Joseph Raymond McCarthy Facts
Joseph Raymond McCarthy (1908-1957), U.S. senator, in a highly publicized pursuit of a Communist "conspiracy" became a national figure. The term "McCarthyism" became a synonym for reckless smear tactics intended to destroy the victim's political standing and public character.
Joseph McCarthy was born on Nov. 14, 1908, on a farm at Grand Chute, Wis. The family was part of the "Irish Settlement," an enclave surrounded by farmers mainly of German and Dutch descent. His parents were devout Catholics, literate but uneducated. The fifth of nine children, Joseph seems to have grown up shy and awkward, often rejected by his peers but favored by a protective mother. At the age of 14, after finishing grade school, he took up chicken farming; his venture prospered briefly.
McCarthy moved to the nearby town of Manawa, managed a grocery store for a while, and then—when he was almost 20—enrolled in high school, completing the course in a single year. After two years as an engineering student at Marquette University, he went to law school and was president of his class on graduation.
McCarthy tried practicing as a lawyer in several county seats, supplementing his scanty legal fees by winnings at poker but also playing at the game of politics. After an unsuccessful bid as Democratic candidate for district attorney, he shifted his field and became the Republican candidate for a circuit court judgeship. He won, and this victory foreshadowed his later methods: his campaign literature had falsified his opponent's age (adding 7 years to it) and his own (moving his birth date back). At 30, his basic personality was pretty well shaped—fluid, resourceful, ambitious, amoral.
During World War II, McCarthy served with the U.S. Marines. In 1944, while still in the Marines, he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. Two years later he ran for senator against Robert M. La Follette and won. McCarthy had been a poor judge, involved in at least one shady case; he had falsified his war record to make it look more heroic; and he had cut moral corners in his campaigning. But he was a popular candidate for the particular mood and ethnic mix of Wisconsin at the time and appealed both to patriotism and to end-of-war disillusionment.
McCarthy's first years in the Senate were thoroughly mediocre and at least slightly shady. As a number of his past adventures, including some questionable tax returns, began catching up with him, he needed an issue that would obscure all this. On Jan. 7, 1950, he asked three dinner companions to suggest an issue; they suggested Communist power and subversion.
In a speech at Wheeling, W. Va., on February 9 McCarthy claimed to have in hand a list of 205 people in the State Department known to be members of the Communist party. In subsequent speeches and interviews he kept shifting the figures, depending on his forum and his mood. On February 20 he held forth for six hours on the Senate floor, in a tumultuous session punctuated by the efforts of administration senators to pin him down factually.
In the 1950 elections McCarthy secured the defeat of several Democratic senators who had dared question and oppose him. Thus he spread terror even among his peers. His Republican colleagues were torn between fear of his prowess and willingness to use his attacks on President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and former Secretary of State George Marshall. In 1952 McCarthy was reelected. He then used his investigative subcommittee as his fulcrum and the press and television as his playing field. He even tried to develop a counterintelligence unit of his own inside the administration's agencies. He finally turned his guns against the Army in the Ft. Monmouth hearings.
The Army-McCarthy televised hearings from April 22 to June 17, 1954, turned the tables on McCarthy and his committee counsel, Roy Cohn, with evidence that they had sought special favors for G. David Schine (a subcommittee staff member) as an Army inductee. It is hard to guess why McCarthy tangled with the Army so wantonly, when he must have known that his anti-Communist rhetoric could not prevail against the array of Army medals facing him on the television screen. The impassioned response of the Army counsel, Joseph Welch, to McCarthy's attack on a member of Welch's firm marked the end. In December the Senate passed a vote of censure on McCarthy. He died three years later, on May 2, 1957, a broken man whose end had really come at the Army hearing, when the nation recoiled from him and his power to inspire terror was halted.
"McCarthyism" came into the nation's history at a moment when Americans felt an anxiety and dread about the future; McCarthy gave this apprehension the name of "communism." He used the fear of internal subversion by an external enemy, and by giving it the concrete form of conspiracy and a spy network he provided Americans with a simple target for their hostility. He also came at a time when the cold war and the nuclear arms race had brought on a need for secrecy that led to a paranoid feeling of being surrounded by enemies within.
Scholars have debated whether McCarthy expressed a basic Populist appeal, with his attacks on the eastern intellectuals and the establishment, but this Populist theory is oversubtle for a man who gave no thought to mass welfare or to the release from any oppressive bonds. He was often called a "fascist" by liberals and the left, but this was as loose an epithet as his own accusations of "Communist." His support came mainly from a desperate segment on the right who saw their world threatened by an elusive conspiracy and were willing to see extreme methods used against it.
Further Reading on Joseph Raymond McCarthy
McCarthy's books about his crusade are McCarthyism: The Fight for America and The Story of General George C. Marshall (both 1952). The best biography is Richard H. Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (1959). An earlier one, written in the heat of battle, is Jack Anderson and Ronald W. May, McCarthy: The Man, the Senator, the Ism (1952). Two books that tend to offset each other are William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies (1954; new ed. 1961), and James Rorty and Moshe Decter, McCarthy and the Communists (1954). An important book is Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (1970). On the issue of McCarthy's "populism" see Daniel Bell, ed., The Radical Right (1964), and for an answer to it see Michael P. Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy (1967).
Other books wrestling with the meaning of McCarthyism are Edward A. Shils, The Torment of Secrecy (1956); Max Lerner, The Unfinished Country (1959), which reprints a cluster of articles entitled "McCarthy: The Life and Death of a Nightmare" John P. Roche, The Quest for the Dream (1963); and Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). Especially good for its historical-sociological perspective is Seymour M. Lipset and Earl Raab, Politics of Unreason, vol. 5: Rightwing Movements in America, 1790-1970 (1970).