Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

Joe McCarthy during the Senate investigation into the activities of the US Army, 1954. (Author: US Senate; Source: here)


Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

“I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people 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.” Senator Joe McCarthy, 9th February, 1950.

‘Bad’ stuff is so much more interesting than ‘good’ stuff so a decent starting point for a look at the Twentieth Century is a politician from the USA by the name of Joe McCarthy. Although he was not really the biggest ‘baddie’ of the century, McCarthy was a fascinating and important character who shaped the modern political landscape and has divided opinion ever since he came to prominence. He still has many supporters, as any trip around the internet will show, and his message retains great significance today. So let’s leave the ‘big baddies’, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao to one side for the moment and begin with Joseph Raymond McCarthy, the Republican Senator for Wisconsin between 1947 and 1957.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

(Author: United Press, 1954; Source: Library of Congress)

Of course, Joe McCarthy doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, but it’s true that he exercised huge power, shaped public opinion and most certainly ruined thousands of people’s lives. There was, to be honest, just something rather sinister and unpleasant about him, and the manner in which he was able to twist opinion and power in the USA in the first half of the 1950s was truly frightening. Although not quite so well known or understood today, McCarthy was, for a few years, amongst the most powerful politicians in the Western world and he reached that position through a mixture of lies, media support and the influence of some very powerful people. When it comes to evil figures in history, like the three already mentioned, it is far too easy to dismiss them as ‘nutters’. For many people, Hitler and Mao are almost ‘joke’ figures and there is a belief that no one would ever support them today because we could see through them. But somehow that does not work with Joe McCarthy who represents something potentially more dangerous exactly because he was so widely supported by main-stream Americans and operated within the democratic system.

Joe McCarthy was only popular and powerful for a rather brief period of four years. In fact, in 1950, the American press actually voted McCarthy as the worst senator in the country. Little did they know that he was on the verge of becoming the dominant figure in US life for the next four years. In that period, the so-called ‘McCarthy Era’, he quite literally shaped US politics, destroyed thousands of ordinary people, helped create a monster of Communism and ensured that the arms and defence industry grew to have quite extraordinary wealth and influence. Clearly, McCarthy had something important to say to the USA in this period and, therefore, he tells us something important about the values of that post-war era. McCarthy is a fascinating character who shows us how some people are prepared to act either to gain power or when they have power. He shows the power of the media and just how far people can be manipulated when they are scared. He was a most unpleasant man, a liar and a bully, who achieved great power. Joe McCarthy’s story is a true warning from history, a reminder of how powerful politicians can be, especially when they work with the media during a time of fear.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in the wonderfully named Grand Chute, Wisconsin in 1908 to devout Catholic parents. Life was tough when he was young but he was considered reasonably bright and, despite some problems which meant he had to finish his formal education early, he went on to get a degree, worked as a lawyer and a judge, and then served with the US Marines in the Pacific during World War II. While he was with the Marines, he had a desk job, only flying safe missions on a few occasions, and rumour has it that he suffered from air sickness. He was certainly no great ‘war hero’, although he did his bit by being there and helping to organise things for those who fought. On his return to the USA, McCarthy needed a new career, so he left the army and abruptly entered politics.

It came as a surprise to some when Joe McCarthy was elected as Republican Senator for the state of Wisconsin (that’s up near the Canadian border, just west of the Great Lakes, where it gets very cold in winter) in 1946. He was one of many men who went into politics in the elections which followed the end of WWII, other examples being Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. One of his campaign tactics was actually to highlight his ‘proud war record’, in an attempt to contrast himself with his opponent, who had not served in the war. He referred to his numerous medals, but these had, in fact, not been awarded but had been given to him at his own request and did not match his actual service record. At this time, McCarthy gave himself the nickname ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’, even though he had never flown on a combat mission. As a Senator, he had a pretty dismal time and he was considered next to useless so that, as the elections of 1950 loomed, McCarthy was facing almost certain defeat. With things looking so bad, he gathered his campaign team together to work out a new strategy. One of them, a Catholic priest, said they needed a project, a focus for the campaign, anything to distract people from McCarthy’s poor record in office. So it was decided that he would launch a campaign against Communism – and so his journey to stardom began.

One thing McCarthy was considered reasonably good at was public speaking. On 9th February, 1950, he gave what was expected to be an unimportant talk to the Republican Women’s Club at Wheeling, West Virginia. Little could those ladies have known what dramas awaited them as they gathered to meet ‘The Pepsi Cola Kid’, another nickname for McCarthy because, as a Senator, he had once received a payment of $20 000 from a man who made the bottles for Pepsi. The day of the talk turned out to be a ‘slow-news day’ and what McCarthy had to say would make the headlines; on another day it might have disappeared. His message shocked the good ladies of Wheeling – and got the attention of everyone else: he claimed that Communist spies were working in the USA and that he alone had a list of 205 who were employed by the US Federal Government. It was a sensational story which the newspapers were delighted to run.

The post-war years from 1945-1949 were a period of rapid deterioration in relations between the USSR and its former western allies, years which provide a key back-drop to the rise of Joe McCarthy. These years saw the rise in tension between the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR, which led to the ‘Cold War’, the era that dominated international relations down to 1990 when Communism collapsed. The term ‘Cold War’ was invented to describe this period of extreme tension and conflict which did not develop into a ‘Hot War’, or direct fighting, between the two sides. Various factors and events contributed to the start of the Cold War, some of which are mentioned here but are covered in greater detail elsewhere.

By 1949, Eastern Europe had come fully under the control of Communist forces, with countries such as Czechoslovakia being forced into an ‘alliance’ with Moscow. The ‘Berlin Blockade’ (1948-49), which had seen Joseph Stalin attempt to force the West out of the former capital of Germany by preventing essential supplies reaching its zones in the city, had raised tensions between the Superpowers but had shown Western competence and raised its commitment in the region. This had raised Stalin’s anger and anxiety about Truman’s plans for Europe.  The formation of NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in April, 1949, raised the tension to new levels as the USA and 11 other countries made a military alliance so that an attack on any one of them by the USSR or any other country would bring a response from all. In addition to this, traditional powers in Western society, groups including politicians, monarchs, churches and businesses, were fiercely opposed to the apparent power of Communism, which seemed to represent the greatest threat to freedom ever seen. In the USA, the threat posed by Communism to the fulfilment of the ‘American dream’ of wealth, freedom and happiness was felt with particular intensity such was the fear of ‘big Government’ and left-wing ideology. Anxiety across the USA reached new levels when China fell to Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong in October 1949. The fact that the USA had been supporting Jiang Jieshi’s nationalists in their struggle against Chairman Mao led many politicians to criticise President Truman for having been too weak and blamed him for the ‘loss of China’, an accusation which had great power and scared many future presidents into adopting a tough anti-Communist stance in the face of other challenges.

President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was in power when McCarthyism started.

(Author: Edmonston Studio; Source: Library of Congress)

Something else which added strength to McCarthy’s claims and seemed to make the rise of Communist influence more frightening for the USA in these years was the fact that there had been numerous allegations of Soviet infiltration into American society before McCarthy came on the scene. The case against the ‘Hollywood Ten’ in 1947, for example, saw a number of film-makers charged with having Communist ‘sympathies’, bringing famous stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall out in support of their colleagues but shaking the confidence of many ‘ordinary’ Americans. Even more importantly, there had been one particular high-profile Communist spying case which reached the courts. Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was charged with spying for the USSR in a case led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group set up as far back as 1937 to investigate threats to the US state. The Alger Hiss case brought the future President Richard Nixon, a recently elected member of the House of Representatives, into the public eye, and Hiss was a particular obsession of Nixon’s throughout his life. Hiss was not found guilty of spying for the USSR but he was eventually imprisoned for perjury and his case convinced many people that there were Soviet spies in the US Government. Another case which had a very high-profile in the years around the rise of McCarthy concerned the spying activities of a couple called Julius (1918-1953) and Ethel (1915-1953) Rosenberg who were charged with passing secrets linked with the atom bomb to the Soviet Union; while Hiss was imprisoned, the Rosenbergs were executed in June 1953. The ‘Anti-Communist’ band-wagon was already up and running when McCarthy got on board and drove it to new heights.

Alger Hiss on trial. He was eventually convicted of perjury and sent to prison.

(Author: Unknown, 1950; Source: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)

Immediately after McCarthy made his claims about Communists within government, there were, not surprisingly, many questions from the press and others. When he was challenged about his ‘list’, which he claimed contained the names of 205 Communist spies within the US Government, McCarthy changed the number – several times. When asked to reveal his sources, he said he could not do that as he had to protect the people concerned. When asked how he had come to be in possession of such an important document, he gave no explanation, besides speaking of himself as a loyal American who had been trusted to act on the information given him. When accused of making it all up, McCarthy countered that anyone who challenged him must be sympathetic to Communism.  Things should have been clear to all: McCarthy was out of his depth, panicking in the face of electoral defeat and he was making things up. But that is not how things developed.

Something very important happened in the USA in the days and weeks after McCarthy made his speech. The key point is that many people in the media accepted what he had to say and, through them, millions of ordinary Americans came to believe that there was a Communist threat and a high-level conspiracy to cover it all up. It was a classic case of perception and popularity being more powerful than the truth; the people believed McCarthy and they soon showed it in the most effective way they could – by voting for him and against his critics. At the Senate elections of 1950, Joe McCarthy achieved the re-election he had always wanted which in itself was remarkable after he had been such an unpopular and weak Senator for four years. His victory shocked many politicians who knew him to be incompetent and didn’t believe his story. Crucially, the man who had been his most vocal critic and opponent, Senator Millard Tydings, lost his seat in the same round of elections, apparently because of his opposition to McCarthy’s claims. Tydings was a highly respected politician; attributing his defeat to his opposition to McCarthy, other politicians became scared of speaking out – and many went to join the McCarthy camp.  McCarthy’s power was suddenly overwhelming, and politicians lost the confidence to challenge him. When a Senate committee was set up to investigate the extent of Communist infiltration in the US Government, there was only one man who could be chosen to chair it: Joe McCarthy.

And so began a frightening period in modern American history. The ‘McCarthyite Witch Hunts’ were so called because of the parallels with attacks on witches in previous centuries. Just as for the alleged witches of Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century, being accused was enough to ruin you.  And as with the witch trials, no logical defence was allowed. If you denied the charge you were lying; if you admitted it you were guilty; if anyone defended you, they must be a ‘sympathiser’. And all the time, the media was whipping up the frenzy amongst people who were increasingly hysterical about the latest ‘Red Scare’: the absolute belief grew that Communism was infiltrating American society under the powerful and devious leadership of the feared and hated Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR and of World Communism.

In the four years of McCarthyism’s dominance, 3 million Government employees were investigated for possible ties to Communism. Some 2 000 of these were subsequently suspected of having such connections (about 0.067%, which is not very significant) but not one person was formally proven guilty on any of the charges. However, rather than go the process or answer the charges, over 100 000 people resigned for ‘personal’ reasons so as to avoid being investigated. Large numbers of these people never worked properly again, certainly not for the Government, even though no Communist links were found. Many left the country or even committed suicide; this was serious and frightening stuff. Many people saw their marriages and their lives ruined by the accusations made by McCarthy and his many supporters. McCarthy’s supporters saw the numerous resignations as admissions of guilt, taking them as evidence of Communist links or sympathy for the cause, and they claimed that it was OK if a few innocent people suffered, because the alternative was to risk leaving the guilty at large. The general mood of hysteria was heightened by the cases mentioned earlier: the ‘Hollywood Ten’, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs. With so much smoke there had to be some fire…surely?

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed on 19th June, 1953 for passing information to the USSR. They refused to plead guilty, which would have saved their lives.

(Author: Roger Higgins, photographer from “New York World-Telegram and the Sun”, 1951; Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.)

You won’t be surprised to hear that things were not as straightforward as they might have seemed. This will become clearer if you read about J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, later on. Many people did resign when accused, but usually because they had something else to hide: drug or alcohol addiction, tax evasion, homosexuality, affairs and gambling debts were just some of the issues that would have emerged in an investigation so they chose to go quietly, admitting the Communist charges rather than have the real ‘issues’ come out in court.

During those years from 1950 to 1954, Joe McCarthy dominated political life in the USA. Hated and feared by senior politicians, including President Truman, he was seen as a crusader by ordinary Americans, valiantly defending them all from the red terror of Communism within the Government. The enthusiastic support of the media, for whom he was a great story, helped strengthen and deepen anxiety about Communist infiltration. The fear of finding a ‘red under the bed’ led many people to accuse colleagues and even family members of possible involvement with left wing organisations. Few people were strong enough to willingly face the consequences of being charged, let alone convicted of links with Communism. The question, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?’ became one of the most famous statements of the age. The McCarthyite bandwagon attracted many passengers including two high-profile figures who would later become Republican presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. As mentioned earlier, Nixon had been involved in the case against Alger Hiss and became the darling of the right-wing of the Republican Party on the back of his strong ‘anti-Red’ credentials, leading Dwight D. Eisenhower to choose Nixon as his Vice-President from 1952-1960. During this same period, Ronald Reagan took his first steps into politics when he became the leader of the Actors Guild of America, gaining promotion on the back of the help he gave in finding alleged Communist infiltrators. In 1967, Reagan became Governor of California, a stepping stone to the White House and the Presidency.


McCarthy with Roy Cohn, one of the ‘special advisors’ on his team.

(Author: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection; Source: here)

Folk singer Pete Seeger testifies before the HUAC in 1955, evidence of the on-going influence of Joe McCarthy.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here © 1955 New York Post Corporation)

The end of McCarthy, if not McCarthyism, came dramatically and he quickly fell from power in 1954. McCarthy had decided to investigate Communist infiltration of the US Army but, in reality, this was a personal vendetta. The background here is that McCarthy had a few skeletons in his own cupboard.  He was an alcoholic and a homosexual, neither of which would have sat well with his public image as a loyal American and a devout Catholic. Homosexuality was then a crime in the US, only being legalised nationwide in 2003, although some states had changed their laws since the 1970s, as well as being a cardinal (an important or mortal) sin according to the Catholic Church. The fact that he was particularly friendly with a couple of his colleagues, Roy Cohn and David Schine, was not something McCarthy would have wanted made public and he was determined to go on the attack to get what he wanted.

After his team ‘planted’ Schine in the US Army, to investigate the alleged Communist infiltration, McCarthy was annoyed to find that he and Cohn could no longer meet with Schine freely. As a member of the forces, Schine was refused the kind of special arrangement which McCarthy wanted, whereby they could meet with Schine each week. In retaliation, McCarthy went ahead and made the accusations saying Communists had infiltrated the US Army command itself. In the resulting trial, which was televised, his bullying and aggressive style went too far for most people and McCarthy became discredited. His main supporters distanced themselves from him as they saw public opinion turn against him in favour of the more reasonable and dignified soldiers he attacked. The key moment came when Joseph Welch, the defence attorney on behalf of the Army, said in defence of a junior member of his own firm whom McCarthy had just attacked without warning on live television: “Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild. Let us not assassinate 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?”