Joseph McCarthy rose to fame as a product of the second great Red
scare, a period of extreme fear of communism in the United States.
Because of his aggressive pursuit of communists, McCarthy came to
symbolize the political extremism of the era.
McCarthy was born in a log cabin in northeastern Wisconsin, on
November 14, 1908. He left school and the family farm at age fourteen
to set up his own chicken farm, which he operated for five years. When
it failed, he managed a grocery store. At the age of twenty, McCarthy
went back to high school and then worked his way through college.
First elected office
After earning a law degree in 1935, McCarthy began practicing law. A
member of the Democratic Party and a strong supporter of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), McCarthy
became an outspoken champion of the New Deal, a set of programs and
policies to promote economic recovery and social reform after the economic downturn of the Great Depression (1929–41). Having caught
the fever of politics, McCarthy decided to run for the office of district
attorney. He lost the election, but three years later he ran in an election for circuit judge and won. He was still serving as judge when the United
States became involved in World War II (1939–45).
World War II service
In 1941, McCarthy enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was commissioned a lieutenant and assigned to an intelligence unit. He returned
to the United States with a Distinguished Flying Medal and an Air
Medal. He would later use his war effort in politics, campaigning as
“Tail Gunner Joe” and referring to a leg injury from a shipboard fall as a
Back home, McCarthy changed his political affiliation to the
Republican Party and ran for the U.S. Senate. He lost the 1944 election
but immediately prepared for the 1946 Senate race, which he won in an
unexpected victory. He took his place in the Senate in 1947.
McCarthy’s first few years in the Senate were distinguished mainly
by his sharp and often personal attacks on other senators. By 1949, he
had the reputation of an upstart and a troublemaker and had made many
enemies in the Senate.
Communists in the government
In 1949, McCarthy suddenly developed a concern about communist elements inside the United States. Communism is an economic or social
system in which work and property are shared by the whole society, and
the state usually controls the economy. Americans at that time associated
communism with the Soviet Union and China, both of which had
authoritarian governments that repressed free expression and other civil
liberties Americans valued.
In later years, McCarthy claimed that in late 1949, three men came
to him with a document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) describing Soviet espionage activities in the United States. They
told him that the State Department had ignored the report; they hoped
McCarthy would take the report to the public.
Speech in Wheeling
On February 9, 1950, in a speech to a group of Republican women in
Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy charged that 205 communists were
working in the State Department, shaping American foreign policy. He claimed to have documentation to prove these charges. His speech
immediately became front-page news. In a speech to the Senate on
February 20, McCarthy said that there were eighty-one communists
employed at the State Department.
A congressional investigation found no evidence to support
McCarthy’s accusations. Oddly, though the hearings discredited him,
they attracted widespread publicity and served to rally support for
In the 1950s, the Cold War was heating up. The Cold War was a period
of noncombative conflict from the 1940s to the 1990s, between the
communist East (mainly the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of
China) and the capitalist West (mainly the United States and Western
Europe). In the United States, many came to view communism itself as
the ultimate enemy. Fear of communist agents working in the United
States grew into a Red scare, a term that borrowed from the color often
used by communist nations on their flags.
McCarthy exploited these fears with his rash and unsupported allegations of communist spies in the government. In 1951, he suggested
that Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893–1971), whom he felt was
soft on communism, move to the Soviet Union. He charged that celebrated general George Marshall (1880–1959) had knowingly promoted
the communist takeover of Eastern Europe and China. Although widely
criticized for these remarks, McCarthy remained popular with many voters and won reelection to the Senate in 1952.
The Government Operations Committee
After reelection, McCarthy was assigned to the Government Operations
Committee. The committee had the authority to review government
activities at all levels. Its chief counsel was Roy Cohn (1927–1986), an
arrogant young lawyer who was almost universally disliked, but whose
intelligence and knowledge were very important to McCarthy. With
Cohn supporting him, McCarthy launched a series of investigations
aimed at finding traitorous government employees and security risks
everywhere. Soon he was accusing President Dwight D. Eisenhower
(1890–1969; served 1953–61) and his administration of communist
links. Many of McCarthy’s investigations were viewed by his colleagues
in Congress and the White House as irresponsible witch-hunts. But,
because a significant portion of the American public believed in him, he
maintained his power in the Senate.
The Army-McCarthy hearings
In October 1953, McCarthy launched an investigation of the U.S. Army
that would eventually bring him trouble. It began with a probe into the
Army Signal Corps station at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where radar
systems and guided missile controls were being developed. McCarthy
claimed that a communist spy ring was in operation there. By this point,
McCarthy and his crusade had aggravated senators and the president.
Many were seeking a way to expose him as a sensationalist and a liar to
From April to June 1954, the Senate’s “Army-McCarthy hearings”
were held to investigate charges against the public and countercharges
against McCarthy by the government. At President Eisenhower’s request,
the hearings were conducted before a television audience. Twenty million
viewers—two-thirds of American televisions—watched the spectacle.
McCarthy spent the hearings bullying and badgering witnesses, interrupting, making vicious personal attacks, and making long, ranting
speeches. At last, McCarthy’s bad temper and irrational behavior were
fully exposed to a disgusted nation. He promptly fell from favor.
On September 15, 1954, a Senate committee recommended that
McCarthy be censured (officially reprimanded) for showing contempt to
and insulting members of the Senate. Three and a half months later, the
Senate approved a resolution of censure by a vote of 67–22. McCarthy
continued to serve as a senator but had lost his power. In his last years,
he was often absent from Senate sessions.
McCarthy was out of the spotlight, but the Cold War and the Red
scare were not over. In 1954, Congress passed the Communist Control
Act. The act, designed to outlaw the American Communist Party, went
far beyond anything McCarthy had ever proposed. The Eisenhower
administration had already begun to steal McCarthy’s thunder in conducting witch -hunts of a political nature. Thousands of Americans
were accused of being communists, resulting in ruined lives and careers.
Civil liberties, such as free speech and freedom to assemble, that were
protected under the U.S. Constitution could no longer be taken for
granted. Even after McCarthy had stopped taking part in the process,
the rampant anti-communist suspicions came to be called
Meanwhile, McCarthy’s health was declining. A heavy drinker, he
ignored his doctor’s orders to stop drinking and died of a liver infection in 1957.