Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was a product of his times. As the Cold War fever gripped America in the 1950s, McCarthy – a Republican Senator – rose to visibility as the public face of political paranoia. In a cynical bid to inject life into his dying prospects of reelection as a senator, McCarthy burst into popular public consciousness on February 9, 1950 by claiming that he had a list of 205 State Department staff members who were traitorous members of the American Communist Party.
The American media and the public went into a frenzy at the astonishing claim. The Tydings Committee appointed to investigate the claims labeled McCarthy’s claims as a “fraud and a hoax”, a result disputed by Republicans in the Senate and endorsed by the Democrats. Although unable to produce any evidence to support his claims, McCarthy continued to make sensational claims about the infiltration of American political circles by Communist subversives.
Reelected as Senator of Wisconsin in 1952, McCarthy was appointed as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. Basking in his newly appointed post, McCarthy alleged several government departments of communist involvement and accused numerous innocent citizens of subversion and espionage, destroying their careers in the process. More than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy’s aggressive and intimidating interrogation that has been described as a “witch-hunt”. An employee of the public broadcaster, Voice of America, committed suicide, after being harassed about unsubstantiated alleged Communist influence in their broadcasts.
The beginning of the end of McCarthy’s remarkable political ride occurred when he overreached and accused the US army of communist subversion. President Eisenhower called for a public investigation of the alleged charges. The 1954 spectacle which was broadcast on television lay bare the real McCarthy to the American people – a bully who excelled at intimidating witnesses and was evasive in his own responses. The lowest point in the hearing took place when McCarthy attacked a young army lawyer, forcing the army’s chief attorney, Joseph Welch to exclaim, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Following the Army-McCarthy hearings, the senator lost support from the public and his own Republican party and was censured by a special committee appointed by the senate. His career in ruins and publicly avoided by colleagues, McCarthy died in 1957 due to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 48.
McCarthy’s vicious antics in the early 1950s ensured that his name forever entered the English lexicon in the form of “McCarthyism” to refer to political witch-hunts – demagogic attacks on the character of opponents and accusations of treason or disloyalty without sufficient regard for evidence.