June 9, 1954. It is Day 30 of the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and yet another tense exchange erupts as Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) lashes out with accusations of Communist sympathies. This time, though, he is facing Army counsel Joseph Welch, and after one spurious accusation too many Welch erupts. “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” It is the beginning of Joe McCarthy’s downfall.
The events of the late 1940s and early 1950s known as the “Red Scare” were actually the SECOND Red Scare if you can believe it. The first occurred right after the First World War, though it targeted anarchists more than communists due to recent events. As soon as the Cold War began, though, paranoia began to grip the United States. People saw Communists everywhere. The age was marked by political repression, official and unofficial, and a fear-mongering campaign that Soviet and Communist agents were infiltrating American government and institutions.
To be completely fair, there were (some) understandable reasons for this panic. After 1945, the United States was the only country with atomic weapons. This brief period ended in 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its own atomic bomb much earlier than American analysts had expected. Even though most Americans did not know that the Soviets had spies in the Manhattan Project, the sense of shock and insecurity was all too real. That same year, the Communists of Mao Zedong overran China despite heavy American financial and diplomatic support to the Nationalists. The “Who Lost China” debacle spiraled, with many people believing that Communist sympathizers in the State Department and military had sabotaged the Nationalist war effort and allowed China to go Red. In January 1950, Alger Hiss was found guilty of espionage within the State Department, inciting further fears, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were revealed to have stolen nuclear secrets for the Soviets.
These sorts of revelations fanned a flame that had long been kindling in the American mind. Even around the turn of the century, various movements such as labor reform, women’s rights and civil rights for African-Americans had been associated with “communism.” This charge was also directed at FDR’s mild liberal policies of the New Deal. None of these, of course, had anything to do with actual Marxism, just as Obamacare had nothing to do with actual Marxism – but it was too convenient of a slur for conservatives and reactionaries not to use for long.
The man whose name would become most closely associated with the “Red-baiting” practices of fear and accusation was Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy had served in largely clerical positions in World War II, but leveraged his service into a competitive stance for Wisconsin’s Republican Senatorial primary in 1946. His opponent was Robert M. La Follette, one of the Republican Party’s most powerful senators and a former member of the “Progressive Party.” La Follette was an old-style Republican, a champion of organized labor and isolationism. This cost him against the younger, flamboyant McCarthy, who used his labor ties to accuse him of being friendly to Communism. McCarthy won the primary and defeated his Democrat opponent to gain his Senate seat and membership in Congress. McCarthy had learned a key lesson from his election: Red-baiting was a path to power and prominence.
McCarthy was a relatively undistinguished figure in his first few years in the Senate. A decent speaker, charming in public, he quickly alienated most of his fellow Senators due to his temper and general toxicity. Most Republicans rejected him along with the Democrats. He actually had a reputation as a moderate, but quickly made himself unpopular with Wisconsin’s labor unions.
On February 9, 1950, McCarthy was giving a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he produced a piece of paper that he said named 205 members of the State Department who were members of the Communist Party. On this “evidence,” he scowled, the State Department was infested with Communists. The “Wheeling Speech,” as it became known, garnered an enormous amount of press attention and immediately made McCarthy a national figure.
Trouble was, McCarthy never produced 205 names. A few days after the Wheeling Speech, he claimed 57, and a few days later in the Senate he claimed 81. He named every member of the list of 81, though these were just a list of “inefficient” State Department employees from a report filed years earlier. McCarthy exaggerated these 81 individuals as “Communists,” probably just to give his accusations legitimacy. The list of “205” was never produced; it may well have been a laundry or shopping list, and whatever it was he threw it away.
Nevertheless, McCarthy was on a tear. Harry S. Truman’s Democratic administration was the chief target of his ire, and in many cases McCarthy’s targets were Cabinet secretaries – particularly Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, who had been Army Chief of Staff during World War II and was one of the nation’s most respected leaders. McCarthy referred to the Democrats’ “twenty years of treason,” and implied that Marshall himself was guilty of treason. When Truman had to fire General MacArthur during the Korean war, McCarthy famously declared “The son of a bitch should be impeached.”
McCarthy had found that making ridiculous accusations and starting baseless rumors kept him in the public spotlight and was a path to power. It was only a month after the Wheeling Speech that the term “McCarthyism” was first used to describe this behavior, but McCarthy wore it with a badge of honor. “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled,” he stated.
McCarthy had left a litany of ruined lines and blacklisted people behind him already by late 1950, when he began using his incendiary accusations against anyone who got in his way. Any fellow Senator he came into conflict with was now “protecting Communists” or “shielding traitors.” His staff doctored photographs and spread slander. One of his favorite accusations was of homosexuality; in the 1950s, being homosexual was widely believed to be a security risk since it made one a target for blackmail. McCarthy relished these accusations in particular, and his mudslinging helped kickstart the anti-LGBT “Lavender Scare,” one of the lesser-known side effects of his rampage through American public life. Many gay, lesbian or otherwise unorthodox Americans were fired or blacklisted as a result of McCarthy’s propaganda.
The presidential election of 1952 found Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Republican nominee, and it only took a little contact for Eisenhower to realize that he despised McCarthy. Nevertheless, he had to play nice with him in order to secure Wisconsin for the election, and this meant treating the firebrand Senator with kid gloves. Eisenhower even refrained from speaking up when McCarthy went after his friend and mentor George Marshall, a major betrayal of his personal convictions. Either way, Eisenhower won the election, and this put the Republicans in power in all branches of government.
This was not necessarily a ticket to power for McCarthy. Eisenhower actively worked to diminish McCarthy’s standing in the party and in the Senate, but did not criticize him directly – giving McCarthy the impression that Eisenhower was scared of him. In truth, Eisenhower preferred to stay above the fray, commenting that he didn’t want to “get down in the gutter with that guy.” The Republicans in the Senate tried to sideline McCarthy by making him chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations – widely viewed as mundane and boring, and far from the levers of power.
McCarthy was furious at this attempt to move him out of the limelight. By now he was probably addicted to the fame and power he gained from his antics, and when it became widely known that he was out of favor with his own party he began to look for an angle to come back into the spotlight. He found a way through the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a little-noticed subsidiary of the Government Operations Committee with a vague reason for existing. Throughout the next year, McCarthy would turn the Investigations Subcommittee into his anti-Communist scalpel, opening investigations on anyone and everyone in his way. He appointed Roy Cohn as his chief counsel. Cohn’s assistant was the rich boy-toy Gerard Schine, a hotel heir – the eventual key to McCarthy’s downfall.
The subcommittee was the height of McCarthy’s power. He first investigated the State Department’s propaganda organ Voice of America, resulting in suicides, book-burning and mass purges from the anti-Communist multimedia agency. From there, he was on a rampage. Throughout 1953 and 1954, McCarthy held 169 hearings and called 653 people in to be grilled and accused of Communism and treason. Treasury, Army, Navy, Veterans Affairs, and General Electric employees were all dragged in front of the subcommittee, where McCarthy himself was king. Rabidly browbeating the victims into submission and silence, McCarthy’s reign of terror was in full swing.
By late 1953, McCarthy was digging into the Army. The Army had been a target before, when Marshall had been accused of treason and when McCarthy had spoken against the Army’s version of events in the SS-perpetrated Malmedy Massacre of 1944. (Long story.) The Army, though, was looking to fight back. Most of the other institutions of American life had been forced to knuckle under or kowtow to McCarthy, but many senior officers had come to view McCarthy’s mudslinging as a threat to the nation’s defense. McCarthy’s targets included Major Irving Peress, a dentist and a left-winger who had been forced to resign; McCarthy used Peress’ known leftist leaning as a cudgel to beat the Army with.
Army lawyers came up with varying approaches to resisting McCarthy. They realized that trying to prove the innocence of individuals was pointless, since McCarthy always had some small incident or connection he could use against them; instead, they had to go on the attack. Cohn’s assistant Gerard Schine had been drafted into the Army the year before, and now-Private Schine’s connections with both McCarthy’s office and with his wealthy family had exerted undue influence on his unit and his chain of command. Favorable treatment for political connections had been a hot-button issue for the Army during World War II, and the Army’s chief legal representative Joseph Nye Welch planned to use this scandal as a means to bring McCarthy to a halt.
The Army-McCarthy Hearings convened on April 22, 1954, to hear both McCarthy’s and Welch’s counter-accusations. The hearings lasted 36 days and were broadcast on live television to over 20 million viewers across the United States. With the relative novelty of television and the paranoia in the United States, it became the first “breaking news” event of the mass media era, as Americans all across the country tuned in for McCarthy’s assault on the Army.
Welch tore through all of McCarthy’s attempts to shield his own activities. First McCarthy produced a doctored photo of Private Schine meeting with the Army Secretary, before Welch produced the real photo – showing multiple others in the room with them. Then McCarthy produced a memo allegedly sent by the FBI to the Army, warning of subversives in the Army Signal Corps, before Welch came to suspect the letter’s validity. Further investigation proved that Hoover had never sent the letter. At one point McCarthy even insinuated that Welch was both gay and Communist.
It came out that the Army was right: Cohn had used McCarthy’s office to weedle special favors for Schine, including forging McCarthy’s name to allow him access to Senate bath houses. (The real takeaway, that Cohn and Schine pretty obviously had something going on, is neither here nor there.)
Backed into a corner, McCarthy began his favorite tactic: waving a list of 130 “subversives” in defense industries. Welch smelled blood and pressed. He asked McCarthy if he would produce the list to the FBI and Defense Department “before the sun goes down.” McCarthy lashed out, asking about a random lawyer Welch had once employed in his office who has known to have worked with labor groups. Then Welch exploded.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy continued to ask about the lawyer, a smear on an irrelevant person whose only angle was to smear and hurt Welch, he was angrily cut short: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The chamber literally burst into applause. Not a joke.
Throughout the hearings, McCarthy’s popularity had been plummeting. The committee concluded that Cohn had used his influence to gain special treatment for Schine; Cohn was dismissed quickly. Before the hearings were over, though, McCarthy was done as a political figure. The video of his obsessive ranting and hysterical accusations revealed his true nature to the nation as he tried to attack one of America’s most sacrosanct institutions – the U.S. Army. The media, previously happy to promote and tout McCarthy, turned against him just as quickly. The United States Senate voted in December 1954 to censure McCarthy: while it did not expel him from office, the vote effectively ended his influence in the nation.
McCarthy continued his accusations and tears unabated, but his bubble had been burst. He spoke to increasingly smaller crowds and even to the empty Senate chamber, trying to regain the magic he had once weaved over the whole United States. He had been like the Phantom of the Opera in that chamber, his very name invoking fear and paranoia, but now he was increasingly reclusive and unnoticed, turning more and more to alcohol and growing less and less coherent. The world moved on without him.
McCarthy died suddenly on May 2, 1957, of hepatitis. His ghost lingers in the dark recesses of the American political system.