by David M. Oshinsky
On a rainy February afternoon in 1950, an obscure freshman senator from Wisconsin left his Capitol Hill office to begin a five-city speaking tour on behalf of the Republican National Committee. It was Lincoln's Birthday weekend, traditionally a time for Party dinners and parades. But this particular Republican did not feel much like celebrating. His political career seemed to be on the wane, though he was only 41 years old. A glance at his itinerary that weekend told the story: stops in West Virginia, Utah, Nevada and South Dakota - hardly political showcases.
On the plane down to Wheeling, W.Va., his first stop, the senator went over his speech. Originally he had planned to talk about aid to the elderly, a subject that interested him not at all. But a few days earlier, he had changed his topic to Communists in government, a more newsworthy issue. With the aid of several sympathetic reporters, the senator had slapped together some newspaper clips and tired statistics. Amazingly, the final product would become one of the most quoted documents in modern American history.
Parts of the Wheeling speech, delivered to a women's Republican club on Feb. 9, had been taken word for word from a recent address by a young California Congressman named Richard Nixon. The theme was simple: America, the most powerful country on earth, was losing the cold war, and losing badly, to the forces of "Communist atheism." Why? Because the U.S. State Department, led by Secretary of State Dean Acheson - this pompous diplomat in striped pants - was filled with dupes and traitors who wanted the other side to win.
"The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency," the senator explained, "is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those ... who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer - the finest schools, the finest college educations and the finest jobs in government we can give."
Then the senator dropped his bombshell. "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," he told his audience, "I have here in my hand a list of 205 ... a list of names that were known to the Secretary of State and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department."
The senator had no such list, but the figure 205 was not hard to come by. Four years earlier, in 1946, then Secretary of State James Byrnes had informed Congress of a screening of 3.000 people who worked for the Federal Government. Byrnes noted that damaging information had been uncovered in 284 cases. As of July 1946, only 79 had been discharged, leaving the senator's 205.
By 1950, of course, these figures were meaningless. The senator had no idea how many of the 205 employees had quit or been fired since 1946, nor did he know whether they stood accused of being Communists, Fascists, alcoholics, sex offenders or garden-variety liars. He was simply looking for an issue, a way to jump-start his stalled political career.
In the following days, the senator changed his figures at every stop. On the flight to Utah, he claimed to have the names of 207 "bad risks" in the State Department. Reaching Salt Lake City, he spoke about "57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party." Returning to Washington, he warned against 81 "loyalty risks" in government.
It hardly mattered that the senator was fabricating. What did matter was the amazing public reaction, which turned a forgettable politician into a national phenomenon. Within weeks of his Wheeling address, Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy had emerged as Americas dominant cold war figure - the new yardstick by which citizens measured patriotism. His face adorned the covers of Newsweek and Time. Frenzied newspapers reported each and every uncorroborated charge as if it were gospel. When McCarthy went out in public, people rushed up to shake his hand or to offer words of encouragement. Shouts of "Let 'em have it, Joe" followed him everywhere.
Prominent Republicans rallied to his side. They now viewed McCarthy as the Party's chief alchemist, the man who could turn public fear and distrust into Republican votes. Privately, Senator Robert A. Taft dismissed McCarthy's charges as "nonsense." Yet he urged his colleague to keep on plugging. "If one case doesn't work out," said Taft, "just bring up another."
McCarthy had hit a nerve in the American body politic - a nerve rubbed raw by the Soviet takeovers in Eastern Europe, the Communist victory in China, and the sensational espionage cases involving Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, and Klaus Fuchs, an admitted atomic spy. As Americans searched for explanations for these complicated events, McCarthy provided the simplest answer of all: The real enemy was not in Moscow or Peiping, he thundered, the real enemy lived within us, within our own government, in Washington, D.C.
In an odd way, McCarthy had been preparing for this moment for most of his life. He was born on a small dairy farm near Appleton, Wis., on Nov. 14, 1908. The fifth of seven children, he was best remembered as the boy who couldn't sit still. Joe gulped his food, ran from place to place, labored incessantly and slept only a few hours each night. "He was like any other kid," said brother Howard, "except he was generally three steps ahead of them."
Joe quit school at 14 to raise chickens for profit. Within a year he had a thriving little business with 2,000 hens, 10,000 broilers, a large thicken house and a battered truck. When a bitter cold snap destroyed his entire flock, he returned to high school, crammed four years of course work into two semesters and entered Marquette College, a Jesuit institution, in the fall of l930.
At Marquette, McCarthy was known as a hustler - a brash, reckless fellow who would do almost anything to achieve his ends. He became senior class president after a rugged - some said dishonest - election campaign. He made local headlines as a boxer, nicknamed "Smiling Joe" for his ability to take enormous punishment in stride. And he earned big money as a gambler in the taverns around Milwaukee. "One should play poker with him to really know him," a friend recalled, "but in case you do. it would be my advice to play table stakes or get some big bank to back you. He raises on poor hands and always comes out the winner."
After getting a law degree in l 935, McCarthy moved back to the Appleton area. Almost immediately, he entered - and won - the race for county judge by portraying the respected incumbent as senile and incompetent. Inheriting a bench with a backlog of 250 cases, McCarthy worked feverishly to clear the docket. During his first two months in office, he kept the courtroom open after midnight on 12 separate occasions. His methods aroused both interest and anger. Opponents criticized him for giving "quickie divorces" to political friends, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court censured him for destroying some critical evidence in a bitter price-fixing case.
McCarthy soon tired of his judicial duties, but his plans to run for the U.S. Senate were sidetracked when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Though judges were exempt from military service, he quickly joined the Marines. It would be nice to say that he volunteered for the best of reasons: a strong sense of duty, a hatred of Fascism It would also be untrue. To his thinking. front-line service was an essential prerequisite for young politicians. There was but one rule to remember: You had to survive the war in order to exploit it.
McCarthy served for three years as an intelligence officer in the Pacific, debriefing combat pilots after their bombing runs over Japanese-held islands. His assignment, while hardly dangerous, was vital to the fliers who took the risks and got most of the glory. But McCarthy was not about to be viewed as a small cog in a big machine, not when his political instincts told him that those who came home with military honors would be rewarded at the ballot box. Before long, stories about his military exploits began filtering back to Wisconsin. They portrayed McCarthy as a tail-gunner, flying dangerous missions and spraying more bullets than any other Marine in history. He even claimed to have suffered a war wound when his plane crash-landed on an airstrip.
Almost none of this was true. McCarthy did fly a few safe missions in the tail-gunners seat, strafing coconut trees on islands the Japanese had already abandoned. His "war wound" took place during a hazing incident on board ship. As part of an Equator-crossing ritual, McCarthy was forced to run a gauntlet of paddle-wielding sailors. He slipped, fell down a stairwell and broke his foot.
McCarthy exploited his war record in typical fashion. In 1944 he spoke of 14 bombing runs; in 1947 the figure rose to 17; in 1951 it peaked at 32. He demanded - and received - an Air Medal, four stars, and the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for 25 missions in combat. Honors poured in from the American Legion, the Gold Star Mothers and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In 1946 McCarthy entered Wisconsin's Republican senatorial primary. His opponent was Robert M. LaFollette Jr., a three-term senator who belonged to one of the state's leading political families. Having no political record to run on, the young challenger bragged about his war exploits and berated LaFollette, then 5 l, for having failed to enlist. His campaign fliers read: "TODAY JOE McCarthy IS HOME. He wants to SERVE America in the SENATE. Yes, folks, CONGRESS NEEDS A TAIL-GUNNER."
McCarthy edged LaFollette by 5,000 votes. A few months later he won the general election as part of a G.O.P. land-slide that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in l 8 years.
As a freshman senator, McCarthy was known mainly for his raucous behavior. Angry colleagues accused him of lying, of manipulating figures and of disregarding the Senates most cherished traditions. By 1950 his political career was in deep trouble. He was up for re-election in 1952, and most analysts expected him to lose. Then came Wheeling.
President Harry Truman was furious at McCarthy's charges. He viewed the Senator as a shameless publicity hound who would say anything to make headlines. In a personal letter to Vice President Alben Barkley, Truman wrote that McCarthy's behavior reminded him of an old fable about a mad dog who went around biting people. To deter him, the dog's master placed a clog around the dog's neck. Even though the clog was a badge of dishonor, the dog foolishly viewed it as a medal. The moral, Truman concluded, was that some men "mistake notoriety for fame, and would rather be remarked for their vices and follies than not be noticed at all."
Truman was right about McCarthy, yet helpless to stop him. The Senator's main strength, after all, was the President's greatest threat: Communism. The first months of 1950 had been difficult for Truman, but June brought the worst news of all. Communist North Korea invaded non-Communist South Korea. Within weeks American troops were involved in the fighting, which would shortly include the Red Chinese.
The Korean War gave McCarthy even greater momentum. For the first time, Americans were battling Communist soldiers. The reaction was frightening. Air raid drills, including simulated bombings of American cities, became the order of the day. In school practice drills, students were taught to dive under their desks and shield their eyes against atomic blasts. In New York, school officials distributed metal "dog tags." ("If a bomb gets me in the street," a first-grader explained, "people will know what my name is.") In Washington, a typical real estate ad read, "Small farm - out beyond the atomic blasts." Mayor Mike DiSalle of Toledo, Ohio, tried to calm worried residents by joking that he would build large neon signs directing Communist pilots to Cleveland and Detroit.
Kidding aside, by 1952 McCarthy had become, in Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's words, "the most formidable presence in American life." As elections approached that year, McCarthy's attacks grew more strident. He called Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall a traitor, mocked Acheson as the "Red Dean of Fashion" and described President Truman as a drunkard, adding: "The son of a bitch should be impeached." During the election campaign itself, McCarthy claimed, falsely, that the Communist Daily Worker had endorsed Stevenson for President. At several points, McCarthy made the ugly, intentional slip, "Alger - I mean Adlai." And so it went.
McCarthy was easily re-elected in 1952. With Republicans retaining control of Congress, he was offered the chairmanship of a relatively innocuous Senate committee, known as Government Operations. McCarthy eagerly accepted. He realized that Government Operations had a Permanent Subcommittee on investigations with the stated (although little-used) authority to scrutinize "government activities at all levels."
McCarthy moved quickly. As chairman, he could hire staffers, hold hearings, issue subpoenas, threaten contempt-of-Congress citations and issue final reports. For the position of chief counsel he chose Roy Marcus Cohn, a slick, abrasive young lawyer from New York. Together they investigated "Communist influence" throughout the Federal bureaucracy, from the bookshelves of the State Department's overseas libraries to the Hebrew radio broadcasts at the Voice of America. McCarthy's hearings didn't uncover any Communists, but they did ruin many careers and undermine the morale of countless Federal workers.
The worst damage was done to the U. S. Army. In the fall of 1953, Cohn and McCarthy virtually paralyzed the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N . J., by claiming that a spy ring was in operation there. More than 40 engineers were suspended as "security risks." One was charged with signing a nominating petition for a Socialist candidate in 1940. Another had a relative who once belonged to the American Labor Party, a left-wing anti-Communist organization. Still another was accused of a "close and continuing association" with his brother, who had "attended a rally at Yankee Stadium in 1948 at which Paul Robeson spoke."
McCarthy wasn't finished. An adroit manipulator of the press (he timed his announcements to newspaper deadlines so that reporters would not have time to check his facts), he made daily headlines by accusing the Army of "coddling Communists" within its ranks. At one point, he browbeat a decorated officer for "shielding" a "Red" dentist at Camp Kilmer, N.J. "You should be removed from your command," McCarthy told Gen. Ralph W. Zwicker. "Any man. .
who protects Communists is not fit to wear that uniform."
Until this point, President Eisenhower had tried to ignore McCarthy's charges. There was no doubt that he despised the Senator; in private, a friend observed, Ike "would go up in an utter blaze over him." Still, the new President believed that a direct attack on McCarthy was not worth the obvious risks. It might split the Republicans down the middle, some for Ike, others for Joe. And battling McCarthy was a dirty business, sure to soil the White House itself. In the Presidents words, "I just will not - I refuse - to get into the gutter with that guy."
Ike changed his mind after the attack on General Zwicker. He could not bear the thought of continued assaults upon his favorite institution. McCarthy had attacked the one target guaranteed to pit the Republican White House against him.
Early in 1954, the Senate decided to investigate charges that McCarthy and Cohn had sought special privileges for a young committee staffer named G. David Schine, who had been drafted. At Ike's insistence, Republican leaders agreed to televise the daily hearings.
The President knew that McCarthy had done poorly in his previous TV appearances. The cameras seemed to capture his true personality in ways the printed word could not. A few months earlier, Edward R. Murrow had savaged McCarthy by airing selected clips of the Senator in action - browbeating witnesses, slandering public figures, giggling uncontrollably, belching and picking his nose. At the end of the See It Now broadcast, Murrow issued his now-famous call to conscience. "This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent," he said. "We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result." He concluded with Shakespearean eloquence. "Cassius was right," he told his viewers. " 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.' Good night and good luck. "
The Army-McCarthy hearings were viewed by up to 80 million Americans over 36 days; at times they were painful to watch. The Senator's windy speeches, his endless interruptions, his frightening outbursts, his crude personal attacks - all gave evidence of a man out of control. The highlight of the hearings came on the afternoon of June 9, when McCarthy questioned the loyalty of a young lawyer who had worked on the staff of Army Counsel Joseph Welch. "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch responded in a voice rich with sorrow. "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" The gallery burst into applause. The hearings continued, but McCarthy's influence was spent.
A few months later, the Senate censured McCarthy for "conduct ... contrary to the senatorial traditions." The vote was 67-22, with only Republican conservatives opposed. Many viewed the vote as a sign of political sanity; from that point forward, McCarthy's life disintegrated - quite literally - at a wicked rate of speed. The press now ignored him, and his political influence disappeared. When he rose to speak in the Senate, his colleagues drifted from the floor. Shunned and humiliated, he spent his final days drinking (he had long been a heavy drinker) and railing bitterly against those. who had deserted his cause.
During the 1956 campaign, McCarthy appeared, uninvited, at a dinner for Vice President Nixon in a Milwaukee hotel. He lurched into the ballroom, approached the dais and took a seat at the end of the table. At this point, a newsman recalled, a dignitary approached McCarthy and asked him to leave - which he did, without saying a word. The newsman followed him outside. He found McCarthy sitting in an alley, crying like a little boy. The Senator died of acute alcoholism on May 2, 1957. He was 48 years old.
Every year, on the anniversary of his death, a small crowd gathers at St. Mary's Cemetery in McCarthy's hometown of Appleton to honor the memory of Tail-Gunner Joe. The people are well past middle age; their numbers are dwindling, yet they think that history will one day treat their hero well. "By God, there were Communists by the thousands in the Government," says Thomas Bergen, who runs the Senator Joseph R. McCarthy Foundation from his home. "People just refused to listen. They were bamboozled by the Communist tyranny."
But most Appleton residents would rather forget about McCarthy. His name and the term "McCarthyism" have come to stand for political repression, witch hunts, blacklists and loyalty oaths. There is even talk of removing his bronze bust from the Outagamie County Courthouse, where the Senator began his public career as circuit judge 50 years ago. Ask an Appletonian about the town's most notable citizen and he will likely name Eric Weiss, not Joe McCarthy. Weiss, too, was known for sleight of hand and reckless behavior. His stage name was Harry Houdini.
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This story has been fetched from the magazine "Memories" - Feb/March 1990.
David M Oshinsky is the author of "A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy." (1983)
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