The term McCarthyism is generally used to refer to a specific period in American history during which an ever present system of political repression reached its apogee. This specific period, the decade of the 1950s, was actually much broader than is usually understood in terms of anticommunist hysteria. Many of the mechanisms to ferret out and punish alleged communists or subversives had been in place since at least the 1930s. The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been created in 1938 under the leadership of Texas congressman Martin Dies and had given rise to a young anticommunist attorney named Richard M. Nixon. By 1950, then, many elected officials had garnered substantial political capital based largely on this issue. On February 9, 1950, however, an obscure senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, delivered a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that assured his legacy as perhaps the leading exponent of America's second Red Scare.
Senator McCarthy, like a number of others, recognized that his chances for reelection in 1952 would improve immeasurably if he wrapped himself in such a viable issue as seeking out and removing communists from American life. The young senator proved willing to go further than many others in exploiting the popular fear and hysteria surrounding this issue. During his famous speech in February 1950, McCarthy declared that the U.S. State Department was infested with communists loyal to the Soviet Union. Further, he claimed to have in his possession a list of their names. Though the numbers on this list, which no one saw, varied from 205 to 81 to 57, or simply “a lot,” neither the public nor McCarthy's colleagues dared challenge his assertions.
America, following the summer of 1950, was at war with communists to keep the Korean peninsula divided; Germany had been formally divided following the Berlin Airlift episode only two years earlier; and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union ran especially high at this time. More alarming, the communist revolution had succeeded in China in the previous year.
McCarthy's views, and indeed his actions, were not out of step with the times. Passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act (1950), referred to by President Harry Truman as “a long step toward totalitarianism” and passed over his veto, made it illegal to “combine, conspire, or agree with any other person to perform any act which would substantially contribute to … the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship.” One provision of the act, which came under the control of the Subversive Activities Control Board, required all communist organizations to register as such with the federal government.
McCarthy, prompted by some to actually demonstrate his wild claims, produced in the spring of 1950 Owen Lattimore, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Though the allegation that Lattimore headed a State Department communist spy ring was dismissed as a “fraud and a hoax,” McCarthy enjoyed greater publicity following the investigation. The outbreak of the Korean War that summer only further emboldened the senator and fueled the anticommunist hysteria, which continued throughout the war.
McCarthy enjoyed such influence that he began to cast his net even wider in search of communists. This search eventually led him to accuse such prominent figures as Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George Marshall of disloyalty to the United States. These charges culminated in the now-famous Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. The hearings were broadcast via the media of television, which was in its infancy in the 1950s. An estimated twenty million Americans viewed this temporary diversion from regular daytime programming. For over a month during the summer the Senate hosted a set of hearings before which McCarthy and his investigating team berated witness after witness. McCarthy eventually proved to be his own undoing. As he badgered and maligned the character of a young man not directly involved in the case, the opposing counsel finally refused to respond to further questioning on the matter, saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” The packed courtroom, including about one hundred reporters, broke into applause. McCarthy continued his tirade as viewers looked on.
The Army-McCarthy hearings produced nothing from the many allegations. McCarthy never uncovered a single communist working within the U.S. government to subvert it. By the end of June his approval rating had fallen to thirty-four percent from fifty-four percent in January. He had begun to drink heavily and sleep in his office. He looked increasingly disheveled and unkempt as the hearings ground to a close. The senator seemed not to understand what had happened, that his time had come and gone. His Senate colleagues had already begun to move against him and on December 2, 1954, voted to officially censure him. But, as one of his fellow senators made clear, “We have condemned the individual, but we have not yet repudiated the 'ism.'” Indeed, McCarthyism well outlived its namesake. McCarthy was held up in 1954 as an aberration. By formally censuring him, the Senate made him a scapegoat for the excesses. The proceedings illustrated the capacity of America's institutions to protect the people and the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Presidents Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon made careers for themselves based in large part on their vehement opposition to communism. Truman's Executive Order 9835 required that the Justice Department prepare a list of all “subversive” groups in the United States. Some groups that made the list included the Chopin Cultural Center, the Cervantes Fraternal Society, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the Committee for the Protection of the Bill of Rights, the League of American Writers, the Nature Friends of America, and so on. Kennedy explicitly blamed the “White House and the Department of State” for “losing” China. He said in a speech in the House of Representatives, “This House must now assume the responsibility of preventing the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all of Asia.” For Johnson's part, he fought an excessively costly and devastating war in Southeast Asia over the issue and charged that the antiwar movement at home was led and manipulated by communists.
The anticommunist hysteria that became labeled McCarthyism continued and continues to shape political discourse in the United States. McCarthy's antics were only the most visible aspect of the crusade to end communism. A much broader and probably more effective movement across the country ruined thousands of lives and careers of teachers, writers, actors, public servants, and ordinary citizens. It also effectively destroyed the Communist Party in the country as an organizing tool for working people. Leftist politics in general retreated from an earlier activism as many people became involved in personal self-defense. Issues such as racial equality, gender equality, and economic justice were abandoned. Many groups and individuals began to discipline themselves and purged their own ranks to avoid persecution. Not until the mid- to late 1960s was the Left reinvigorated and, even then, it could be brought to heel through “red baiting,” or accusations of affiliation with communism.
McCarthyism has come to represent a phenomenon much broader than either the senator from Wisconsin or the decade of the 1950s. The term finds common usage within the nation's political discourse even today. No longer referring specifically to a communist or socialist witch-hunt, the term has been employed to denote a more general repression, such as “sexual McCarthyism.” Ultimately, Joseph McCarthy merely lent his name to a term that survives because of its utility for describing such episodes.
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