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Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism, and The Witch Hunt

On November 14, 1908, Joseph McCarthy was born into a Roman Catholic family as the fifth of nine children in Appleton, Wisconsin. Although McCarthy dropped out of grade school at the age fourteen, he returned to diligently finish his studies in 1928, permitting him to attend Marquette University. Once accepted, he began his journey to become what many historians consider to be one of the least qualified, most corrupt politicians of his time. After receiving his law diploma at Marquette University, McCarthy dabbled in unsuccessful law practices, and indulged in gambling along the way for extra financing. Despite being a Democrat early in his political years, he quickly switched into the Republican Party after being overlooked as a candidate in the Democratic Party for district attorney. His dirty campaign to win the position as circuit court judge proved to be an ominous foreshadowing to his later era of “McCarthyism.”

To stimulate his political career, McCarthy quit his job as circuit court judge and joined the Marines during World War II. After his short military career McCarthy then ran as the Republican candidate for the Wisconsin Senate seat, where he used propaganda and erroneous accusations against his opponent, Robert La Follette, to promote his own campaign. Damaging La Follete’s reputation by claiming he hadn’t enlisted in the military during the war, McCarthy won the election and became Senator.

As re-election began to loom closer, McCarthy, whose first term was unimpressive, searched for ways to ensure his political success, resorting even to corruption. Edmund Walsh, a close fellow Roman Catholic and anti-communist suggested a crusade against so-called communist subversives. McCarthy enthusiastically agreed and took advantage of the nation’s wave of fanatic terror against communism, and emerged on February 9, 1950, claiming he had a list of 205 people in the State Department who were known members of the American Communist Party. The American public went crazy with the thought of seditious communists living within the United States, and roared for the investigation of the underground agitators. These people on the list were in fact not all communists; some had proven merely to be alcoholics or sexual deviants. Regardless, McCarthy relentlessly pushed through and became the chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, widening his scope to “investigate” dissenters. He continued to investigate for over two years, relentlessly questioning numerous government departments and the panic arising from the witch-hunts and fear of communism became know as McCarthyism.

Joseph McCarthy then accused several innocent citizens, most notably Owen Lattimore, of being associated with communism. Along the way, he had Louis Budenz, the former editor of The Daily Worker, back his accusations with evidence that was circumstantial at best, for Budenz was only using information he had heard from other people as much as 13 years prior. Another victim of McCarthy’s spurious communist accusations was Drew Pearson, a critic who discredited McCarthy’s accusations regularly through columns and radio broadcasts. McCarthy made seven speeches to the Senate on Pearson, which resulted in the loss of sponsors to Pearson’s show. Also, money was then raised to help numerous men sue Pearson, all charges of which he was found innocent and not liable.

McCarthy’s downfall finally began in October of 1953, when he started to investigate “communist infiltration into the military.” This was the final straw for then president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who realized that McCarthy’s movement needed to be stopped. The Army fired back at the accusations, sending information about McCarthy and advisors abusing congressional privileges to known critics of McCarthy. Reporters, Drew Pearson included, and other critics soon hopped on board, publishing unflattering articles about Joseph McCarthy and his methods of seeking out the supposed communists in America.

Through the televised investigations into the United States Army and the reporters’ attack, the nation grew to realize that McCarthy was “evil and unmatched in malice.” He lost his position as chairmanship on the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate and in December of 1954, a censure motion, which is a formal reprimand from a powerful body, was issued condemning his conduct with the vote count at 67 to 22. The media subsequently became disinterested in his communist allegations and McCarthy was virtually stripped of his power. He died in May of 1957 after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver due to heavy drinking. The resounding effects of McCarthy’s era symbolized the pure terror of communism during the time due to the Cold War. Although it came to an end in a few short years, it attributed to the growing dissension between the Soviets and United States.

Research by Joyce Oh and Amanda Latham
Volunteers for the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School


“Joseph McCarthy.” 2008. NNDB Tracking the Entire World. 2 Jun 2008 .

“Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957).” Biography. 21 Apr 2003. Appleton History. 2 Jun 2008 .

Simkin, John. “Joseph McCarthy.” Spartacus Educational. 30 May 2008 .

Truman, Harry S. Telegram to Joseph McCarthy. Feb 1950.

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