Seventy years ago today on February 9, 1950 an obscure Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy began a meteoric rise to fame with a Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Although no recording or transcript was made, he was reported in the press to say, “State Department is infested with Communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” He would repeat that claim frequently, although the number of names fluctuated with each telling and he never produced the list.
The Senator had been elected running as Tail Gunner Joe for his World War II service in the Marine Corps and projected image as a regular guy.
Despite his sensational claims being roundly refuted by a Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee chaired by Millard Tydings, McCarthy continued to fan growing public panic. He campaigned against Tydings and for other Republican Senate candidates that fall. Tydings was swamped in Maryland and all of the GOP candidates he endorsed, including Everett Dirksen in Illinois won. Suddenly he was seen as a rising political star with real connection to voters.
Cartoonist Herblock coined the term McCarthyism
McCarthy was not without opposition. Washington Post cartoonist Herb (Herblock) coined the derisive term McCarthyism. A few opined against him as his power rose.
As the Korean War raged McCarthy relentlessly attacked to Truman administration and Secretary of State George Marshall in particular blaming them for “loosing China.” When Dwight Eisenhower ran for President he so feared McCarthy that he would not even publicly defend his friend and mentor Marshall.
But Ike loathed McCarthy and after the election tried to distance himself without publicly attacking the Senator.
In 1953, as chair of his own Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations McCarthy finally had the power to unleash his reign of terror with the help of his committee counsels Roy Cohen and young Robert Kennedy.
He took on the Voice of America and its parent the United States Information Agency (USIA) accusing them of spreading Communist ideology and packing overseas libraries with pro-communist authors. The panicked State Department banned books from McCarthy’s new list and some libraries even burned them.
Then the Senator turned his guns on the Army. He managed to turn up an Army dentist who had once belonged to the U.S. Labor Party. When the dentist was given an honorable discharge, he attacked his base commander, a much decorated World War II hero. Many began to feel he had gone too far.
Edward R. Murrow attacked McCarthy in a landmark TV broadcast.
On March 10, 1954 CBS’s Edward R. Murrow dedicated a whole hour on his highly rated program See It Now to a meticulous attack on McCarthy, his lies, and his method. In conclusion with the camera tight on his face, Murrow told the American public:
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
In 1954 a special subcommittee chaired by Senator Karl Mundt was formed to investigate McCarthy charges and the dramatic Army-McCarthy Hearings began airing live televised testimony on April 27. During the hearings, which focused ostensibly on whether the Senator and Roy Cohn had improperly influenced favorable treatment for a young officer friend of Cohn, both men were unmasked as relentless bullies.
Thirty days into the hearing the Army’s Chief Counsel Joseph Welch challenged the Senator to produce the names on yet another list, one of supposedly 130 Communists working in defense contractors “before sundown.” McCarthy retorted by asking Welsh about a young lawyer in his Boston office who had once been a member of the National Lawyers Guild. Welch retorted:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Let us not assassinates this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
Army council Joseph Welch confronting McCarthy live on television during the Army-McCarthy hearings.
McCarthy was finished, or nearly so. Over the course of the hearings his public approval ratings dropped from 50% to 34%. Now it was the Senator’s turn to be investigated, by a Special Committee chaired by Arthur Watkins, which recommended censure. On December 2, 1954 the Senate voted 67 to 22 to “condemn” Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Deflated, McCarthy served out the balance of his term in isolation and turned more heavily than ever to alcohol. He died of hepatitis, a liver disease tied to his heavy drinking, on May 2, 1957 at the age of 48. He was not missed until recently some conservative Republican firebrands have tried, unsuccessfully, to resurrect his reputation.