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Joseph McCarthy
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Joseph McCarthy

This article is about the Senator Joseph McCarthy. For other people with the same name, see Joseph McCarthy (disambiguation).

Joseph Raymond "Joe" McCarthy (November 15, 1908 - May 2, 1957) was a United States Republican Senator for the state of Wisconsin from 1947 - 1957. He and his staff members became notorious for aggressive accusations and witch hunts against Communists and suspected Communists in the US government and entertainment industry. His controversial actions resulted in the word "McCarthyism", which specifically described the intense anti-communist movement that occurred in America from around 1948 to the mid-1950s, when people in the media, in the motion picture industry, politics, the military and elsewhere suspected on disputed evidence of communist sympathies were subjected to what were regarded by many as aggressive witchhunts. The term McCarthyism has since come to mean a government witchhunt seeking to punish unapproved thoughts or political stances.

Table of contents
1 McCarthy's early career
2 Senator
3 Anti-Communist crusade
4 Fall of McCarthy
5 Vindicated
6 Additional reading
7 External links

McCarthy's early career

McCarthy was born on a farm in the town of Grand Chute, Wisconsin. He worked his way through a law degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee from 1930 to 1935, and was admitted to the bar in 1935. While working in a law firm in the town of Shawano, he launched an unsuccessful campaign to become District Attorney as a Democrat in 1936. In 1939, he campaigned successfully for election as a circuit judge.

In 1942, shortly after the United States joined the Second World War, McCarthy took a commission as a lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, although his judicial office would have exempted him from compulsory service. He saw combat as an observer and gunner on bombing missions in the South Pacific. This earned him the handle "Tailgunner Joe".

He campaigned for the Republican Senate nomination in Wisconsin while still on active duty in 1944, but was easily defeated by incumbent Alexander Wiley. After resigning his commission in April 1945 and being re-elected unopposed to his circuit court position, he began a much more systematic campaign for the 1946 Senate election, challenging the other Wisconsin incumbent, Robert M. La Follette, Jr. McCarthy enjoyed the support of the state party organization, and won the nomination narrowly. He easily defeated his Democratic Party opponent in the election.


As a first-term senator, McCarthy was unremarkable, and his voting record was conservative but not entirely in line with party policy. He was hungry for popular and media attention, however, and made a large number of speeches to many different organisations, covering a wide range of topics. His most notable early campaigns were for housing legislation and against sugar rationing. His national profile rose meteorically after his speech of February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia.

McCarthy's exact words in the speech are a matter of some dispute, as they were not reliably recorded at the time, the media presence being minimal. It is generally agreed, however, that he produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of known communists working for the State Department. One version of the speech reports his words as "I have in my hand a list of 205 cases of individuals who appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party." McCarthy himself stated that he referred to 57 known communists, the number 205 referring to the number of people employed by the state department who, for various security reasons, should not be. The exact number stated became a matter of some moment when it was used as the basis of an accusation of perjury against Senator McCarthy.

There was indeed a State Department document which listed employees over whom there were various concerns, not merely related to loyalty but also including issues such as drunkenness and incompetence. The effect of McCarthy's speech, however, in a nation already worried by the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union in Europe and alarmed by the trial of Alger Hiss, which was in progress as McCarthy made his speech, was electric. McCarthy himself was taken aback at the massive media response to the speech, and continually revised both his charges and his figures over the following days, a characteristic feature of his method of operation. In Salt Lake City a few days later he cited a figure of 57, and in the Senate on February 20 he claimed 81. He made a marathon speech discussing all these cases in detail, but the evidence for many was tenuous or non-existent; nevertheless, the impact of the speech was considerable. The Senate convened the Tydings committee to examine the charges, which eventually found them to be groundless. Against an effective demagogue such as McCarthy, however, this was ineffective; he simply reformulated his charges slightly and continued making them both in the Senate and to the press.

Anti-Communist crusade

From 1950 to 1953 McCarthy continued to press his accusations that the government was failing to deal with communism within its ranks, while his overnight stardom gave him a powerful national following and a source of considerable income. His finances were investigated by a senate panel in 1952; its report cited questionable behaviour in his campaigns and irregularities in his finances, but found no grounds for legal action. He married Jean Kerr, a researcher in his office, on September 29, 1953.

After the Republican electoral triumph of 1953 - a triumph his charges assisted; it is probable that the defeat of more than one Democratic candidate for national office in 1953 was due at least in part to accusations against him by McCarthy - the party leadership, recognising his immense popularity and his value as a stick with which to beat liberal Democrats, appointed him chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. His unreliability and evasiveness, however, meant he was never completely trusted by the party (and particularly by President Dwight Eisenhower).

His committee, unlike the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, focused on government institutions. It first made an investigation into bureaucracy at Voice of America, then forced the withdrawal of supposedly pro-communist literature from the State Department overseas information library. Meanwhile, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist influence within the government, notwithstanding the fact that it was now a Republican government. This angered Eisenhower. He was not willing to oppose McCarthy publicly due to his continuing popularity, but he now considered McCarthy a dangerous loose cannon and began behind-the-scenes work to remove him from his position of influence.

McCarthy accused Johns Hopkins University professor Owen Lattimore of being the number one Soviet spy in the United States.

Fall of McCarthy

In the fall of 1953, McCarthy's committee began its ill-fated inquiry into the United States Army. It attempted to uncover a spy ring in the Army Signal Corps, but failed. The committee came to focus its attention on an Army dentist, Irving Peress, who took the Fifth Amendment twenty times under sustained questioning. Peress was accused of recruiting military personnel into the Communist Party. It is known for certain that Peress refused to answer questions on Defense Department forms concerning membership in "subversive organizations", and that the Army Surgeon General had recommended his dismissal early in 1953. McCarthy expressed serious concerns that Peress had not been discharged after that recommendation, but instead had been promoted to the rank of Major.

In examining this latter question, Senator McCarthy brought hostile media attention upon himself concerning his treatment of General Ralph W. Zwicker. Among other things, McCarthy compared Zwicker's intelligence to that of a "five-year-old child", and stated that Zwicker was "not fit to wear the uniform of a General." Early in 1954, the Army accused Senator McCarthy and his assistant, Roy Cohn, of pressuring the Army to give favourable treatment to another former aide and friend of Cohn's, G. David Schine. McCarthy claimed that the accusation was made in bad faith, in retaliation for his questioning of Zwicker the previous year.

Upon his ascension, McCarthy essentially re-staffed his Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, often not dismissing the predecessor. One noted figure was Roy Cohn. Mr. Cohn was known for his zealous prosecution of William Remington (a former Commerce Department employee whom he convicted of perjury relating to his membership in the Communist party), Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and a trial of the top Communist Party leaders in the U.S. Some interpret the 1995 release of the Venona transcripts as proving that both Remington and the Rosenbergs were working for the Soviets, others do not agree, and believe Venona actually exonerates at least one of the Rosenbergs.

When McCarthy appointed him to serve as subcommittee counsel, Cohn, a brash 26-year-old prosecutor with no legislative experience, continued to perform as if he were a prosecutor rather than grand jury. Cohn tended to be uninclined to hold the hearing in open forums. This mixed well with McCarthy's preference for holding "executive sessions" and "off-the-record" sessions far away from the Capitol in order to minimize public scrutiny and question witnesses. Cohn, though chosen in part to avoid accusations of an anti-semitic motivation for the investigations, was given free rein in pursuit of investigations. McCarthy would come to admit in regards to Cohn that "putting a young man in charge of other men doesn't work out too well."

Several noted persons resigned from the committee fairly early into McCarthy's administration of it, including Robert F. Kennedy, who literally came to blows with Roy Cohn. These resignations lead to the appointment of B. Matthews as executive director. Matthews was a former member of several "Communist-front" organizations, in which he claimed to have joined more than any other American. However, when he fell out of favor with the radical groups of the 30s, he became a fervent anti-Communist. Matthews was an ordained Methodist Minister and was therefore often referred to as a "Doctor Matthews" though he held no degree. Matthews later resigned due to a portrayal of Communist sympathy in the nation's protestant clergy in a paper called "Reds in Our Churches" which outraged several senators. Through this however McCarthy maintained control of the subcommittee and whom it employed or chose not to. This resulted in several more resignations.

The Senate voted 65 to 22 on December 2, 1954 to condemn McCarthy for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."

Although it is certainly true that the ultimate downfall of McCarthy was his investigations into the Army, it is worth noting that several members of the U.S. Senate opposed McCarthy well before 1953. One example is U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican (and the only woman in the Senate at the time) who delivered her "Declaration of Conscience" on June 1, 1950, condemning McCarthy's tactics without mentioning him by name (as required by the rules of the Senate). Six fellow senators joined her in condemning McCarthy's tactics.

One of the most prominent attacks on McCarthy's methods came in an episode of the TV documentary series See it Now, by respected journalist Edward R. Murrow, which was broadcast on March 9, 1954. Most of the show were just clips of McCarthy speaking, so any negative reaction would be mostly from McCarthy hanging himself as it were. In the clips McCarthy does such things as accuse the Democratic party of "twenty years of treason" (1933-1953, in his estimation), and berate witnesses including an Army general.

The Murrow report sparked off a nationwide popular opinion backlash against McCarthy, which the Senator tried to counter by appearing on the show himself. McCarthy appeared on See It Now about three weeks after the original episode, where he made a number of personal attacks and charges against Murrow. However, his method of delivery had been designed for a live audience, not a nationwide broadcast one; the result of this appearance was a further decline in his popularity.

McCarthy had always been a heavy drinker, one of the things that had helped him develop amicable relationships with many members of the press. His discrediting in the Senate seems to have caused anger and depression which turned his heavy drinking into full-scale alcoholism. This seems to have aggravated his existing weak health, and caused serious diseases. He finally died of acute hepatitis in Bethesda Naval Hospital on May 2, 1957 and was buried in the St. Mary Cemetery, Appleton, Wisconsin. He was survived by his wife Jean and their adopted daughter Tierney.


In 1995, when Venona transcripts were declassified, it was learned that regardless of the specific number, McCarthy consistently underestimated the extent of Soviet espionage. Venona specifically references at least 349 people in the United States--including citizens, immigrants, and permanent residents--who cooperated in various ways with Soviet intelligence agencies.

It is generally believed that McCarthy had no access to Venona intelligence, deriving his information from other sources. Venona does confirm that some individuals investigated by McCarthy were indeed Soviet agents. For example, Mary Jane Keeney was identified by McCarthy simply as "a communist"; in fact she and her husband were both Soviet agents. Another individual named by McCarthy was Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to President Roosevelt. He was confirmed by Venona to be a Soviet Agent. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were also proven to be Soviet spies, contrary to the popular belief that they were innocent victims of what has come to be known as "McCarthyism."

Additional reading

External links

Defenses of McCarthy

Critics of McCarthy

Preceded by:
Robert M. La Follette, Jr
U.S. Senators from Wisconsin Succeeded by:
William Proxmire