By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
America’s involvement in the Korean War made the fear of communism seem greater than ever. These were the conditions in which Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, was able to profit from reckless allegations of disloyalty in high places. However, it’s important to remember that the anti-communist search was in full swing before he even got into it.
Senator McCarthy turned the anti-communist search into what many critics called a ‘witch hunt’, provoking a great civil libertarian uproar.
McCarthy was a former Wisconsin judge, and a non-combat war veteran, who had been elected to the Senate in 1946, under false pretenses; now, anticipating a reelection campaign in 1952, he needed a good issue, and he decided that he’d try the issue of anti-communism.
In a speech made in February 1950, he claimed that President Truman had knowingly failed to dismiss hundreds of ‘known communists’ in the State Department. In other words, that Truman, far from weeding out treason, was conniving at it, that there was even something a little bit treasonous about him.
At the time, McCarthy was addressing a women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia. He said, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 communists that were made known to the secretary of state, and who are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” The implication, again, was that the Democrats wanted communism to thrive, and that the entire Democratic Party had become disloyal to America.
Every Critic Was a Communist?
He never produced this list, and although he repeated the allegation, each time he made it, the number of names on the list was different. When he was challenged by a senator from Maryland, Millard Tidings, who disproved one of McCarthy’s allegations, McCarthy countered by saying, “Why is Tidings so eager to refute these allegations? It’s because he’s a communist as well.”
This was McCarthy’s familiar response to anyone who criticized him.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Allegations of Communism
In these circumstances, it was very risky to bring down upon oneself the allegation of communism, even if it was totally untrue, because it might have sown the doubt in people’s minds that one himself was part of this great conspiracy that threatened the world.
McCarthy was a populist. He was very good at rhetoric, saying, “We, the ordinary people, know what these dreadful elites are doing.” For example, he said of Alger Hiss, and Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who’d been Hiss’s friend, that they’d been born with silver spoons in their mouths, and yet they were traitors. In fact, he popularized the idea of ‘20 years of treason’.
Between 1932, when Roosevelt first won the election, and 1952, when Truman ended his administration, Democrats had been in the White House continuously for 20 years, and now here was McCarthy, calling it 20 years of treason.
McCarthy and the Republicans and Democrats
McCarthy put on theatrical displays at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, of which he was a member, trying constantly to keep his adversaries off guard and always shifting ground when the illogic of his allegations appeared to be catching up with him.
Of course, from the Republican Party’s point of view, it was tempting to leave him alone. The Republicans had been in the political wilderness for a very long time, and were longing to get back into power. Thus, even if a Republican deplored what McCarthy was doing, they tended not to be too strenuous in opposing him as he was very popular with the voters and was a member of same party.
Conversely, Democrats who risked it knew that the possibility was that he’d counter with the allegation that they were Communists as well. Because of the atmosphere of the Korean War, the allegations seemed slightly more plausible then than they would have at calmer times.
McCarthy Attacks the Army
McCarthy finally overstepped the bounds of credibility by attacking the U.S. Army itself. By 1954, when the Army-McCarthy hearings were held, that is, McCarthy’s charges against the army were investigated, something new had come into American life: television. By 1954, a large percentage of the American people had a TV and could actually watch the hearings take place.
They were one of the great TV spectacles of 1954, and one that allowed large numbers of citizens to witness McCarthy’s high-handed badgering tactics firsthand. When they did so, citizens who had previously read about McCarthy but had reserved judgment, started to see his allegations were reckless. He was simply flinging out accusations without being able to properly substantiate them.
Motion of Censure against McCarthy
Now that the Korean War had ended, and more people could see him on TV, and that President Eisenhower was clearly distancing himself from McCarthy, the strategy backfired for McCarthy, and it was he that was discredited by the Army-McCarthy hearings, rather than the U.S. Army itself, inside which there really was no evidence at all of communist subversion.
The result was that the U.S. Senate passed a motion of censure against him in 1954, after which he went very rapidly into decline and died prematurely in 1957.
The whole episode—the combination of the great anti-communist fear, intensified by the Korean War—demonstrates how life inside the United States itself was acutely preoccupied by the fear of communism.
Common Questions about Senator McCarthy
McCarthy was a former Wisconsin judge, and a non-combat war veteran, who had been elected to the Senate in 1946; anticipating a reelection campaign in 1952, he needed a good issue, and he decided that he’d try the issue of anti-communism.
The Republicans had been in the political wilderness for a very long time, and were longing to get back into power. Thus, they tended not to be too strenuous in opposing him as he was very popular with the voters and was a member of same party.
McCarthy finally overstepped the bounds of credibility by attacking the U.S. Army itself. His allegations were reckless, and there was no evidence at all of communist subversion. As a result, the U.S. Senate passed a motion of censure against him in 1954, after which he went very rapidly into decline and died prematurely in 1957.