NOTE: This is an essay I composed for a high school final project in US History, on any subject we chose.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines McCarthyism as "the use of indiscriminate, often unfounded, accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods, etc., as in the suppression of political opponents portrayed as subversive." The definition, though describing some of Joseph McCarthy’s actions, does not entirely do him justice. This paper will describe and attempt to explain the fall of McCarthyism from popularity and of McCarthy himself from politics, and of the effects of McCarthyism on America.
McCarthyism actually began affecting America years before its namesake was elected into any political office. In 1938, the House of Representatives created the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by Martin Dies. It was responsible for the creation of many methods, ideas, and even phrases, later attributed to McCarthy. For example, Dies and other members of the committee originated the concepts of "prescriptive publicity," whereby potential risks were singled out and ostracized from their community, and guilt by association. They also coined the terms "coddling communists," used to describe those who allegedly aided Communists, and "I hold in my hand," made famous by McCarthy’s 1950 speech in Wheeling.
But HUAC had more contributions to the Red Scare of the 1950s than simply McCarthy’s conduct. It encouraged President Truman to require a loyalty test of all Government workers, discovered the espionage of Alger Hiss, and exposed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies. It was the HUAC that was responsible for the infamous Hollywood hearings; McCarthy had nothing to do with it or with its creation, despite common conception of his involvement.
All of these methods, despite their varying accuracy and grounding, were not without cause. Communism was, as Karl Marx said, created and destined to cancel out greedy and controlling governments, and "fellow travelers" were inherently difficult to locate. Even those members who were not active spies were taught to keep their membership secret, and those who were spies were very good at disguising their any involvement with the party, let alone the USSR. American, like Soviet, Communism was indeed built upon conspiracy; it was necessary for the Bolshevik revolution, and was perpetuated long after. But, ironically and interestingly, it was the Constitution – the greatest symbol of everything they stood against – that protected them from the surveillance that would have conclusively proved their espionage. In fact, several trials of such spies were overturned: of Amerasia, a journal that obtained large amounts of classified information, for the original investigative agents’ lack of a search warrant; and of Judith Coplon, who informed the Soviets that Americans had broken their secret communications code, on a technicality.
However, by June 1950, four month’s after the Wheeling speech that introduced his anti-communist plan, McCarthy’s overwhelming popularity and adulation was getting to his head. By calling a press conference, he had proven on his second day as Senator how easily he could get a headline, and he clearly enjoyed it. In fact, he soon thought the anti-communism-in-government stance relied on him alone to conduct the rooting out of Comunists, and, moreover, he often seemed to hang the fate of America on this battle. This self-centeredness was one attribute that weakened his argument and helped contribute to his downfall.
McCarthy’s main flaw, in fact, seemed to be "his manner and his manners," as a member of the infamous Army Trial, James Reston, said during it. One such unfortunate feature of his personality was his inattention to details. He constantly paraphrased and altered his speeches as he gave them, quickly changing fact to a near-fiction. The most infamous of these occurances took place during his most famous speech, Wheeling. He at first (allegedly, for the recording of this speech was accidentally destroyed) said he had "here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working for and shaping policy in the State Department." He claimed later to have 57, and then 81, such names. This habit earned him his reputation of dishonesty and recklessness.
An even greater imperfection was the Senator’s disregard for rules; he seemed constantly at odds with regulations. Though this had helped him skip a grade in primary school, and pass through high school in a single year, it caused him great trouble later on. As a judge, he heard even the most trivial of cases, ones in which his peers would have asked the two parties to go home and reconsider. He went through cases so quickly he was angrily accused of providing "quickie divorces." As a senator, McCarthy disregarded the rules of etiquette and seniority, even calling a press conference on his second day in office to provide his opinion on the United Mine Workers strike. This part of his personality certainly did not aid his cause.
Another flaw was his seeming unawareness of how his treatment of people could affect their feelings of him. He considered it a strength, his inability to hold a grudge against anyone, even after he had railed against them in a hearing. For example, Dean Acheson was one of McCarthy’s greatest nemesises; for "losing China" to Communism and for the Korean War, among other "offenses", the Senator claimed the Secretary of State played an immense part in an immense conspiracy. And yet, when they met on a Senate elevator, the Senator held out his hand, greeted the Secretary with "Hey, Dean," and was baffled by the other’s furious storming away.
But perhaps the Senator’s greatest problems were his "vices." Before his Senate job, he was already a well-known gambler and drinker. However, his gambling during his time as Senator dug him deep into debt as often as it provided him a huge profit. His drinking, though, steadily increased; by the time of the Army Trial, he frequently downed tumblers of straight vodka between sessions. In fact, historian Arthur Herman believes "his alcoholism was the principal cause of his downfall."
The attack that cost the most of McCarthy’s prestige was directed at Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall. In June 1951, he gave his only speech that was not ad-libbed; in fact, he read it for hours on before the senate had completely emptied, and still had more to read. The speech tried to show that the Secretary had, since World War I, attempted in every way to harm America and American interests and help the Soviets. "... If Marshall were merely stupid," it ended, "the laws of probability would have dictated that at least some of his decisions would have served this country’s interest. ..." This speech greatly hurt his position, and that of his allies, in the eyes of the press and of the general US population – which was largely in favor of the Secretary.
One of McCarthy’s worst blunders, however, was his appointment of Roy Cohn and David Schine to his counsel. In 1953, he needed someone to replace Robert Taft, his previous counsel. Cohn and Schine were afterwards involved in several scandals, and the worst of which helped end McCarthy’s career. The Senator had begun investigating likely security leaks in Army bases in 1953. As he focused his investigation on a dentist who had been promoted after McCarthy brought to light his communist affiliation, and was allowed an honorary discharge several months later, Schine was drafted into the Army; Cohn threatened a member of the Army and the Army itself to get Schine special treatment. This helped the Army lawyer Joseph N. Welch humiliate McCarthy in the trial.
It was this nationally televised Army trial that earned the Senator most of his bad reputation. He was portrayed by the camera and Welch as a brute, lair, and manipulator. The Army lawyer once asserted that McCarthy’s team used a deliberately doctored photograph to prove a point, even though the team was unaware of the modification and the change did not affect their point at all; he was nonetheless seen as a shady manipulator. And, because of the disorderly nature of the hearings and of their confusing topics, the general viewing public was only able to see the temperament and personality of the two opposing lawyers – McCarthy an abusive, disheveled, barging brute and Welch a charming, calm, elderly man. Though the subcomittee overseeing them in the end mildly criticized both sides, the hearings permanently damaged McCarthy’s public image, and led ultimately to his Senate censure.
In conclusion, though other factors helped lead up to this censure, he and his actions mainly killed his career and, by alcoholism, his very self (he died in 1957). Arrogantly, lawyers McCarthy, Cohn, and Carr thought themselves suited to represent themselves, and agreed to allow the courtroom hearings to be televised. It was this that allowed the Army lawyer, Joseph Welch, well aware of the power of television, to belittle and disenfranchise him with barely allowable evidence. Senator Joseph McCarthy was brought down largely by himself and his own actions.
- Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator. Arthur Herman: The Free Press. New York, NY, 2000.
- A Conspiracy so Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. David Oshinsky: The Free Press. New York, NY, 1983.
- The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. Thomas C. Reeves: Stein and Day. Briarcliffe Manor, NY, 1982.