Analysis and View of McCarthyism. The Life of Joseph McCarthy

Pre-University Paper, 2001

32 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Free online reading

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Life of Joseph McCarthy
2.1. McCarthy’s life before his senatorial election (1908- 1946)
2.2. McCarthy’s rise to and height of power (1946- 1953)
2.3. McCarthy’s downfall (1953- 1957)

3. Analysis of McCarthyism
3.1. McCarthy as a victim of the system
3.2. The system as a victim of McCarthy

4. View of McCarthyism as an event of mass-hysteria

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In 1953 Arthur Miller wrote his play The Crucible “to reflect the anti-Communist hysteria inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy”[1], a “witch-hunt” later labeled as McCarthyism. But what was McCarthyism, which had inspired Miller to write his play? In today’s textbooks it is impossible to find a clear definition of McCarthyism though many have tried. Ellen Schrecker postulates that “it was the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history”[2]. Today McCarthyism stands, depending on one’s political and moral beliefs, on one hand for “whatever is illiberal, repressive, reactionary, obscurantist, anti- intellectual, totalitarian, or merely swinish”[3] on the other for “militant patriotism”3. Yet a question of higher importance and of larger proportion is why McCarthyism had occurred. Was it as Robert Griffith sums it up that “both McCarthy and McCarthyism can be understood as products of the normal operation of American political parties”[4] or had it happened because McCarthy “was in many ways the most gifted demagogue ever bred on these shores”3 ? Was McCarthyism really inevitable, something unavoidable due to the American political system or was it just another mass-hysteria event in history or was it maybe a combination of both? To answer this question one has to look into the life of Senator McCarthy and at the political atmosphere during his time.

Since the Great Depression the Republicans had lost a great amount of power because the president who had failed to stop the economic downfall had been Herbert C. Hoover, a Republican. The next president was to become the first president for three terms – Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat. His New Deal program and his liberal ideas led to unrest within the reactionary right-wing forces. Groups such as American Action, the American Liberty League or the Committee for Constitutional Government appealed to capitalists, big business owners, fascists and other right-wing elements. These groups advertised anti-liberal, anti-socialistic and anti-communistic propaganda to change American politics. It was a huge propaganda effort and “all that was needed was the catalyst – the man – and he was there, too, ready to step to front and center stage”[5] – Joseph Raymond McCarthy.

2. The Life of Joseph McCarthy

2.1. McCarthy’s life before his senatorial election (1908- 1946)

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Picture 1: McCarthy (on the right) with two of his three brothers

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born as the youngest of four sons on the 14th of November in 1908 on his family’s farm in Grand Chute Township, Wisconsin. Already in his early years McCarthy had to work on his father’s farm and only went to school until eighth grade. He then decided to start his own chicken farm, which soon went bankrupt through some unlucky circumstances. At the age of nineteen Joe McCarthy became the manager of a grocery store in Manawa. He recognized that his educational handicap would restrict him from ever achieving anything great in life, so he decided to go back to high school. Here McCarthy, about whom it is said that “he seemed always to be trying to outwork and outdo everybody else”[6], crammed four years of high school into one and received his diploma.

Next McCarthy gave up his managerial position to study engineering at Marquette University. But he soon switched to studying law and received his LL. B. (law degree) in 1935. After finishing college he opened his own law firm in Waupaca. When Mike G. Eberlein, a Republican lawyer, asked McCarthy if he wanted to join his firm in Shawano, he closed his office, since he did not have many clients, and joined Eberlein. At that time McCarthy “was a shouting Democrat”[7] which was the reason for Eberlein hiring him because he felt the need to balance out his law firm politically. In 1939 Eberlein attacked his “one supreme ambition”[8] to become a circuit court judge. McCarthy who had no political ambition until then decided to run against his partner for the judgeship. Eberlein soon put his campaign to an end and McCarthy started a vicious and ferocious campaign attacking his present main opponent the residing Judge Edgar V. Werner. McCarthy’s ruthless twenty-hour a day campaign ended with him winning the election for the judgeship even though “he was probably the least qualified lawyer in the district to aspire a judgeship”[9].

Since McCarthy’s political aspirations had become even larger, he joined the Marines in June of 1942 to propel his political career. During his time throughout the Pacific his nickname “Tail Gunner Joe” was coined even though he never flew in any combat missions. During his times as a Marine McCarthy was an intelligence officer and never in any real danger but this was not the way he relayed his time in service to the public. He managed to adorn all facts about his military stints and people truly believed he was a hero in the war against Japan.

With all this publicity as support McCarthy decided to run for Senate against the Republican Senator Alexander Wiley. Yet in doing so Judge Joe McCarthy violated military regulations which prohibited anyone in the armed forces to run for public office, as well as the State law of Wisconsin which also barred any judge from running for any public office. Nevertheless McCarthy started his campaign in 1946 because “he recognized ‘truth and justice’ only when they served his ends”[9]. McCarthy was never found guilty when charged of breaking Wisconsin State law because the court decided it was a one-time event and nobody would ever do this again. His campaigning tactics remained the same, however Wiley was too tough a challenge for McCarthy and he lost the election. Regardless of his defeat the election had made him a well-known man in Wisconsin and he planned to run for a seat in the Senate two years later.

The man to defeat here was the Republican Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr., who, like McCarthy, had decided it would be impossible to ride “to fame on the back of a donkey”[10] and had switched parties from the Democrats to the Republican in 1942. The campaign against LaFollette was as tough as against Wiley because he too had a good name and had served the state well. However McCarthy was determined to win this time and he only needed to win in the primary given the fact that defeating the democratic opponent Professor Howard J. McMurray would be an easier task to finish. McCarthy now already known statewide started attacking LaFollette viciously and for the first time used his communist accusations to assault LaFollette. In the end McCarthy won the primary on a very close call and went on to subdue McMurray in the senatorial election, whom McCarthy had also labeled as communistically inclined. The ironic part was that McCarthy received the labor vote in the primaries, “which was dominated by Communists”[11]. His goal, for the moment, was complete – Joseph McCarthy had achieved his senatorship in 1946.

2.1 McCarthy’s rise to and height of power (1946- 1953)

When McCarthy came to Washington in 1946 he was an unknown senator from Wisconsin. In his first few years McCarthy supported special interest groups and firms such as Pepsi- Cola, Lustron, a company which built houses, and other wealthy capitalists. McCarthy received money by these lobbyists to vote against certain bills and regulations, which would place heavy restrictions on his financial devotees concerning their profit increase. A great number of bills he voted for or against disadvantaged a lot of his less wealthy supporters in Wisconsin. He also defended the Nazis for their slaughtering at Malmédy because several fascist and racist enthusiasts had given McCarthy donations to promote their cause.

Since he was not a very popular senator at that time McCarthy decided he needed something “that would appeal to the voters of Wisconsin”[12] due to the fact he would be up for reelection in two years. So on January 7th, 1950 McCarthy met with three friends to decide on a theme to use for his reelection. After discussing a variety of subjects Father Edmund Walsh, an all-out anti-Communist, brought up the subject of communist subversion. McCarthy liked the idea so much since he had already used anti-Communist propaganda in his first election and the public’s fear of the “red menace” due to the fact of the Cold War and the Korean War, that he chose this topic to win his reelection. He did some research and found an old list from the Loyalty Board instituted by the Truman administration on which he based his first and most famous speech on February 9th in Wheeling, WV. It was his renowned ‘I have here in my hand …’ disquisition and “it was to be the first act of the Nightmare Decade”[13]. In his public address he accused the State Department of employing 205 known Communists (Later he denied having said 205). McCarthy knew these stunning accusations would be his ticket to fame something he had always strove for, “he, for the most part, was in the game for kicks – the thrill of seeing his name in the boldest, blackest headlines”[14]. Having presented his by now changed number of 81 cases to the Senate on February 20th a committee was launched, headed by democratic Senator Tydings (see picture 2), to investigate
his accusations.

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Picture 2:

Senator Millard E. Tydings, chairman of the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Tydings Committee held hearings until July, during which McCarthy accused people like Owen Lattimore, a Far East specialist, or Philip Jessup (see picture 3), an ambassador, of communist activities. None of his 81 cases had enough evidence to indict anyone and in the end Tydings attacked McCarthy for his wild and baseless allegations.

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Every time McCarthy was assailed he would turn on his attacker and accuse him of trying to protect the Communists in government. Now McCarthy could count on extended support from the right because he was denouncing almost the entire Democratic Party and administration. “The extremists of the right and the intellectuals of the right had both blessed McCarthy”[15]. With this new financial backing he wanted revenge for the blemishes he had sustained from the Tydings Committee. He helped to unseat Senator Tydings in his reelection in Maryland by aiding his opponent Butler.

McCarthy’s opponents became more afraid of him and the press loved his style for the great headlines it always caused. In 1951 McCarthy rose to even more power first by being appointed to the Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations for the State

Picture 4:

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Department and by finding a new and powerful ally in the democratic Senator Pat McCarran (see picture 4), who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. Another ally completed the McCarthy – McCarran – Morris axis, namely Morris who was counsel on the Subcommittee on Internal Security. This gave McCarthy access to more “information” on which to base his crusade. So far “it was significant that none of them [the Republicans] dared to make a personal defense of McCarthy”[16].

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Senator Pat McCarran, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee

McCarthy’s next attack was something unheard of and would eventually be a factor in his downfall. He denounced General George C. Marshall of being disloyal because he supported the recall of General Douglas MacArthur, a hero for all right-wing Republicans. On August 6th a lone fighter decided to oppose McCarthy by requesting an investigation by the Senate Rules Committee to inquire into McCarthy’s behavior during the Tydings Committee. This lone fighter was Senator William Benton, a Democrat from Connecticut. The subcommittee to launch the investigation was to be headed by democratic Senator Guy Gillette. Yet McCarthy made his own rules and said that this committee was trying to undermine his Communist hunt and so he never appeared in front of the Gillette Committee, when to be examined. Instead McCarthy decided to turn the game around and demanded an investigation of Benton by the committee in April of 1952 because of suspected pro-Communism. Then McCarthy attacked the committee claiming its investigation on him had been biased. Soon the committee began to disintegrate, with the leaving of Chairman Gillette, Senator Welker and Senator Monroney. By January 2nd of 1953 the committee finished its investigation with no real conclusion except condemning McCarthy’s actions and conduct but took no action against him.

From left to right: Senator McCarthy, Governor of Wisconsin Kohler & presidential candidate Eisenhower in October 1952

Picture 5:

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The year 1952 was important for another reason: the presidential election. Of course McCarthyism and McCarthy himself were to be used by the Republicans in recapturing the White House after 20 years of absence. The Republican front man was General Dwight D. Eisenhower a wartime hero. Since McCarthy had such a great influence on the public and the press, the Republicans decided it would be worth the risk to let McCarthy endorse Eisenhower and to let Eisenhower support McCarthyism. The one point of conflict was that McCarthy had denunciated Marshall and stood by his word, while Eisenhower was a great admirer of Marshall and would not let him be labeled as a communist. However Eisenhower was the one to step back and let McCarthy work his magic for the Republican campaign. The Democrats stood no chance in the election after having been ripped to shreds for two years by McCarthy. Any attempt to defend themselves ended with McCarthy accusing them of trying to protect or deny known Communists in the administration, “he tried to pin the communist label on every critic who questioned his claims”[17].

After Eisenhower had won the election in 1952 beating democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson (see picture 6), McCarthy’s services were no longer needed. In order to stay in the headlines McCarthy decided to continue his hunt for Communists “even if it meant turning on his own Republican Administration”[18].

After the election the Republicans also won the majority in the Senate which enabled McCarthy to extend his power by joining more influential committees, including the Committee on Government Operations and its investigative subcommittee. Now McCarthy had the power to get any files he wanted inclusive of files from the FBI. McCarthy’s new theory was that Communists would try even harder to get into this Republican Administration. This made the race for headlines inevitable; the race was made by three committees and their senators: McCarthy’s Government Operations Committee, Jenner’s and McCarran Internal Security Committee and Velde’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The witch-hunt had broadened its line of attackers.

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McCarthy, now joined by his counsel Roy Cohn, still willing to have all headlines to himself accused the Voice of America, an arm of the State Department’s International Information Administration, of communist infiltration. The State Department made a huge mistake when it appointed Scott McLeod, a supporter of McCarthy and former FBI agent, as its security chief. McCarthy now had control of the entire State Department even its secretary John Foster Dulles. He had so much power he was able to reverse policies made by Dulles, which ended in the demoralization of the Foreign Service. No one in the Foreign Service tried to obtain any information on Soviet Russia because everyone was afraid that this would be a reason to be accused. McCarthy extended his campaign by starting literally to burn books in libraries which either had a communist undertone or were written by authors of alleged communist support. It was in July 1953 in the midst of McCarthy’s witch-hunt that the turning point came about.

2.3. McCarthy’s downfall (1953- 1957)

The first of McCarthy’s main two mistakes was made when he hired J.B. Matthews to be the director on his subcommittee’s investigative staff. J.B. Matthews, a key undercover supporter in McCarthy’s early years, had just written a book in which he accused all Protestant clergymen to be communist supporters. This caused the democratic opposition in the Senate to take action against McCarthy since nobody believed this to be true. Even McCarthy sympathists such as McClellan turned on him. McCarthy refused to fire Matthews and even solidified himself with him. When McCarthy realized that it would be smarter to abide and fire Matthews it was already too late. Eisenhower had used his chance and had publicly denounced McCarthy for his attack on the Protestant church. Of course McCarthy tried to lead the press into another direction by immediately charging an aide in the CIA of being a Communist. But this did not help his situation and McCarthy was denounced for his attempt to investigate the CIA.

While all this was going on McCarthy’s second mistake was in the works. G. David Schine, a cohort of Cohn, had received his letter regarding his draft into the United States Army. Cohn would not let his friend be inducted and McCarthy could not “bear to see Roy [Cohn] distressed”[19]. Cohn soon met with Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens to discuss Schine’s preferred treatment and McCarthy’s plans of investigating the Army’s Signal Corps laboratories at Fort Monmouth, NJ. Fort Monmouth had been the place of activity by Julius Rosenberg who was executed along with his wife Ethel on the charges that they had given the Russians the plans to the atom bomb. Since the complex had already been investigated by the Loyalty Board and the Army itself, McCarthy found not one single Communist in employment of Fort Monmouth. During this tumult McCarthy married Jean Kerr, a member of his personal staff, on September 29th 1953 (see picture 7).

As 1954, a year of midterm congressional elections came into view, McCarthy said in a speech that it would have to be won by the Republicans so he could keep his seat in the committees. “This speech was taken by many as a clear warning that the Republican Party must be remade, not in the decent image of Eisenhower, but in the demagogic mold of McCarthy”[20]. The confrontation between the Administration and McCarthy seemed to just be a matter of time. Meanwhile the mediator was a man later to be involved in one of the biggest scandals in United States history – Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon tried to convince McCarthy to stop attacking his own party and focus on corruption and mismanagement of the previous Administration. When Nixon released this pact to the press “McCarthy blew his cool”[21] and denied this pact because he just did not want to leave his field of “redbaiting” which had given him so many headlines. By denying this pact he was accusing the Vice President of lying.

Picture 8: Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker, commandant of Camp Kilmer, NJ

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McCarthy now started walking a soft path because he needed funding. After a long debate McCarthy received an almost unanimous vote for his budget and the continuing fight against Communism. After getting this vote McCarthy became his old self, calling every Democrat “a traitor to his country”[22]. McCarthy now started a campaign against the U.S. Army with the help of his counsel’s friend Schine and finally found an officer who apparently was a Communist. His name was Irving Peress and he had taken the Fifth Amendment when being asked about subversive activities by the Army’s loyalty board. This was leaked to McCarthy and McCarthy summoned Peress to appear before him on January 30th 1954. Peress again invoked the Fifth Amendment, which McCarthy took as an admittance of communist activity. The Army, which had already wanted to get rid of Peress acted too late and honorably discharged Peress. This gave McCarthy an opening for a sensational headline – “Who promoted Peress?”. When McCarthy grilled General Zwicker (see picture 8) the commanding general of Camp Kilmer, NJ where Peress had been released, he called Zwicker a communist sympathizer and he should be removed from the Army. This however led to a clash with Army Secretary Stevens, who would not let any Army personnel be humiliated as Zwicker had been. Stevens at first with no support had to retreat but soon Eisenhower decided to stand up for the Army and back Stevens. For the first time a man who challenged McCarthy “held all the aces”[23].

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Picture 9: Senator Ralph E. Flanders

Soon McCarthy was the one who was being criticized for his reckless attacks from many people including Nixon in a speech where he was representing the Republican National Committee. On March 9th Republican Senator Flanders (see picture 9) launched an all- out attack on McCarthy on the Senate floor and accused McCarthy of trying to tear apart the Republican Party and replace it with his own “McCarthy Party”. Coincidentally on the same evening CBS aired a report on the tactics of McCarthy’s investigations and showed him in action of questioning witnesses. For the first time in 4 years the press had finally had the courage to portray McCarthy in what he really was – a demagogue. Yet McCarthy still continued to pound on the Army and was humiliated in the Annie Lee Moss case. In the Annie Lee Moss case McCarthy accused one Annie Lee Moss working in the Pentagon of communist activities since her name was found on flyers by subversive groups. The humiliating part of the case happened when it was proven that two Annie Lee Moss’s existed and McCarthy had gotten them mixed up.

It was time for some counteraction by the Administration. While all this was going on Roy Cohn had been trying to get favorable treatment for Private Schine so that he could continue to work for McCarthy’s subcommittee. When Schine was supposed to be transferred from New Jersey to Georgia, Cohn went up the wall and threatened to wreck the Army and Secretary Stevens. When all of this was put together it seemed that McCarthy’s pounding of Stevens and his investigation of Fort Monmouth only had the intention of getting favorable treatment for Schine on behalf of Cohn. In reality it appeared very strange since McCarthy did not really care about Schine, but he was apparently controlled by Cohn to a certain degree. McCarthy now said the Army was trying to blackmail his subcommittee by offering fair treatment of Schine if the committee would stop its investigation of the Army. It was clear that “someone was lying, and a public hearing to determine who it was now became inevitable”[24].

Since McCarthy was to be investigated by his own committee he had to leave the committee and was replaced by Senator Dworshak. The lines were drawn and the battle between McCarthy and the U.S. Army was on its way. The Army-McCarthy hearings, publicly televised, were opened on April 22nd, 1954. In these hearings McCarthy hounded Stevens so intensely that sympathy began to build up for the victim. The Army’s legal counsel Joseph Welch did an outstanding job of humiliating McCarthy and his staff throughout the entire hearings. When the hearings closed on August 31st the committee did not really achieve anything and said that McCarthy personally was not really involved in the affair but that he should have disciplined Cohn more vigorously. McCarthy’s charges against the Army of blackmail were seen as wholly unsubstantiated. “The combined effect […] was a condemnation of McCarthy”[25].

Yet while the hearing was still under way, Senator Flanders again attacked McCarthy on the Senate floor and deeming his conduct as un-Congressional. On August 2nd the Senate voted for the appointment of a committee of six Senators to hear the case by Flanders against McCarthy. The toughest part was finding six Senators to seat the committee since everyone was afraid of McCarthy’s revenge, just as it had happened to Tydings. The thirty- three charges made by Senator Flanders were reduced to five major categories: 1. McCarthy’s “contemptuous conduct toward the Gillette committee”2; 2. McCarthy’s “appeal to federal employees […] to furnish him information”2; 3. McCarthy’s “use of classified data”2; 4. McCarthy’s “berating of Senators Hendrickson and Flanders”2; 5. McCarthy’s “conduct with respect to General Zwicker”[26].

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The chairman of the committee Senator Watkins had decided that the committee would not be distracted by any of McCarthy’s allegations during the hearings to divert attention and create chaos. By controlling these hearings and giving McCarthy no room to maneuver, the committee on September 27th recommended censure of McCarthy on two counts. These counts concerned McCarthy’s conduct towards the Gillette committee and towards General Zwicker. McCarthy blew out of control and started to attack the entire committee, especially Watkins, calling him “the ‘involuntary agent’ and ‘attorney in fact’ of the Communist Party”[27].

The Senate debates began on November 10th and were ridden by a back-and-forth struggle between McCarthyites and those who opposed his methods. Yet in the end the Senate decided not to censure but to condemn McCarthy for his conduct in the Gillette hearings and for his attacks against Senator Watkins (see picture 11). This did not really change anything because McCarthy stayed in the Senate, did not lose his committee assignments and only lost his chairmanship in the Government Operations Committee because the Democrats had won the 1954-midterm elections. The only effect it had was that the Senate was not afraid of him anymore, “he lost the power to bully”[28] and with that “he lost everything”1. McCarthy was not powerful anymore, but still a great number of people supported him and believed his theories of communist subversion.

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The Senate and the press were now ignoring McCarthy. He did not even join the Republican National Convention when they reelected Eisenhower. McCarthy started drinking more heavily than before and soon was often found in a hospital being treated for injuries. Then on May 2nd, 1957 at shortly past 6 p.m. McCarthy died of cirrhosis of the liver. “McCarthy was dead. But his legacy went marching on”[29].

3. Analysis of McCarthyism

3.1. McCarthy as a victim of the system

When analyzing McCarthyism there are two very important aspects to look into. On the one hand McCarthy had been propelled into the spotlight with the help of a lot of people from the right- wing community yet on the other he used this help for his personal gain. It is not to be ignored that the political tide of the times not only made McCarthyism possible but also forced it into existence. It was more or less a powerplay of national and international politics that enabled McCarthy to become what he became.

On the international scene the spreading of communism caused the great “cold war fear”[30] in a lot of American citizens because the struggle between communism and democracy was pictured as a “struggle in life-or-death terms”1. Americans were also beginning to get frustrated with the “loss” of China to communism and the U.S. involvement in the Korean War.[31] All these incidents gave the Republicans, who had not captured the White House since Hoover, enough ammunition to bombard the Democrats. This alone was not enough to remove the powerful Democrats because they had steered the American economy into the right direction under President Roosevelt and President Truman. The only thing left was to directly accuse the Democrats of being communistically inclined. For this they needed a scapegoat which they found in McCarthy.

McCarthy had already used the theme of his anti-Communist crusade in the beginning of his senatorial campaign, but only to climb up the ladder of political success. Already when McCarthy started his senatorial career he began to lobby for reactionary causes and people in the right-wing community realized that this was their man. In the beginning even the Republicans were skeptical of this young Senator who was making a lot of noise. Nobody would really believe the inconceivable statements McCarthy was making, but as the public’s fear of the “red menace” increased, so did McCarthy’s power over the press, the Senate and eventually all of America.

When this occurred, when “his [McCarthy’s] perceptions became a nation’s truth”[32], the right- wing forces became conscious of his power over the people by feasting on their fears. Along with this coincided the spy cases of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, which proved communist subversion in two cases but gave McCarthy enough material to terrorize the country for years.

The Republicans knew that McCarthy was their ticket to recapturing the White House and so they endorsed him to the extreme. Even though they knew that most of McCarthy’s cases rested on the basis of cases already reviewed by Truman’s Loyalty Board they did not mind as long as they won. It is seen most clearly that McCarthy was just a tool for the Republicans because as soon as Eisenhower won the presidency they asked McCarthy to look into other things and stop his anti-Communist crusade.

By now the second factor in McCarthy’s rise to power had become so substantial that he could not be stopped. This factor was the press. The conservatives had always controlled the press because they owned most newspaper, magazines and radio stations. They had played a big role in making McCarthy public but now the press could not be controlled anymore because of McCarthy’s way of always making interesting headlines. Even though a lot of people disliked McCarthy’s way of investigating they still loved him for his sensationalism. Robert Griffith said that the press suffered from something described as “phobophilia”, which meant that they were in love with their enemy.[33]

Even though in retrospect it is said, just an accusation by McCarthy or one of his cohorts could ruin a person’s career[34], McCarthy was vulnerable in the same way. As soon as he started turning on his own Administration in his flight of megalomania his former supporters jumped off the bandwagon and let McCarthy ride it alone until his crash.

McCarthyism arose not solely because of McCarthy’s demagoguery, but on account of the passiveness by the Democrats on the one side and by the endorsement of the Republicans on the other. Had McCarthy’s wild and preposterous accusations not been taken seriously nobody would have given him much notice, he would have just been another figure shouting in the wind. This is also what Griffith means when he says that “perhaps this was the real key to McCarthy’s continued power – not the ranting of demagogues, but the fear and irresolution of honorable men”[35].

3.2. The system as a victim of McCarthy

It is of course false to just accuse everything and everyone around McCarthy of him becoming so influential. I completely agree with Lately Thomas who points out that McCarthy did not invent McCarthyism he was just its most sublime example. McCarthyism was and is in effect just a term for a communist hunt triggered by right- wing forces and McCarthy was just the person who intensified it nationwide.2 If McCarthy had not been the person to step into the spotlight somebody else, for example McCarran, would have and McCarthyism would have been McCarranism. So it true that “Joseph Raymond McCarthy was not the inventor of his era, he was its apotheosis”[36].

But “had been’s” or “would have’s” do not matter in history and fact is that McCarthy was the man to seize the lead role. It was due to his character that he decided to head the communist- hunt because in it he saw his chance to climb the ladder of political power. In his early days McCarthy was described as a man who would take everything head- on and not give up until he won. He would not only give up but he would also use every trick in the book, no matter how morally unacceptable.[37]

McCarthy was a political player who knew how to play the game. As Griffith states, it was his stubbornness and his unwillingness to back down that made him so powerful, yet it was also the reason for his fall.[38] This is also the reason why a lot of historians like to compare McCarthy to Hitler because both used the system to achieve their political goals and both eventually went over their heads. The difference between them was that McCarthy “political goals” were not inspired by his political belief but more by his ambition.

McCarthy not only knew how to play the political game but he also knew how to “work” the media. He quickly grasped how to control the press by feeding information to them for their headlines. When the reporters needed an interesting story, McCarthy found out and would call a press conference and announce that new “disclosures” were on the way.[39] Along with this went McCarthy’s way of attacking several persons in such a way that it was always a spectacle welcome to the press.

American politics in the 1950’s was a very complex system, involving the press, the public, the lobbyists, the opposition etc. However McCarthy had enough wit to understand this process and always knew whom to attack when and whom not to accuse. McCarthy was able to ride the machine of American politics to his advantage. It was by this understanding that McCarthy was able to acquire such immense power that some historians say that McCarthy was one of the most powerful men ever in American history, a man who held the Senate and even the White House including the President captive for four years.[40]

4. View of McCarthyism as an event of mass-hysteria

“It was a time of national paranoia in which the greatest power on earth expended its energies hunting for communists under every bed; in which millions of average Americans looked fearfully over their shoulders, wondering whether they would be tapped next to explain themselves before the grand inquisitors.”

This is how Fred Cook opens his book The Nightmare Decade.[41] It is probably the best description of the public’s reaction and resulting fear to McCarthyism. It shows just how paranoid the public had become. Everyone wanted to join the hunt for communists because nobody wanted to be its prey. But why had McCarthyism even become such an event of mass-hysteria?

On answering this question it becomes obvious that the most important aspect of the answer lies in the public’s belief that the press was objective. Yet during the 1950’s that was never the case. The press always praised McCarthy and supported his cause and never gave notice to those few individuals who tried to stop him and bring some sense into this madness. The public based its belief solely on the press and so they always heard McCarthy’s one-sided story. This and McCarthy attacking civilians with minor contact to the government intensified the hysteria.

In 1953 a Gallup poll showed that 50 percent of the population held a favorable view of McCarthy.[42] During this time McCarthy was still being endorsed by the press. Yet in August of 1954 after the Army-McCarthy hearings, after attacks against McCarthy had reached the headlines 51 percent of the public opposed him.[43]

This turn within half a year clearly shows the mass-hysteria aspect of McCarthyism. The public always went with what the press approved or disapproved of. Most people acted the way McCarthy had plead for, namely that they helped his crusade by pointing out suspicious people in their towns and neighborhoods. When the tide started to turn the public started to question whether McCarthy was right or not.

McCarthyism was in effect the public reaction to the Cold War, the Korean War and altogether the “so-called mistakes” by the Truman Administration. It was an irrational mass-based protest inspired by McCarthy and catalyzed by the press.[44] Calling McCarthyism a manipulation of a nation would not be an understatement but an exact description of what really happened.

Mass-hysteria is defined as a crowd’s instinctive reaction to an event and the public’s reaction to McCarthy was instinctive and not based on intellect. Everyone was afraid of loosing their jobs, of being “black-listed” and of loosing their family.[45] In this time of fear and confusion it was only natural for an average citizen to try and protect himself and not contemplate the effects it would have on the entire nation. McCarthyism raised a human’s most intense instinct – his instinct to survive. During those times survival meant having a job and financial security. Seen in this light one cannot lay the blame on the public since they were fed with wrong information and were just trying to survive. In this sense McCarthy started a mass-hysteria and then fed on it, growing stronger every day.

The most proficient piece of evidence marking McCarthyism as a mass-hysteria is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In it he compares the witch-hunt in Salem in 1692 to the communist-hunt by McCarthy. It is amazing how similar both cases of mass-hysteria were. In 1692 the people had to fear for their life if they were accused, in the 50’s they had to fear for their financial security. In 1692 the accusers were not questioned in their sincerity until the process spun out of control, which was seemingly the exact same thing in the 50’s again. Since there is no question about the witch-hunt being an event of mass-hysteria, with its atmosphere of fear and suspicion, it answers the question whether McCarthyism was a mass-hysterical event. It leaves no doubt that transferred into modern times the conditions under McCarthy’s reign were no different than the atmosphere of the witch-hunt.

5. Conclusion

Looking back on history it is always easier to judge and blame other people for their mistakes, but the hardest part is identifying its victims. In the case of McCarthyism the victims did not only consist of those few thousand who were actually brought into court, but it was an entire nation. I completely agree with Fred Cook who says:

“The damage that Joe McCarthy did is incalculable. There are no scales which

to weigh his impact on the soul of the nation but it is safe to say that he left America less free than he found it.”[46]

I find that this is the most explicit way to sum up the effect of McCarthyism on an entire nation. Nothing would ever be the same again in a country that experienced “state terrorism” for the first time. In my opinion McCarthyism was inevitable yet foreseeable. The Americans had always believed in the “good” of their government and as the Declaration of Independence, on which the Constitution was later based, said that “they are endowed […] with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Yet contrary to this, the government, which derives its power from the people, abolished these rights and exchanged them for Fear, Suspicion and Tyranny of the government. This is exactly what I think McCarthyism was. The United States government had lost its focus, that its duty to serve the people was forgotten and the good of a party or a person was more valuable than the good of a nation.

After studying and learning so much about the mechanics of McCarthyism it seems to me as to most of the authors, whose books I read, that McCarthyism was just a “normal” totalitarian movement. At those times more than half the world was being caught up in a river of nationalist and fascist unfoldings and even the United States could not avert its future. This development split the nation into extremists and moderate nationalists.

Even today the controversy about McCarthyism exists. In The Real McCarthy Record James J. Drummey describes McCarthyism as a necessity and McCarthy as a savior, who was double-crossed by his own party. Drummey says that McCarthy was correct in his accusations and that he was taken out because it would have embarrassed the nation, had McCarthy’s allegations proved to be true.[47] It is hard to believe, but some people like Drummey believe that McCarthy was right and that there might still be communists in the government today.

At that time it was people in the press, like Drummey in the 80’s, who twisted the facts and made McCarthy seem reasonable to the public. I also believe that the media and press are the turning point in the entire McCarthy affair. Had the press been more objective and displayed McCarthy for the hoax he was, the public would never had let him become so powerful.

McCarthyism was an event, which most likely shaped American policy toward communism. It probably was an incident that extended the Cold War, given the way it portrayed Communism as an equal to “hell”. It is impossible to imagine what America or even the world would be like, if the Cold War had ended earlier, but the negative effects of McCarthyism are never to be forgotten, in order to prevent any other movements similar to this. Joseph McCarthy has reached his goal for he has become an eponym and will be famous for all time.

6. Bibliography

1. Cayton, Andrew; Perry, Elisabeth Israels; Winkler, Allan M.: America. Pathways to the Present. Upper Saddle River, NJ 1998. Prentice Hall
2. Cook, Fred J.: The Nightmare Decade. The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy. New York, NY 1971. Random House
3. Griffith, Robert: The Politics of Fear. Joseph McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington, KT 1970. The University Press of Kentucky
4. Rovere, Richard H.: Senator Joe McCarthy. New York 1959
5. Schrecker, Ellen: Many are the Crimes. McCarthyism in America. 19981. Little, Brown and Company
6. Thomas, Lately: When Even Angels Wept. An Objective Reappraisal of the Senator Joseph McCarthy Affair. New York, NY 1973. William Morrow & Company, Inc.
7. Friedman, Jesse: The Fight for America: Senator Joe McCarthy. (Sonntag, 10. Dezember 2000)
8. Historical Document: February 1950. http://www.em.doe/timeline/feb1950.html (Mittwoch, 27. Dezember 2000)
9. Theoharis, Athan: The Politics of Scholarship: Liberals, Anti-Communism, and McCarthyism. (Samstag, 26. Januar 2001)
10. Drummey, James J.: The Real McCarthy Record. (Samstag, 25. November 2000)

Note: All pictures are taken from Cook’s The Nightmare Decade

Ich versichere, dass ich diese Arbeit selbstständig gefertigt habe; die verwendete Literatur habe ich vollständig angegeben.

(Matthias Eul)


[1] Miller, Arthur: The Crucible, 1995, back flap

[2] Schrecker, Ellen: Many Are the Crimes, 19981, p.X (introduction)

[3] Rovere, Richard: Senator Joe McCarthy, New York, 1959, p.3-8

[4] Griffith, Robert: The Politics of Fear, Lexington, 1970, p.320

[5] Cook, Fred J.: The Nightmare Decade, New York, 1971, p.72

[6] Cook, p.78

[7] Cook, p.80

[8] Cook, p.81

[9] Cook, p.79

[10] Cook, p.80

[11] Friedman, Jesse: The Fight For America,

[12] Cook, p.139

[13] Cook, p.148

[14] Cook, p.275

[15] Cook, p.283

[16] Cook, p.267

[17] Cook, p.184

[18] Cook, p.393

[19] Cook, p.435

[20] Cook, p.458

[21] Cook, p.460

[22] Cook, p.462

[23] Cook, p.474

[24] Cook, p.484

[25] Cook, p.526

[26] Cook, p.527

[27] Cook, p.530

[28] Cook, p.534

[29] Cook, p.540

[30] Cayton, Andrew; Perry, Elisabeth Israels; Winkler Allen M.: America, Upper Saddle River, 1998, p.733

[31] Historical Document: February 1950,

[32] Cook, p.181

[33] Griffith, p.142

[34] Cayton; Perry; Winkler, p.737

[35] Griffith, p.151

[36] Thomas, p.78

[37] Thomas, p.11

[38] Griffith, p.320

[39] Cayton; Perry; Winkler, p.736

[40] Cook, p.7

[41] Cook, p.3

[42] Cayton; Perry; Winkler, p.736

[43] Cook, p.534

[44] Theoharis, Athan: The Politics of Scholarship,

[45] Cayton; Perry; Winkler, p.737

[46] Cook, p.543

[47] Drummey, James J.: The Real McCarthy Record, 1987

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Analysis and View of McCarthyism. The Life of Joseph McCarthy
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Matthias Eul (Author), 2001, Analysis and View of McCarthyism. The Life of Joseph McCarthy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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