McCarthy's Witch Hunt

Joseph McCarthy was a relatively unknown senator from Wisconsin nearing the end of his first term in 1950. He had penchant for the spotlight and was searching for an issue to latch onto to pump up his reelection campaign. China had just fallen to the Communists and the Cold War with the Soviet Union was well under way. The atmosphere was ripe for red-baiting and McCarthy took full advantage of the situation.

In the process, he became the most famous demagogue this country has ever seen. His four-year witch-hunt for Communists in the U.S. government affected the lives of hundreds if not thousands. McCarthy ruined many careers and lives. McCarthyism, as it came to be known, also painted liberals as soft on Communism. This helped to knock President Truman and the Democrats out of the White House and Congress, ending the era of the New Deal.

To many, McCarthy is not a hero but a despised figure of an ugly incident in U.S. history. To others his actions were patriotic. No matter what your opinion of McCarthy, he changed the course of history and effected the lives of many people. He fanned the flames of Cold War that was already burning brightly. His downfall reminded the country free speech and expression, principles that this country was founded on, will endure in the end.

On Feb. 9, 1950, during a speech to the Ohio County Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, W. Va., McCarthy made his first accusations. In the middle of his speech, McCarthy made his infamous claim. "While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have herein my hand 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."

The speech made the national news wires that night. Did he have names and proof? The next day in Reno, reporters greeted him at the airport and pressed him to produce the list. McCarthy said it was in a suit pocket that was in luggage still aboard the plane. At subsequent speeches the number changed to 57, then 81.Reporters continued to question McCarthy about his list, but his answers were always vague. In reality, McCarthy had now real proof, but the accusations resonated with the public and put the senator in the headlines, so the show continued unabated for four years.

In 1954, McCarthy took on the U.S. Army and Army Secretary Robert Stevens. The senator accused Army officers of being Communists during televised Senate hearings on Communism within the government. But this time McCarthy went too far. The Army had on its side President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general.

McCarthy kept up his attacks during 36 days of hearings. But a live television audience was watching and could see how hallow and unsubstantiated McCarthy's charges were. They could also see the ruthless manner in which McCarthy went after witnesses. McCarthy was interrogating a witness for the Army when finally, the Army's chief attorney, Joseph Welch, challenged the senator. "Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?"

The hearings ended. The Senate voted 67-22 on Dec. 2, 1954 to condemn McCarthy for "conduct contrary to senatorial traditions" for abuse of his powers. It was only the third time in 165 years that a senator had been condemned.

McCarthy began drinking heavily and developed cirrhosis of the liver. He died May 2, 1957 of peripheral neuritis. McCarthy was born in 1908 in Outagamie County, Wis. He only had an eighth grade education when took a job as manager of a grocery store in Manawa, Wis. Even then, McCarthy was fond of attention and he was popular person at the store. Friends suggested that he finish high school. A year later McCarthy completed his high school equivalency. He would attend Marquette University in Milwaukee and go on to earn a law degree.

McCarthy had his own law practice in Waupaca, Wis., for three years before winning a judgeship for the Tenth District of the Wisconsin Circuit Court.4. He served a tour with the Marine Corp. during World War II from 1942 to 1944.

In 1944 he unsuccessfully ran against Alexander Wiley for a senatorial seat but beat fellow Republican Robert La Follette Jr. for Wisconsin's other Senate seat in 1946.

Joseph McCarthy Links

Multimedia celebration

Fight for America