Arguably the most successful conspiracy theorist in U.S. history, Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) served as senator from Wisconsin from 1946 until his death. His tenure took place during the early years of the cold war, when Americans feared the worst about their ability to fend off the threat of international communism. The senator both exacerbated and exemplified these anxieties by staking his career on the claim that various federal agencies had been infiltrated by Communists, who wished to overthrow the U.S. government.
These double agents, McCarthy argued, operated conspiratorially to destroy the American way of life by posing as loyal American citizens, then working their way into important government posts. McCarthy proved notoriously unsuccessful in unmasking actual Communists, but the suspicion generated by his investigations ruined many a career.
Although the senator’s crusade garnered him no small amount of opposition, many feared that opposing him would bring their own loyalties into question. McCarthy’s willingness to make unsubstantiated public accusations, and his reckless disregard for any standard of evidence, served to create a reign of terror that the name “McCarthyism” still invokes today.
Born and raised near Appleton, Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy never lacked for ambition and drive. At fourteen he quit school, then quickly founded a thriving small business raising chickens; later he managed a prosperous local grocery store.
Growing restless, McCarthy’s enthusiasm turned toward finishing his education, and at twenty years of age, he completed an entire course of high school study in one year. A Catholic, McCarthy next attended Marquette, the Jesuit college in Milwaukee, then graduated from law school in 1935. After briefly working in a legal partnership, the future senator lost his first election, running for district attorney as a Democrat.
Two more years as an attorney prepared the aspiring politician for his first office—in 1939 he was elected a Wisconsin circuit judge. Though he had little name recognition or public demand for his services, McCarthy created support through tireless campaigning and, in a pattern that would continue throughout his career, some disingenuous mudslinging against his opponents.
During World War II, the new lieutenant served as an intelligence officer at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, but kept Wisconsin politics foremost in his mind. In an effort to maximize the political value of his military service, McCarthy kept his judgeship, fabricated a record as “Tail-Gunner Joe,” and earned himself a citation by forging his commanding officer’s signature.
Upon his return home, McCarthy could see something others did not: the fading fortunes of Senator Robert LaFollette. A member of Wisconsin’s leading political family, LaFollette had initially been elected over twenty years before as a Republican. In the wake of the Depression, the senator and his brother, Wisconsin’s governor Phil LaFollette, found themselves to be out of step with the Republican Party in a heavily Republican state.
The siblings founded the Progressive Party of Wisconsin, and LaFollete’s popularity kept him his seat despite the switch. When their political organization disbanded in 1944 after Phil’s run for the presidency against Franklin D. Roosevelt, LaFollette had little choice but to return to the understandably resentful Republicans.
McCarthy sensed the possibility for an upset, and ran against the incumbent in the 1946 Republican primary. During the campaign, McCarthy said little about substantive issues, preferring instead glossy photographs of himself in full military regalia and the slogan, “Congress needs a tail-gunner.”
But the returning hero indefatigably outcampaigned and outspent the incumbent, who took little notice of the local judge and preferred to stay in Washington. McCarthy won the Republican nomination in a tight race and had no trouble in the general election.
The new senator quickly established a name for himself among the Washington elite as an ambitious and slightly boorish publicity hound who thought often of himself, but seldom of the traditions of the Senate or the respect due to senior colleagues. As McCarthy searched for an issue by which he could define himself early in his first term, he vigorously flogged one idea then the next with little thought of political prudence or ideological consistency.
Nearing the end of his first term, McCarthy had alienated much of the Senate and found himself without a major committee assignment—he needed something that would put him back in the good graces of his colleagues and the voters. In Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator McCarthy found his issue.
On 9 February 1950 several witnesses claimed he told the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club, “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 ... names that were known to the Secretary of State and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”
Shortly thereafter the Senator told reporters he had a list of 207 names, then 57. In truth McCarthy had no list, and the numbers themselves usually came from mischaracterized or dated research that had been made public by others long before. Irresponsible and unsupported as the accusations were, they nonetheless thrust McCarthy into the public eye. He had the attention of the press, the Senate, and the Truman administration.
The Senate convened a committee, chaired by Maryland Democrat Millard Tydings, to investigate the charges. As a member of the Tydings committee, McCarthy made far more accusations than he could support. Most observers found his performance in that forum to be irresponsible and unfair, but the junior senator from Wisconsin was successful in gaining the publicity he craved.
For the next four years, McCarthy was the nation’s most well-known and vehement red-baiter. Having shrewdly maneuvered himself into the chairmanship of the unpopular Senate Committee on Government Operations, he appointed himself chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he had the authority and the budget to investigate “government activities at all levels.”
McCarthy launched investigations into Communist infiltration of numerous government agencies, such as the Voice of America—the radio network run by the State Department—and the Overseas Library Program. McCarthy also accused any number of government employees of being Communists, including such high-ranking officials as General George Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
McCarthy’s downfall came about as the result of many factors, but perhaps two loom largest overall. First, in the face of relaxing cold war tensions, fewer Americans believed the Communist threat to justify the extreme measures advocated by McCarthyism.
Second, McCarthy did not ease up on his attacks on the executive branch after Dwight Eisenhower, a member of his own party, became president in 1952. Although the Republicans had seen McCarthy as a valuable asset in constructing their tough-on-communism image, none of them wanted him attacking their own administration. On Capitol Hill, patience and tolerance for McCarthy was on the wane.
The immediate cause of the senator’s fall from grace, however, was the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings. Held in the Senate in 1954, they concerned the accusation that Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s top aide, had abused his position by trying to win special treatment for another McCarthy aide, Private G. David Schine, who had been recently drafted. Army officials alleged that Cohn had threatened them with investigations of Communist infiltration were he not to get his way.
McCarthy responded with the charge that it was the army that had acted improperly; it had threatened to give Schine poor assignments unless already ongoing investigations were called off. The ensuing hearings were broadcast on television, and provided a testament to McCarthy’s declining influence.
Forty million Americans watched or heard him, many for the first time, witnessing his vituperative personal attacks and merciless accusations. By the end of the year, Joseph McCarthy had been censured by the U.S. Senate. Though he remained in that body until his death two years later, the discredited McCarthy was never again an important political player.
Americans had feared the spread and influence of communism long before the cold war. The first red scare and the Palmer Raids (1919–1920) took place almost immediately after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities dates to 1938.
Yet in the cold war era, the conspiratorial view of communism itself came to dominate U.S. anticommunist discourse. McCarthy is perhaps the best representative of this trend. Believing the United States to be engaged in a Manichean life-or-death struggle, the senator did not see communism as an alternative political philosophy.
Instead, it was the banner of an opposing and nefarious force that would stop at nothing to rid the earth of Americanism. In this view, both the standards of evidentiary rigor and those of justice were dispensable luxuries. McCarthy’s approach is thus a textbook example of what historian Richard Hofstadter called, in his 1964 essay of the same name, “the paranoid style in American politics.”
According to Hofstadter, the paranoid style can be distinguished not only by its conspiratorial tone, but by its absolutist framework of good and evil and its penchant for the accumulation of facts buttressed by a “curious leap of imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events.” In this, as in so many aspects, Senator Joe McCarthy serves as a perfect symbol for his time.