Senator McCarthy’s Crusade begins

The US Senator's anti-Communist 'Crusade' began on February 9th, 1950.

Senator Joseph McCarthyJoseph Raymond McCarthy was thirty-eight when he entered the United States Senate in 1946 as a Republican from Wisconsin. The product of a Wisconsin dairy farm and the Jesuits at Marquette University in Milwaukee, he had made a career as a lawyer and judge before joining up in 1942 and serving in the Pacific. He had a satisfactory war record, though nothing like as glittering as he made it seem afterwards, when he pretended to have been a tail-gunner. Parading as a war-hero, he narrowly defeated the veteran Robert M. La Follette Jr. for the Republican nomination for senator and then swamped the Democrat in the election.

McCarthy was a far lesser figure than La Follette and he quickly earned himself a bad reputation in the Senate. His colleagues distrusted his untruthfulness, unscrupulousness, dubious connections with business interests, apparent Nazi sympathies (he had many German-American voters in Wisconsin) and general lack of principle. He was allowed only an unimportant committee appointment. By 1950 he began to worry about his prospects for re-election and looked round for a band-wagon to climb on. He duly found one in the tide of anti-Communist feeling engendered by the sharpening tensions of the Cold War, already exploited by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Delivering a speech to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy warmed to the theme of concealed Communist traitors lurking in the recesses of the State Department and subtly bending the policy of the United States to their evil ideology. The speech echoed remarks made not long before by a Republican congressman named Richard M. Nixon, but by luck or judgment McCarthy had hit on a brilliant rhetorical device. He did not, he said, have the time to name all the Communists in the State Department, but ‘I have here in my hand,’ he announced, waving a piece of paper, ‘a list of 205 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.’

Reporters covering what they had expected to be a yawn-making piece of routine party politicking woke up and set the wires humming to Washington and New York. What exactly the paper in McCarthy’s hand was has never been established. Maybe it was his laundry list, but certainly it was not a list of 205 names of State Department employees. The figure of 205 came from a 1946 exercise in loyalty screening which had identified ‘damaging information’ about 284 State Department bureaucrats out of 3,000. Of these 284, 79 had been discharged. Which left 205, but McCarthy would soon admit that he did not know the names of the 205 or what the ‘damaging information’ about them was. He had gleaned the figures from a letter written by Secretary of State James Byrnes to a congressman in 1946, and it may have been a copy of this letter that he held in his hand. The actual figure soon became confused anyway, as McCarthy kept plucking different numbers out of the air.

The Senator’s face scowled from newstands all over the country on the covers of Time and Newsweek, the term ‘McCarthyism’ was coined by the Washington Post cartoonist Herblock and the polls showed his approval rating with the public climbing rapidly to fifty per cent. Growing ever more reckless, he hurled untrue accusations and insinuations at distinguished figures including Professor Owen Lattimore and the diplomat Philip Jessup, General Marshall and Dean Acheson, and called President Truman a drunken son-of-a-bitch who ought to be impeached.

Comfortably re-elected for Wisconsin in 1952, McCarthy was given the chairmanship of the hitherto unobtrusive Senate Committee on Government Operations by the Republican leadership. They intended to send him off the main line into a quiet siding, where he could do no harm, but the attempt misfired. He was now empowered to hire staff and conduct investigations, and in 1953 he and his committee embarked on extensive enquiries into Communist influence in the Federal government. They failed to unmask a single Communist, but they blackened many reputations, undermined the morale of the government service and made the United States an object of contempt abroad. President Eisenhower refused to tackle McCarthy and the senator’s downfall did not come until he went too far by accusing the Army of sheltering Communist traitors and the entire hearings were shown on television. They attracted a huge audience and millions of Americans saw McCarthy the crude and arrogant bully in action. They did not like what they saw. The Democrats on his committee, now in the public eye, turned against him. The senior counsel for the Army, a shrewd Boston trial lawyer named Joseph Welch, ran rings round McCarthy and showed him up for what he was. The investigation collapsed. The Senate formally censured him for bringing that august body into disrepute and the senator from Wisconsin, shunned by his colleagues and deserted by the media, retreated into drink and self-pity. He was forty-six when he died from complications of alcoholism in May 1957.