Biography for Joseph McCarthy
Although an undistinguished legislator, Joseph Raymond McCarthy was responsible for an indelible chapter of U.S. Senate history. Because of his unsubstantiated but politically popular charges that the government was infiltrated with communist agents, McCarthy earned the dubious distinction of having his name become synonymous with character assassination and guilt by association for political gain. Born on November 14, 1908 in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, McCarthy graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1935. After winning election as a judge by lying about his opponent's qualifications and age, McCarthy performed so poorly on the bench that he was reprimanded by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. At the outbreak of World War II, McCarthy resigned from the bench to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He was assigned as an airplane tailgunner and adopted the nickname Tailgunner Joe, even though he never saw combat. Upon his discharge, McCarthy decided to run as a Republican for the U.S. Senate against the Democratic incumbent, Robert La Follette. La Follette underestimated McCarthy's vote-getting appeal and, in a major political upset, was defeated. McCarthy had managed to win a seat in the Senate, but once there, he could not manage to establish any kind of political reputation that would guarantee him reelection. Then, in 1950, McCarthy began to exploit the anticommunism hysteria already gripping the nation. Before McCarthy picked up the theme, President Harry Truman had used the issue of communism to whip up support for his containment policies in 1947 and to institute loyalty oaths for federal employees. The House Un-American Activities Committee was already in existence and was hot on the trail of communists in Hollywood. Representative Richard Nixon of California had used communism to get elected in 1946 and was working with Whittaker Chambers to convict Alger Hiss as a spy. In 1949, Chinese communists had finally won control of their government, and the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb. So, in many ways, McCarthy was as much a product of the postwar inquisition as he was its creator. In a speech delivered on February 9, 1950, McCarthy brandished a piece of paper on which he claimed he had a list supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of 205 names of U.S. State Department employees who were known to be "card-carrying communists." It was a false claim, but his dramatic demeanor and the fact that he was a senator lent credibility to the charges. The massive public response to his charges surprised even McCarthy. Although he could not produce any evidence and kept changing the number of names he had when pressed by reporters, his power and influence grew. McCarthy managed to stay ahead of his critics by making new charges instead of admitting that he had fabricated old ones and silencing those who attacked him in the Senate by threatening them with defeat at the polls. McCarthy claimed that Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins professor and diplomat for the State Department, was "the top Russian espionage agent" in the department. When Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland produced an FBI report that proved Lattimore had never been involved with communism or communist agents, McCarthy attacked Tydings' loyalty. McCarthy had a fake photograph made showing Tydings talking with the American Communist Party leader Earl Browder. McCarthy's claim that Tydings had come to Lattimore's defense to divert attention from his own communist activities stuck and contributed to Tydings' electoral defeat in 1950. Although McCarthy himself never unearthed a single communist spy, he became so powerful that even Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1952 presidential campaign, did not dare to criticize him. Eisenhower even refused to challenge McCarthy's calumnious charge that George C. Marshall was the kind of man who "would sell his grandmother for any advantage" and therefore had become part of a communist "conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man." Senator William Benton of Connecticut, who filed a motion to censure McCarthy for slandering Marshall, was defeated for reelection. The Republican Party capitalized on the hysteria McCarthy had generated in order to put Democratic candidates on the defensive in congressional races. Since no Democrat could afford to be labeled "soft on communism," many endeavored to earn reputations for being even more dedicated than McCarthy in defeating the supposed internal and external communist menace. Finally, in 1954, after the Korean War had ended and the threat of World War III no longer appeared imminent, the mood of the nation began to shift. On April 22, 1954, after several years of enduring McCarthy's false charges about subversion in the military forces, the U.S. Army, represented by Attorney Joseph N. Welch, went on the offensive and attacked McCarthy with a charge of corruption. The army's charge was based on the fact that McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, had demanded special treatment for former associate Pvt. G. David Schine. Cohn had threatened that if he (Cohn) was not satisfied, he would use his political influence as McCarthy's aide to "wreck the army." In more than a month of televised hearings, Welch proceeded to show via live televised congressional hearings how McCarthy had doctored photographs and created other false documents to provide evidence for his unsubstantiated earlier charges. McCarthy's erratic behavior and the constant traps Welch laid to catch him lying made it obvious to the television audience which side was telling the truth. After the televised hearings and McCarthy's public humiliation, a majority of senators finally felt sufficiently secure enough to vote to censure him on December 2, 1954. He died a broken man three years later, on May 2, 1957. "McCarthyism" and "McCarthy tactics" are terms that have come to symbolize demagoguery in U.S. politics. As a result of McCarthy's unsubstantiated charges and abuse of the privileges of his office, the careers and reputations of countless innocent victims were ruined.