"Have you left no sense of decency, sir?" Joseph N. Welch - Chief Attorney for the Army at the end of the Army-McCarthy Hearings.
"Traitors are not gentlemen, my good friends. They don't understand being treated like gentlemen" - Joseph McCarthy
"McCarthy Shifts Focus; Will Now Fight 'Book-Reader Menace'" - Headline from The Onion's Our Dumb Century
In the beginning...
Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in 1908 on his family's farm near Appleton, Wisconsin. He was working as the manager of a grocery store when some friends suggested that he should go to school. He stuffed a full high school education into only a year, and then decided to go to college. In 1935 graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, having studied law.
Joe set up his law practice in the nearby town of Waupaca, but he didn't get all that many cases. After only nine months, McCarthy went to work for Mike Eberlein in Shawano. They worked together until 1939, when he got elected as a Wisconsin Circuit Court judge.
When the Americans entered World War II, he volunteered to join the United States Marines Corps, despite the fact that, because he was a judge, he was exempt from being drafted.
He served two years in the Marines, flying in a number of combat missions (The number cited varies from as high as 30 to as low as half of that), acting at various times as a gunner, or an aerial photographer. At the end of the war, he was issued a citation by the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, for his exemplary service under heavy enemy fire.
Politics is fun if you're a dishonest corrupt alcoholic asshole.
he ran against Alexander Wiley
for a senatorial
seat from Wisconsin. After being summarily
defeated, he started planning to run for Wisconsin's other senate seat. However, since both he and incumbent Robert La Follette
Jr. were republican
s, he would have to win the primary to oust
him from office.
McCarthy threw a lot of money and effort into his campaign. Joe made speeches on a daily basis, and sent letters and postcards to nearly every citizen in Wisconsin. McCarthy ran a vicious dirty campaign, slandering his opponent constantly, while La Follette barely did any campaigning at all. After all, how often does an incumbent lose the nomination of his party?
Well, it happened, but barely. He won the Republican Party nomination 207,935 to 202,539. He then went on to defeat professor Howard McMurray, by a ratio of about 2 : 1. Senator Joseph McCarthy was on his way to Washington.
Once there, his conduct in office wasn't all that much better than the methods he used to gain it. His first major act was leading the fight (successfully) against the continuation of wartime sugar controls. Surely the $20,000 paid to him by a lobbyist for the Pepsi corporation had nothing to do with this. They simply admired the work of Senator McCarthy, and certainly weren't trying to hold on to 1.5 million gallons of high grade sugar cane syrup that had slipped past the notice of the Department of Agriculture's ration board, who wanted it back.
He later accepted $10,000 from a few friends in the prefabricated housing industry, got himself onto the Senate Housing Committee, and fought against public housing for war veterans. He pretty much continued in this way until 1950, when he found himself a new topic to stir up...
Oh my god, they're everywhere!
Joe thought he needed a topic to work on as a basis for his re-election, which was coming up in 1952. He asked a few friends for ideas, and one of them came up with a good one. Communism! Communists in the Government!
His timing couldn't have been better. At the time that he kicked off his campaign against the Red Menace, the trial of Alger Hiss was in progress, and during it, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed for conspiracy to commit espionage.
McCarthy appeared before the Republican Women's Club on February 9th, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia. He started off his speech by stating that:
"I have in my hand a list is 205 cases of individuals who appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party."
This number jumped around a bit. At this next speech in Salt Lake City, he dropped the number down to 57 Communists in the State Department. That number rose to 81 for his next speech, on the floor of the Senate. Despite the fact that he and his staff obviously put in little or no actual research into the cases, and had almost no actual evidence to support his claims, the reaction from the nation was stunning.
Joseph McCarthy was an excellent demagogue, likely the most effective since Hitler. The press just ate up the story, and they managed to work his name into the headline nearly every time. Opinion polls showed that 50% of the people supported McCarthy, with another 21% only undecided. Donations started pouring in, and for every donation he sent back a letter thanking people for their support, and asking for more help in the "hard and costly struggle against Communism."
Of course, since he didn't actually put any effort into researching his claims, the struggle was actually quite inexpensive, and likely the salary of his staff was paid for by the government. Most of the money went into his own bank account.
In a few short months, McCarthy was likely the most powerful man in Washington. There are those who claim that it was him who single handedly won the election for a dozen Republican senators, over the Democrat incumbents.
What's that you say? He also attacked his political opponents?! Yes! After the 1950 election, when a number of Democrats were accused of being "soft on communism," and subsequently lost the election, most people backed down for fear of the same thing happening again.
One who didn't was William Benton, Democratic Senator from Connecticut. Well, McCarthy couldn't let this stand, so he let loose a smear campaign. He claimed not only that Benton was "soft on communism," but that while he was Assistant Secretary of State, he had protected known Communists, and that he purchased and displayed various "lewd art works." Damned if McCarthy's tactics didn't work. Benton lost the 1952 election.
McCarthy didn't need evidence. A Senate committee headed up by Millard Tydings found that the State Department was clear of communist influence, and that McCarthy's charges were a hoax. Whenever challenged for evidence to back up his claims, McCarthy would refuse and simply make more accusations.
In 1953, he became chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. With the aid of his assistants, Roy Cohn and David Schine, he used his power to bully, harass, and make fanciful allegations of communist ties against hundreds of people. He never once produced a single piece of documentation, but his allegations were responsible for destroying the careers of almost everyone he accused. Even Dwight Eisenhower was afraid to confront McCarthy's claims.
This is the end... my only friend, the end...
More people were starting to realize what was going on, and McCarthy was losing support. In May of 1954, he went against the Army, and its secretary, Robert Stevens. At the Army-McCarthy hearings, which were televised and watched by over 20 million Americans, he fired off random accusations of communism, and alleged that they tried to cover up espionage at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
President Eisenhower helped the army stage its defense, which turned into an offence soon enough. The counsel for the army recalled how McCarthy used his influence to gain soft army positions for his aide Schine. The press turned against him as well, with Edward R. Murrow showing unedited clips of the senator's behavior.
Joe and his aides were cleared of the charges, however after the nation saw that his strategy really was nothing more than pointing at people at random and yelling "Commie!" his credibility was shot.
On December 2, 1954 the senate voted to condemn him for “conduct contrary to Senatorial traditions.” He tried to get a few of his bills passed after that, but failed quite miserably.
Despondent, he began to drink quite heavily, often being drunk for days at a time. This began to take its toll. On May 2, 1957 McCarthy died of peripheral neuritis as a result of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. His funeral was held in the Senate chambers, and he was buried in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Over time, his name has become synonymous with random false accusations of doing, or thinking, something that is currently politically unacceptable, designed more to destroy the career of the person accused than to actually bring them to trial and face jail time. While the accused may not be found guilty, people still remember the accusation, and their career dies as a result. It works for everyone from actors and directors to politicians.
McCarthyism is a bad thing. Actually showing proof is a good thing. Otherwise it is little more than a witch-hunt.