In February 1950 McCarthy made a stunning and completely unsubstantiated public accusation that the U.S. State Department was riddled with 205 communists or communist sympathizers. By constantly changing his stories and the numbers of alleged communists in high places, he became a household name and made a career out of being the nation's top anticommunist whistle-blower for the next four years. As the nation fell under the spell of McCarthy, with the help of a transfigured national press, hundreds of loyal government employees lost their jobs and had their lives ruined during the period known as McCarthyism. Labor organizers, writers, artists, teachers, Hollywood actors, and even the U.S. military were all targets of McCarthy's anticommunist witch-hunt. Educators with liberal sympathies were labeled a threat and found their academic freedom severely restricted. McCarthy even went so far as to accuse World War II army hero and Secretary of Defense General George C. Marshall of harboring "a communist conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man." McCarthy particularly targeted Foreign Service officers in the State Department, which greatly weakened the department's Asian desk.
McCarthy, although not universally loved by the Republican Party, was allowed to pursue his tenuous claims because such activity gave the Republicans a potent weapon against President Harry S. Truman and the Democrats, whom they believed had botched U.S. foreign policy particularly in China and Korea. When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952, he chose not to confront McCarthy directly, although he despised him. Eisenhower instead hoped that McCarthy would eventually go too far and destroy himself. He did just that in 1954.
During 1953–1954, McCarthy chaired the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations. During his tenure as chairman, the subcommittee held countless hearings around the nation and investigated myriad charges of communist subversion and espionage in the federal government and defense industries. In addition to McCarthy's favorite foil, the State Department, the Voice of America, the U.S. Information Libraries, the Government Printing Office, and the Army Signal Corps all fell victim to the subcommittee's inquiries. McCarthy routinely bullied his witnesses and often threatened them with prosecution for contempt of Congress. Unfortunately, many who fell within the senator's cross-hairs lost their jobs and careers or were blacklisted when they refused to cooperate with him.
In 1954, McCarthy accused the U.S. Army of harboring communist spies, a patently outrageous claim. In retaliation, army leaders produced a detailed chronology of the actions taken by McCarthy's chief counsel Roy M. Cohn to pressure army officials to ensure preferential treatment for one of his own staff members, G. David Schine, who had recently been drafted. Senator McCarthy responded that the army was holding Schine hostage to prevent him from fully investigating communist subversion within the military. McCarthy's clash with the army led Congress to vote on an investigation into each party's claims. The resulting Army-McCarthy Hearings were televised nationwide to a large and captivated audience and allowed many Americans to see firsthand the bullying and brutish behavior of the Wisconsin senator.
McCarthy did not come across well on television, and his appeal diminished quickly as it became apparent that he was little more than a bully and a liar. As novelist John Steinbeck observed at the time, McCarthy "had a stubble of a beard, he leered, he sneered, he had a nasty laugh. He bullied and shouted. He looked evil."
The most famous dramatic showdown of the hearings came in June 1954, when McCarthy unleashed his wild accusations on a young lawyer assisting Joseph Welch, who was representing the army. "Until this moment, Senator," Welch seethed, "I think I really never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.... Have you no sense of decency, sir?" At this, the gallery burst into applause, and McCarthy looked wounded and confused, asking what had just happened. Just as television had helped him gain notoriety, the medium also brought about his downfall. As Missouri Senator Stuart Symington said to McCarthy, "The American people have had a look at you for six weeks. You are not fooling anyone."
Meanwhile, Congress moved in for the kill. In a 67–22 vote in December 1954, the Senate formally censured McCarthy for contemptuous behavior and bringing disrepute to Congress. McCarthy was stripped of his committee assignments and faded into political obscurity. He died only three years later, at age forty-nine, from alcohol-related liver disease.
After the excesses of McCarthyism, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the law to give witnesses testifying before congressional committees more protection in order to prevent the abuses of McCarthyism from reoccurring. To this day McCarthy's name is synonymous with unsubstantiated accusations and innuendo, intolerance, fear-mongering, and browbeating.
Valerie L. Adams
Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. 2nd ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.; Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.