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Persons of Interest: Joseph McCarthy

I will end this series with a post about a politician who was so vile that he had an ism named after him. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt in the 1950s that ruined a lot of lives and reputations, with the ultimate one being his own. Mercifully he was never likely to be president, but he was none the less very influential and perhaps the most controversial political figure of his era.



Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin on November 14, 1908, the fifth of seven children.His father, Timothy McCarthy, was he son of an an Irish immigrant, and his mother Bridget was an Irish immigrant. Joe McCarthy dropped out of junior high school at age 14 to help his parents manage their farm. He graduated from Little Wolf High School, in Manawa, Wisconsin, at the age of 20, and received his LL.B. degree from Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee in 1935. He was admitted to the state bar later that year. In 1936 he launched an unsuccessful campaign for district attorney as a Democrat and in 1939, he ran for the post of 10th District circuit judge. He won the election, making him the youngest circuit judge in the state's history. He used dirty tricks in the campaign, exaggerating his opponent's age. He was not well regarded as a judge and was he was disliked by lawyers and reversed often by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His docket was heavily backlogged docket. He was censured in 1941 for having lost evidence in a price fixing case.

In 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, McCarthy was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps. He could have used his judicial office to exempt himself from compulsory service, but did not. His education qualified him for an automatic commission as an officer, and he became a second lieutenant after completing basic training. He served as an intelligence briefing officer in the Solomon Islands. McCarthy served as an intelligence officer until February of 1945, and obtained the rank of captain by the time he was discharged in April of that year. He later falsely claimed that he had gone on 32 aerial missions in order to qualify for a Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received in 1952. McCarthy later campaigned using a letter of commendation which he claimed had been signed by his commanding officer and countersigned by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, but it was later revealed that McCarthy had written this letter himself.

McCarthy campaigned for the Republican Senate nomination in Wisconsin while still on active duty in 1944 but lost the nomination. After leaving the service he was reelected unopposed to his circuit court position, and ran for the 1946 Republican Senate primary nomination against three-term senator Robert M. La Follette Jr., founder of the Wisconsin Progressive Party and son former Wisconsin governor and senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. In his campaign, McCarthy attacked La Follette for not enlisting during the war, even though La Follette had been 46 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He also accused La Follette of making huge profits from his investments during the war, when in fact McCarthy himself had made over $42,000 in such investments. These attacks helped McCarthy win the nomination and ultimately the general election.

McCarthy was not well liked among fellow senators, who found him quick-tempered and prone to impatience and rage. His profile was elevated when, on February 9, 1950, he gave a Lincoln Day speech in which he produced a piece of paper that he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department. He said: "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." In a later telegram to President Truman, and when entering the speech into the Congressional Record, he used the number 57. At the time of McCarthy's speech, communism was a hot button issue in the United States. The victory of the communists in the Chinese Civil War, the Soviets' development of a nuclear weapon the year before and other developments had the nation concerned.

In response to McCarthy's charges, the Senate voted unanimously to investigate, and a committee chaired by Senator Millard Tydings was convened. The Tydings Committee was a subcommittee of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations set up in February 1950 to conduct "a full and complete study and investigation as to whether persons who are disloyal to the United States are, or have been, employed by the Department of State". During the hearings, McCarthy made specific charges against nine people: Dorothy Kenyon, Esther Brunauer, Haldore Hanson, Gustavo Durán, Owen Lattimore, Harlow Shapley, Frederick Schuman, John S. Service, and Philip Jessup. Some of them no longer worked for the State Department, or never had. McCarthy called Lattimore a "top Russian spy". McCarthy never produced any substantial evidence to support his accusations.

In its final report, the Tydings Committee concluded that the individuals on McCarthy's list were neither Communists nor pro-communist, and said the State Department had an effective security program. The Tydings Report labeled McCarthy's charges a "fraud and a hoax". In turn, some Republicans accused Tydings of a "whitewash of treasonable conspiracy". The full Senate voted three times on whether to accept the report, and each time the voting was precisely divided along party lines.

From 1950 onward, McCarthy continued to exploit the fear of Communism. He also began investigations into a number of homosexual men in the foreign policy bureaucracy, who were considered candidates for blackmail by the Soviets.

McCarthy attempted to discredit his critics and political opponents by accusing them of being Communists or communist sympathizers. In the 1950 Maryland Senate election, McCarthy campaigned for John Marshall Butler in his race against Millard Tydings. In speeches supporting Butler, McCarthy accused Tydings of "protecting Communists" and "shielding traitors". McCarthy's staff produced a brochure that contained a composite photograph doctored to make it appear that Tydings was having a conversation with Communist leader Earl Russell Browder. A Senate subcommittee later investigated this election and called it as "a despicable, back-street type of campaign". Tydings was defeated . McCarthy campaigned for several other Republicans in the 1950 elections, and all the candidates McCarthy supported, won their elections, and those he opposed lost. McCarthy was now regarded as one of the most powerful men in the Senate.

In 1950 McCarthy assaulted journalist Drew Pearson in the cloakroom of a Washington club, kneeing him in the groin. Pearson later attempted to publish reports that McCarthy was a homosexual, but the media refused to print the story.

In 1953, McCarthy married Jean Kerr, a researcher in his office. He and his wife adopted a baby girl in January of 1957.

McCarthy attached President Harry Truman for being "soft on and in league with Communists". Truman, in turn, called McCarthy "the best asset the Kremlin has" for attempting to "sabotage the foreign policy of the United States". Truman's Secretary of Defense, General George Marshall, was the target of some of McCarthy's harshest attacks. Marshall was a highly respected General and statesman, remembered today as the architect of the Marshall Plan for post-war reconstruction of Europe, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. McCarthy blamed Marshall for the loss of China to Communism. He accused Marshall of being part of "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man". During the Korean War, after President Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur, McCarthy said of Truman, "The son of a bitch should be impeached."

One of the strongest bases of anti-Communist sentiment in the United States was the Catholic community. McCarthy identified himself as Catholic and he became popular in Catholic communities. He had the support of the powerful Kennedy family, which had high visibility among Catholics. McCarthy became a close friend of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and was a frequent guest at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. He dated two of Kennedy's daughters, Patricia and Eunice, and was godfather to Robert F. Kennedy's oldest child, Kathleen Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was chosen by McCarthy as a counsel for his investigatory committee. Joseph Kennedy made sizable contributions to McCarthy's campaigns. John F. Kennedy, who served in the Senate with McCarthy from 1953 until the latter's death in 1957, never attacked McCarthy and McCarthy refused to campaign for Kennedy's 1952 opponent, Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

During the 1952 presidential election, the Eisenhower campaign toured Wisconsin with McCarthy. In a speech delivered in Green Bay, Eisenhower declared that while he agreed with McCarthy's goals, he disagreed with his methods. In draft of his speech, Eisenhower had intended to defend George Marshall, but on the advice of conservative colleagues who were fearful that Eisenhower could lose Wisconsin if he alienated McCarthy supporters, he deleted this portion from his speech. After being elected president, Eisenhower made it clear to those close to him that he did not approve of McCarthy and he worked to diminish his power and influence. But he never directly confronted McCarthy or criticized him by name in any speech. Eisenhower's relationship with McCarthy became more hostile once Eisenhower was in office.

McCarthy became increasingly critical of the Eisenhower Administration, but Eisenhower refused to confront McCarthy directly. In 1953, McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. He used this position to use it for his own investigations of Communists in the government. A 27-year-old Robert F. Kennedy served as an assistant counsel to the subcommittee. The subcommittee investigated allegations of Communist influence in the various divisions of the State Department including the Voice of America and the overseas library program of the International Information Agency. McCarthy pressured the State Department into having its overseas librarians remove books and materials that McCarthy deemed to have Communist influences.

In autumn 1953, McCarthy's committee began an inquiry into the United States Army. Early in 1954, the U.S. Army accused McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, of improperly pressuring the Army to give favorable treatment to G. David Schine, a former aide to McCarthy and a friend of Cohn's, who was then serving in the Army as a private. McCarthy claimed that the accusation was made in retaliation for his inquiry into Army activities. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held hearings for 36 days and concluded that McCarthy himself had not exercised any improper influence on Schine's behalf, but that his committee's counsel, Roy Cohn, had engaged in what it termed "unduly persistent or aggressive efforts". The hearings adversely affected McCarthy's popularity, as the television audience saw him as bullying and dishonest. Newspaper reports of the hearings were also unfavorable to McCarthy. According to Gallup polls, those having a favorable opinion of McCarthy dropped from 50% in January 1954, to 34% in June. In the same polls, those with a negative opinion of McCarthy increased from 29% to 45%.

Republicans now viewed McCarthy as a liability to the party. GOP Congressman George H. Bender said "McCarthyism has become a synonym for witch-hunting, Star Chamber methods, and the denial of civil liberties." In one famous exchange which took place between McCarthy and the army's chief legal representative, Joseph Welch, Welch challenged Roy Cohn to provide U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. with McCarthy's list of 130 Communists or subversives in defense plants "before the sun goes down". McCarthy said that if Welch was so concerned about persons aiding the Communist Party, he should check on a man in his Boston law office named Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive lawyers association. In defense of Fisher, Welch criticized McCarthy for his reckless attack on Fisher's character, adding: "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?"

One of the most prominent attacks on McCarthy's methods was an episode of the television documentary series See It Now, hosted by journalist Edward R. Murrow, which was broadcast on March 9, 1954. In an episode entitled "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy", Murrow broadcast clips of McCarthy making various unfounded accusations and in his conclusion, Murrow famously said:

"No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.

"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.

"The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."


The following week See It Now ran another episode critical of McCarthy. This one focused on a woman named Annie Lee Moss, an African-American army clerk who was unfairly targeted in of one of McCarthy's investigations. The Murrow shows led to a nationwide popular opinion backlash against McCarthy. In response, McCarthy appeared on See It Now on April 6, 1954, and made a number of charges against the popular Murrow, including the accusation that he colluded with a "Russian espionage and propaganda organization". This seemed to increase public mistrust of McCarthy.

On March 18, 1954 Sauk-Prairie Star of Sauk City, Wisconsin urged the recall of McCarthy in a front page editorial, along with a sample petition that readers could fill out and mail to the newspaper. The "Joe Must Go" movement caught fire.

Several members of the U.S. Senate had opposed McCarthy. Vermont Republican Senator Ralph E. Flanders gave a speech on the Senate floor, questioning McCarthy's tactics in fighting communism, in which he compared McCarthy to Adolf Hitler, accusing him of spreading "division and confusion" and saying, "Were the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the pay of the Communists he could not have done a better job for them." On June 11, Flanders introduced a resolution to have McCarthy removed as chair of his committees, but there was no clear majority supporting this resolution. Flanders next introduced a resolution to censure McCarthy. A special committee, chaired by Senator Arthur Vivian Watkins, was appointed to study and evaluate the resolution. The committee opened hearings on August 31.After two months of hearings and deliberations, the Watkins Committee recommended that McCarthy be censured. On December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to "condemn" McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22. The Democrats voting unanimously favored condemnation while the Republicans were evenly split. Senator John F. Kennedy was hospitalized at the time and did not vote.

After his censure, McCarthy continued senatorial duties for another two and a half years, but his influence was at an end. His speeches on the Senate floor were delivered to a near-empty chamber and the press ignored him. President Eisenhower is supposed to have said to his Cabinet that McCarthyism was now "McCarthywasm".

In one of his final acts in the Senate, McCarthy opposed President Eisenhower's nomination to the Supreme Court of William J. Brennan, because Brennan had given a speech Brennan in which he characterized McCarthy's anti-Communist investigations as "witch hunts". McCarthy was the only Senator to vote against Brennan's confirmation.



McCarthy suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and was hospitalized for alcoholism. His drinking increased with the crash in his popularity and influence. Joe McCarthy died in Bethesda Naval Hospital on May 2, 1957, at the age of 48. The official cause of his death was listed as acute hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver attributed to his drinking. He was buried in St. Mary's Parish Cemetery, in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Tags: dwight d. eisenhower, harry s. truman, john f. kennedy, robert f. kennedy
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