Biography of Joseph McCarthy, Senator and Leader of Red Scare Crusade

The story behind the term 'McCarthyism' and communist witch hunts

photo of Senator Joseph McCarthy gesturing at a Senate hearing
Senator Joseph McCarthy.

 Bettmann / Getty Images

Joseph McCarthy was a United States Senator from Wisconsin whose crusade against suspected communists created a political frenzy in the early 1950s. The actions of McCarthy dominated the news to such a degree that the word McCarthyism entered the language to describe the hurling of unfounded accusations.

The McCarthy Era, as it became known, lasted for only a few years, as McCarthy was eventually discredited and widely denounced. But the damage done by McCarthy was real. Careers were ruined and the country's politics were changed by the senator's reckless and bullying tactics.

Fast Facts: Joseph McCarthy

  • Known For: United States Senator whose crusade against suspected communists turned into a national panic in the early 1950s
  • Born: November 14, 1908 in Grand Chute, Wisconsin
  • Parents: Timothy and Bridget McCarthy
  • Died: May 2, 1957, Bethesda, Maryland
  • Education: Marquette University
  • Spouse: Jean Kerr (married 1953)

Early Life

Joseph McCarthy was born November 14, 1908 in Grand Chute, Wisconsin. His family were farmers, and Joseph was the fifth of nine children. After finishing grade school, at the age of 14, McCarthy began to work as a chicken farmer. He was successful, but at the age of 20 he returned to his education, beginning and completing high school in one year.

He attended Marquette University for two years, studying engineering, before attending law school. He became an attorney in 1935.

Entering Politics

While practicing law in Wisconsin in the mid-1930s, McCarthy began to get involved in politics. He ran as a Democrat for a district attorney position in 1936, but lost. Switching to the Republican Party, he ran for the position of circuit court judge. He won, and at the age of 29 he took office as the youngest judge in Wisconsin.

His earliest political campaigns showed hints of his future tactics. He lied about his opponents and inflated his own credentials. He seemed willing to do whatever he thought would help him to win.

In World War II he served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific. He served as an intelligence officer in an aviation unit, and at times he volunteered to fly as an observer on combat aircraft. He later inflated that experience, claiming to have been a tail-gunner. He would even use the nickname "Tail-Gunner Joe" as part of his political campaigns.

McCarthy's name was placed on the ballot in a Wisconsin race for U.S. Senate in 1944, while he was still serving overseas. He lost that election, but it seemed to show that he had an opportunity to run for higher office. After leaving the service in 1945 he was again elected as a judge in Wisconsin.

In 1946 McCarthy successfully ran for the U.S. Senate. He made no great impression on Capitol Hill for the first three years of his term, but in early 1950 that suddenly changed.

photograph of Senator Joseph McCarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy in a typical pose, brandishing a document.  Bettmann/Getty Images

Accusations and Fame

McCarthy was scheduled to give a speech at a Republican Party event in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. Instead of offering a mundane political speech, McCarthy claimed he possessed a list of 205 State Department employees who were members of the Communist Party.

The stunning accusation by McCarthy was reported by wire services and soon became a national sensation. Within days he followed up his speech by writing a letter to President Harry S. Truman, demanding that Truman fire dozens of State Department employees. The Truman administration expressed skepticism over McCarthy's supposed list of communists, which he would not divulge.

Photograph of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn
Senator Joseph McCarthy and lawyer Roy Cohn. Getty Images 

A Dominant Figure in America

Accusations about communists were nothing new. The House Un-American Activities Committee had been holding hearings and accusing Americans of communist sympathies for several years by the time McCarthy began his anti-communist crusade.

Americans had some reason to harbor fears of communism. Following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had come to dominate Eastern Europe. The Soviets had detonated their own atomic bomb in 1949. And American troops began fighting against communist forces in Korea in 1950.

McCarthy's accusations about communism cells operating within the federal government found a receptive audience. His relentless and reckless tactics and bombastic style eventually created a national panic.

In the 1950 midterm elections, McCarthy actively campaigned for Republican candidates. The candidates he supported won their races, and McCarthy was established as a political force in America.

McCarthy often dominated the news. He spoke out constantly on the topic of communist subversion, and his bullying tactics tended to scare off critics. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was no fan of McCarthy, avoided confronting him directly after he became president in 1953.

At the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, McCarthy was placed on a Senate committee, the Government Operations Committee, where it was hoped he might fade back into obscurity. Instead, he became chair of a subcommittee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which gave him a powerful new perch.

With the help of a crafty and unethical young lawyer, Roy Cohn, McCarthy turned his subcommittee into a powerful force in America. He specialized in holding fiery hearings in which witnesses were bullied and threatened.

photograph of Senator Joseph McCarthy and attorney Joseph Welch
Joseph McCarthy, left, and attorney Joseph Welch.  Robert Phillips/Getty Images

The Army-McCarthy Hearings

McCarthy had been receiving criticism since the beginning of his crusade in early 1950, but when he turned his attention to the U.S. Army in 1954, his position became vulnerable. McCarthy had been hurling accusations about communist influence in the Army. Intent on defending the institution against relentless and unfounded attacks, the Army hired a distinguished lawyer, Joseph Welch of Boston, Massachusetts.

In a series of televised hearings, McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, smeared the reputations of Army officers while seeking to prove there was a widespread communism conspiracy in the Army.

The most dramatic, and most widely remembered, moment in the hearings came after McCarthy and Cohn attacked a young man who worked in the Boston office of Welch's law firm. Welch's comment to McCarthy was reported on newspaper front pages the next day, and has become one of the most famous statements in any congressional hearing:

"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

The Army-McCarthy hearings were a turning point. From that point onward McCarthy's career followed a downward trajectory.

Decline and Death

Even before McCarthy was shamed by Joseph Welch, the pioneering broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow had seriously diminished McCarthy's power. In a landmark broadcast on March 9, 1954, Murrow showed clips which demonstrated McCarthy's unfair and unethical tactics.

With McCarthy weakened, a special Senate committee was formed to evaluate a resolution to censure McCarthy. On December 2, 1954, a vote was held in the Senate and McCarthy was officially censured. Following the official vote of Senate disapproval, McCarthy's reckless crusading was effectively ended.

McCarthy remained in the Senate, but he was a broken man. He drank heavily and was hospitalized. He died in Bethesda Naval Hospital on May 2, 1957. His official cause of death was listed as hepatitis, but it is believed he died of alcoholism.

The legacy of Joseph McCarthy has generally been that his fiery career in the Senate stands as a warning against reckless accusations made against fellow Americans. And, of course, the term McCarthyism is still used to describe his style of accusatory tactics.

Sources:

  • "McCarthy, Joseph." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by Laura B. Tyle, vol. 7, UXL, 2003, pp. 1264-1267.
  • "McCarthy, Joseph Raymond." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2010, pp. 8-9.
  • "The Army-McCarthy Hearings." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 6: 1950-1959, Gale, 2004, pp. 308-312.