The politician at the center of the drama was Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin who claimed that communist agents had penetrated the highest levels of the U.S. government, often with the connivance of Democrats under presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
He was boorish, rude and apparently unafraid of saying whatever came into his mind. He called Democrats “the party of treason.” He likened efforts to investigate him to “a lynch session.” He railed against “the opposition press.”
Following months of increasing political turmoil, the Senate passed a formal resolution of censure on Dec. 2, 1954, its strongest condemnation short of expulsion. Unlike impeachment, the measure allowed McCarthy to remain in office, but it also marked the beginning of the end: McCarthy, disgraced and battling the effects of alcoholism, died less than three years later.
To those who believed in him, McCarthy was a true patriot and anti-communist crusader who wasn’t afraid to name names. To those who despised him, he had become a danger to the very republic he was supposedly trying to defend — what one former New York Times columnist would describe as perhaps “the most destructive demagogue in American history.”
His last name became synonymous with witch hunts, and it’s still tossed around. President Trump trotted out the phrase to describe the counterintelligence operation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign. Opinion writers have compared Trump and his tactics — or those of his opponents — to McCarthyism. Critics have noted that one of Trump’s mentors and family attorneys was the late Roy Cohn, who served as McCarthy’s chief counsel during his investigations.
The story of McCarthy’s rise and fall has become almost mythic — and, like all myths, distorted by persistent inaccuracies, such as the belief that his downfall came only after trusted CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow denounced him. The history of McCarthy has also been shaped and reshaped with new research.
The release of declassified transcripts from the Venona Project in the 1990s — a top-secret U.S. program that decoded Soviet intelligence agency communications beginning in the 1940s — confirmed the existence of spies in the State Department, Treasury and White House and within the Manhattan Project, which the United States led to create the first nuclear weapon. So did newly opened archives when the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Vile as his methods were, he was right about a significant threat to American life,” Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University, wrote in the New Republic.
But others said it wasn’t news that communist sympathizers and agents had penetrated the U.S. government or operated undercover in other institutions. The problem was that McCarthy often chose the wrong targets and impugned people based on lies and exaggerations — arguably hindering the very effort to counter Soviet subversion.
“What set him apart was his enthusiasm for lying on a grand scale,” David Oshinsky, a professor of history and medicine at New York University, wrote in a New York Times op-ed. Oshinsky’s 1983 biography of the senator is also the basis of “McCarthy: Power Feeds on Fear,” a two-hour PBS documentary that premiered Monday on the “American Experience.”
McCarthy skyrocketed from obscurity as a first-term senator with a fiery Lincoln Day address before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, W.V., on Feb. 9, 1950. He accused the Truman administration of ignoring widespread communist infiltration of the State Department.
“I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy in the State Department,” McCarthy was quoted as saying.
It was an explosive accusation at a dangerous time. The Iron Curtain had already come down on Europe following World War II. The Soviet Union had exploded an atomic weapon. Mao Zedong and the Red Army had taken over in China.
McCarthy’s speech wasn’t the first time an American politician called for investigations into possible communist subversion. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been around since 1938.
But McCarthy launched his red-hunting mission with relentless zeal and the sort of tactics that led one of his supporters to call him an “alley fighter.” He went after low-level bureaucrats and he went after Washington’s most powerful, including Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and even Gen. George C. Marshall. McCarthy accused the Army’s former chief of staff of working in concert with Moscow.
McCarthy used hearsay, insinuation and guilt by association to smear people, ruining careers and upending lives. The dean of Harvard Law School said McCarthy had become “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.”
Millions of Americans would finally see McCarthy in action during the Army-McCarthy hearings, which were shown on television. The proceedings convened in April 1954 to examine competing claims: The Army said McCarthy had sought preferential treatment for a former aide who had been drafted; McCarthy accused the Army of cooking up the allegation as payback for his investigations into the military organization.
A single dramatic exchange seemed to distill McCarthy’s image as a bully. It concerned a young lawyer who had been selected to join the Army’s legal staff during the hearings but was let go because of his previous association with the National Lawyers Guild, an organization identified by the U.S. attorney general as a communist front. The lawyer’s dismissal had previously been reported in the New York Times.
Army counsel Joseph Welch assailed McCarthy during the televised hearing for calling attention to the young man anew.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never fully grasped your cruelty or your recklessness,” Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
In the end, it wasn’t Welch or Murrow who brought down McCarthy. McCarthy set in motion his own destruction by attacking President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Republican administration. Behind the scenes, Eisenhower helped engineer the effort to rebuke McCarthy.
The issue divided the country. Nearly two dozen prominent Americans from Hollywood, Wall Street, academia, religion and publishing issued an open letter urging the Senate to take action against McCarthy for an “abuse of power” that threatened the constitutional order. Republicans called for a filibuster. The public split 5-4 in favor of censure.
There was even a moment of high drama on the day the Senate took up the censure resolution: Pro-McCarthy petitions arrived from New York in an armored truck accompanied by guards who drew their revolvers in the Capitol plaza.
“A lieutenant of the Capitol Police ordered the three guards on the armored truck to put their revolvers back in their holsters,” the New York Times reported.
McCarthy was combative, too, saying the Senate committee investigating him and recommending censure had “done the work of the Communist Party” as its “unwitting handmaiden.”
The final vote on Dec. 2, 1954, included all 44 Democrats present, plus Sen. Wayne Morse, an independent from Oregon. Republicans split, with 22 voting for censure and 22 voting against.
Afterward, McCarthy appeared unfazed.
“I feel no different tonight than last night,” he told reporters. “I’m very happy to have this circus over with and get back to the work of digging out Communists, corruption [and] treason in Government, and I’ll start up again Monday after 10 months of enforced inaction.”
A month later, however, McCarthy’s power was gone. Democrats, who regained control of the Senate, removed him from his committee chairmanships.