Thirty years ago, the Senate voted to condemn Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), ending one of the most bizarre and controversial periods in U.S. history.
McCarthy, according to the resolution of condemnation, had "acted contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity."
McCarthy had stunned the country with charges that communists riddled the fabric of government. He conducted colorful, vituperative, bullying inquiries to gain publicity for the charges.
He immortalized such pejoratives as "com-symp," "bleeding heart," "fellow traveler" and "egghead." He ruined the careers of innocent people, intimidated some of the most powerful figures in America and created a wave of suspicion and fear that extended far beyond the confines of the Senate.
Anyone who opposed him came under attack, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
McCarthy first gained notoriety in 1950 when he announced at a Lincoln Day rally in Wheeling, W.Va., that he held in his hand a list of 205 Communist Party members with important State Department jobs. He later amended that to 205 "bad risks" and 57 "card-carrying Communists," setting off a wave of sensation and recrimination.
Sen. Millard Tydings (D-Md.) investigated McCarthy's charges in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and found the list to be "a fraud and a hoax."
But anticommunist sentiment was strong in America. The communists had triumphed in China, the Soviets had detonated a nuclear bomb, U.S. Communist Party leaders had been convicted of advocating violent overthrow of the federal government, and Alger Hiss, suspected of spying for the Soviet Union while he was a State Department official, had been convicted of perjury in his congressional testimony. Prominent politicians were relucant to criticize McCarthy.
In 1952, McCarthy was named to the Government Operations Committee; he made himself chairman of that panel's permanent investigations subcommittee, which he turned into a vehicle for hunting subversives.
He charged that the State Department's overseas libraries brimmed with communist propaganda, and sent his chief counsel, Roy M. Cohn, and a consultant, G. David Schine, abroad to find the subversive works.
America, in McCarthy's view, had been "reduced to a state of whining, whimpering appeasement."
McCarthy took on the Army and the Defense Department in sensational and widely reported hearings. He said a general who refused to cooperate with his subcommittee was "not fit to wear that uniform" and did not have "the brains of a 5-year-old." Evidence cited in the hearings tended to be slim, outdated or nonexistent, but the simple mention of a government employe's name in connection with the charges could lead to his firing.
In 1954, McCarthy said that a member of the law firm of Joseph Welch, who had been chosen by the Army for its defense, had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, allegedly pro-communist.
"Until this moment," Welch said at the televised hearing, "I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . . Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"
Despite the negative image McCarthy acquired during the hearings, his Senate colleagues continued to fear him. Sen. Ralph E. Flanders (R-Vt.) introduced a resolution calling for censure, backed by Sens. Wayne Morse, then an independent from Oregon, and J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), an early McCarthy critic. Fulbright had voted against funding McCarthy's subcommittee, prompting McCarthy to call him "senator half-bright." During the debate, McCarthy attacked several of his colleagues.
On Dec. 1, 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for abusing members of the elections subcommittee investigating his finances. The following day it voted 67 to 22 to condemn him -- a somewhat weaker term than censure -- for abusing members of the select committee that recommended the action against him.
McCarthy, asked after the second vote if he felt he had been censured, replied: "It wasn't exactly a vote of confidence, but I don't feel I have been lynched."
The condemnation was effective, however. "We just wanted to discredit him," Fulbright said in a recent interview. "We didn't want to preach to him."
Two and a half years later, McCarthy died, apparently of alcoholism, powerless and ignored.
Few involved in the condemnation of McCarthy are alive today. Those who are have not softened their views after three decades.
"He was like a mad dog biting whomever he found," said Fulbright, now in private law practice. "He was a psychological aberration. It's hard to convey now the feelings McCarthy generated. He never proved one allegation, but he created fear in the country, and blackened reputations . . . . When you made out his lies, he just laughed and moved on."
McCarthy was tolerated by his own party for years, Fulbright said, because Republicans were embittered by Thomas E. Dewey's unexpected loss of the presidency in 1948 to Harry S Truman. "They were looking for ways to embarrass the Democrats," he said. "Some very good men encouraged McCarthy . . . . It was always a good gimmick to make out the Democrats as soft on communism."
"I can still see that cartoon face -- the beetle brow and heavy beard," said Carl Marcy, then staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, another McCarthy target. "I want to say he was macho, but I think Neanderthal is better. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles should have protected their foreign-policy people from McCarthy's attacks, but they were afraid to take him on."
McCarthy remains a difficult subject for some conservatives to explain. Cohn, now a Manhattan attorney who appeared on national television during the Army-McCarthy hearings, is not reticent.
"McCarthy represented two primary issues," Cohn said. "One was the shock issue. Having just defeated Hitler, we weren't at peace and living on equal terms with the Soviet Union, but were facing the buildup of another dictatorship. McCarthy was trying to pull Americans away from a sense of security.
"He had to call attention to spying and the infiltration of government. The outstanding examples were the theft of information about the atom bomb, and the State Department files taken by Alger Hiss."
In Cohn's view, McCarthy has been vindicated. "If the Soviet Union was a peaceful nation with free elections, then he would have been proven wrong . . . . Today there are spy cases breaking in this country on almost a daily basis. He was definitely on the right track," he said.
Whether McCarthy believed that the bureaucracy contained communists remains unclear. Cohn insists that he did.
Richard Rovere, a reporter who knew McCarthy, thought he did not. Rovere wrote in Esquire magazine shortly after McCarthy's death in 1957: "McCarthy was a demon, but he was not, to our great good fortune, a man possessed by demons. His talents as a demagogue were great, but he lacked the most necessary and awesome of demagogic gifts -- a belief in the sacredness of his own mission."
McCarthy's hard-drinking fraternization with reporters is legend, as is his thick-skinned response to public critics. Less well known is his puzzlement at the personal outrage occasioned by his attacks, which he considered simple politics.
"We all know that rhetoric is part of politics," Cohn said. "McCarthy had a sense of drama. He might have given too much emphasis to certain points."
Then he added: "I don't think McCarthy gave a damn about the censure. What hurt him was that some of the senators who voted against him would come up to him in private and say they thought it was an outrage."
According to Marcy, one of those senators said of McCarthy at the time, "You know, that s.o.b. was a hell of an interesting person to have in the shower room with you. He was a regular guy."