Postwar America: 1945 - 1960
|Digital History ID 3412|
Joseph McCarthy could destroy political careers on a whim. Even the president of the United States treaded warily around him. Dwight D. Eisenhower said of McCarthy: "Never get in a pissing match with a skunk."
A charismatic demagogue, Joe McCarthy grew up on a Wisconsin farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse. While still a teenager, he established a thriving business as a chicken farmer. He dropped out of school after eighth grade, but returned at the age of 20 and finished four years of schoolwork in just nine months. He worked his way through law school and, at the age of 30, became the youngest circuit court judge in Wisconsin history. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as an intelligence officer in the South Pacific. In 1946, at the age of 38, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
McCarthy had an unsavory side. While a Marine, he forged a letter from his commander to obtain a citation for a phony combat wound. He also cheated on his taxes and violated campaign laws.
In an address in 1950 to a Republican women's club in Wheeling, W. Va., Senator Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., claims to have a list of a great many "known Communists" employed by the state department:
I have here in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who are nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.
When asked by a reporter to produce his list, McCarthy replied: "That was just a political speech to a bunch of Republicans. Don't take it seriously."
McCarthy's stock-in-trade was reckless accusations. Centering around Communist victories in China and Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, McCarthy charged that Secretary of State Dean Acheson had sold the country out to the Communists; that the Truman administration was riddled with subversion; and that the men who guided the country for the previous 20 years were dupes of the Communists. In 1951, Senator McCarthy called George C. Marshall a Communist agent. Senator Millard E. Tydings, D-Md., attacked McCarthy for perpetrating "a fraud and a hoax."
In 1954, McCarthy charged that a Communist spy ring was operating at a U.S. Army Signal Corps installation in New Jersey. McCarthy also accused the secretary of the Army of concealing evidence. The secretary retained a Boston attorney, Joseph Nye Welch, to represent him. When McCarthy made a vicious charge, Welch said:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.... Have no sense of decency, sir, at long last?