once more, and it dropped further, to below 40 percent by April, as he subsequently attacked Murrow’s patriotism.

Undaunted, McCarthy scheduled a series of televised hearings, to begin in April, 1954, into alleged communist influences in the Army. As cameras captured the proceedings and broadcast them to a national audience, McCarthy angrily confronted a series of witnesses, many of whom were in uniform and conspicuously decorated with medals. Many of his supporters became disenchanted with his increasingly erratic and hostile performance, further undermining his public support. When military lawyers revealed that McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, sought favors for a former staff member, an American public already alarmed by the heavy-handed tactics of McCarthy recoiled at this firsthand glimpse of the inner workings of McCarthyism. Finally, when McCarthy accused an associate of Army counsel Joseph Nye Welch of being a member of a communist organization, Welch reacted indignantly, responding, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” His dismissal of McCarthy prompted much of the room to erupt into applause. The hearings were adjourned shortly afterward.

The McCarthy-Army hearings marked the effective end of the anticommunist crusade. The senator’s zealous public confrontation of an entire branch of the U.S. military less than a decade after the end of World War II proved a fatal miscalculation, and his exchange with Welch left him defeated and exposed as a fraud before a stunned national television audience. As the American public abandoned him, his colleagues in Congress, many of whom had secretly feared and resented his political power, followed. In December, 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for fraud and abuse of power, and he spent the remainder of his Senate career in obscurity. He died at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland in 1957 of liver failure precipitated by years of heavy drinking.

Impact

Through his bold allegations, ruthless tactics, and successful use of news media, McCarthy became symbolic of the American anticommunist movement of the 1950’s. His fall from power proved as rapid and dramatic as his rise to prominence; just as his crusade against communism brought his party to power during the early 1950’s, the political demise of McCarthy contributed to the Republicans’ loss of Congress during the 1954 elections.

In addition, the legacy of McCarthyism continued to influence American politics and government long after his own death. His investigations and allegations ultimately resulted in the removal of numerous experts on communism and communist countries from the Department of State and other key agencies of the United States government, affecting U.S. foreign policy for decades and prompting some historians to establish connections between McCarthyism and crucial strategic and foreign policy blunders contributing to the defeat of U.S. forces Vietnam War in Vietnam.

The synthesis of old-fashioned demagoguery and the fledgling medium of broadcast television at the heart of McCarthyism created a new style of politics that emphasized the skilled manipulation of information, assaults upon the patriotism and character of opponents, and appeals to the raw emotion of the public. As a result, some observers have attributed the political polarization and acrimonious discourse of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century American politics to the influence of McCarthyism. The rise of authoritarian conservatism in American society during the late twentieth century inspired scattered efforts to rehabilitate his image and validate his tactics.

Government documents declassified at the end of the twentieth century indicated that a small number of the government employees that McCarthy investigated were indeed communist operatives; yet the group was substantially smaller in number than the figures McCarthy quoted and reportedly were planted to spy upon fellow communists rather than to gather intelligence on the government. It is unclear whether the list that McCarthy claimed to possess actually contained the names of any of these operatives. Evidence suggests that at best, McCarthy dramatically overestimated the presence of communist activity in the government. At the outset of the twenty-first century, the propriety and competence of McCarthy and his tactics remained the subject of criticism and a symbol of ideological excess.

In 2003, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released transcripts of executive sessions conducted under McCarthy. These transcripts included a bipartisan condemnation of the tactics documented in the sessions. McCarthy, Joseph Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Zwicker, Ralph W. Welch, Joseph Nye Communism;"witch hunts"[witch hunts] State Department, U.S.;and Joseph McCarthy[MacCarthy] Cold War;and McCarthyism[MacCarthyism]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fried, Albert, ed. McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare—A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Collection of documents pertaining to McCarthyism from the late 1940’s through the mid-1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Haynes. The Age of Anxiety: From McCarthyism to Terrorism. New York: Harcourt, 2005. An analysis of McCarthyism that examines its impact upon American government and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ranville, Michael. To Strike at a King: The Turning Point in the McCarthy Witch Hunts. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Momentum Books, 1997. Account of the case of a young U.S. Air Force officer that inspired Edward R. Murrow and CBS News to expose the excesses of McCarthyism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1997. A lengthy, detailed, and scholarly biography of McCarthy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little, Brown, 1998. A detailed history of McCarthyism and analysis of its impact upon American politics and culture.

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