Jan. 23 (Tuesday)

< >

Open/Close All

 Joseph Raymond McCarthy
Full Name: Joseph Raymond McCarthy
Born: Nov. 14, 1908 in near Appleton, Wisconsin
Died: May. 2, 1957 in Bethesda, Maryland

Joseph McCarthy — or Senator Joe McCarthy, as he was popularly known — became famous for his small-minded and often unsubstantiated attacks against people he claimed were communists during the early years of the Cold War. The “McCarthy Witch-Hunt” is a superb symbol of the Cold War, which was itself largely an exercise in paranoia and political games. McCarthy is further commemorated by the term McCarthyism, generally applied today to reckless attacks on the character of political opponents.

McCarthy served as a Wisconsin attorney and the youngest circuit judge in that state’s history (1940-42) before enlisting in the Marines during World War II. He was elected to the Senate in 1946 and again in 1952.

Aside from his initial Senate campaign upset victory, McCarthy was relatively quiet and undistinguished until 1950, when he claimed that 205 Communists had infiltrated the State Department. Ignorant people rallied behind his crusade, even though he couldn’t produce the name of a single “card-carrying Communist” in any government department. While supporters promoted McCarthy as a patriot, his detractors regarded him as little more than a dangerous idiot who attacked Americans’ civil liberties, as presidents George W. Bush and Obama would half a century later.

After his reelection in 1952, McCarthy obtained the chairmanship of the Committee on Government Operations of the Senate and of its permanent subcommittee on investigations. His position kept him in the spotlight, as he investigated and questioned people. Though he never made a plausible case against anyone, his interrogations cost some people their jobs or reputations. Ironically, less theatrical government agencies actually did identify and prosecute cases of Communist infiltration.

Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower was allegedly afraid of McCarthy. But a nationally televised 36-day hearing on his charges of subversion by U.S. Army officers and civilian officials in 1954 put McCarthy on the defensive. Viewers were shocked by his brutal tactics, which eventually prompted Joseph Nye Welch, special counsel for the Army, to famously ask McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

When the Republicans lost control of the Senate in the midterm elections that November, McCarthy was replaced as chairman of the investigating committee and later condemned by a Senate vote of 67 to 22 for conduct “contrary to Senate traditions.”

Encyclopedia Britannica’s article about Joseph McCarthy says, “In a rare move, he was officially censured for unbecoming conduct by his Senate colleagues (Dec. 2, 1954), thus ending the era of McCarthyism.” However, McCarthy was never prosecuted or punished for ruining people’s lives, and McCarthyism — in the broad sense of the term — is being practiced today on a scale that dwarfs McCarthy’s witch-hunt.