The McCarthy Era

Destructive Political Era Was Marked by Anti-Communist Witch Hunts

Photo of Senator Joseph McCarthy holding papers.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, with attorney Roy Cohn (at left). Getty Images

The McCarthy Era was marked by dramatic accusations that communists had infiltrated the highest levels of American society as part of a global conspiracy. The period took its name from a Wisconsin senator, Joseph McCarthy, who created a frenzy in the press in February 1950 with his claim that hundreds of communists were spread throughout the State Department and other sectors of the Truman administration.

McCarthy did not create the widespread fear of communism in America at the time. But he was responsible for creating a pervasive atmosphere of suspicion which had dangerous consequences. Anyone's loyalty could be questioned, and many Americans were unfairly placed in the position of having to prove they were not communist sympathizers.

After a heyday of four years in the early 1950s, McCarthy was discredited. His thundering accusations turned out to be unfounded. Yet his endless cascade of accusations had very serious consequences. Careers were ruined, government resources were diverted, and the political discourse was coarsened. A new word, McCarthyism, had entered the English language.

Fear of Communism In America

Fear of communist subversion was nothing new when Senator Joseph McCarthy rode it to fame in 1950. It had first appeared in the United States following World War I, when it seemed the Russian Revolution of 1917 might spread throughout the world.

America's "Red Scare" of 1919 resulted in government raids which rounded up suspected radicals. Boatloads of "Reds" were deported to Europe.

A fear of radicals continued to exist, and intensified at times, such as when Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted and executed in the 1920s. 

By the late 1930s, American communists had become disillusioned with the Soviet Union and fear of communism in America subsided. But following the end of World War II, Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe revived fears of a global communist conspiracy.

In the United States, the loyalty of federal employees came into question. And a series of events made it seem that communists were actively influencing American society and undermining its government.

Setting the Stage for McCarthy

Photograph of HUAC hearing with actor Gary Cooper
Actor Gary Cooper testifying before HUAC. Getty Images

Before McCarthy's name became associated with the anti-communist crusade, several newsworthy events created an atmosphere of fear in America.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as HUAC, held highly publicized hearings in the late 1940s. An investigation into suspected communist subversion in Hollywood films resulted in the "Hollywood Ten" being convicted of perjury and sent to prison. Witnesses, including movie stars, were publicly questioned about any connections they may have had to communism.

The case of Alger Hiss, an American diplomat accused of spying for the Russians, also dominated the headlines in the late 1940s. The Hiss case was seized upon by an ​ambitious young California congressman, Richard M. Nixon, used the Hiss case to further his political career.

Rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy

Photograph of Sen. Joseph McCarthy at a map
Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Getty Images

Joseph McCarthy, who had held low-level offices in Wisconsin, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946. For his first few years on Capitol Hill, he was obscure and ineffective.

His public profile suddenly changed when he gave a speech at a Republican dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. In his speech, which was covered by Associated Press reporter, McCarthy made the extravagant claim that more than 200 known communists had infiltrated the State Department and other important federal offices.

A story about McCarthy's accusations ran in newspapers across America, and the obscure politician suddenly became a sensation in the press. When questioned by reporters, and challenged by other political figures, McCarthy stubbornly refused to name who the suspected communists were. He also tempered his accusations to some degree, reducing the number of suspected communists.

Other members of the U.S. Senate challenged McCarthy to explain his accusations. He responded to criticism by making more accusations.

The New York Times published an article on February 21, 1950, which described the startling speech McCarthy had delivered the previous day on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In the speech, McCarthy leveled extreme charges against the Truman administration:

"Mr. McCarthy charged that there was a sizable fifth column of Communists in the State Department, adding that Republicans and Democrats must unite to root them out. He said that President Truman did not know the situation, depicting the Chief Executive as 'a prisoner of a bunch of twisted intellectuals telling him only what they want him to know.'
"Of the eighty-one cases he knows he said there were three that are really 'big.' He said he could not understand how any Secretary of State could allow them to remain in his department."

In the following months, McCarthy continued his campaign of hurling accusations while never actually naming any of the suspected communists. To some Americans, he became a symbol of patriotism, while to others he was a reckless and destructive force.

The Most Feared Man In America

Photograph of Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson
President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

McCarthy continued his campaign of accusing unnamed Truman administration officials of being communists. He even attacked General George Marshall, who had guided American forces in World War II and was serving as secretary of defense. In speeches in 1951, he attacked Secretary of State Dean Acheson, mocking him as "the Red Dean of Fashion."

No one seemed safe from McCarthy's wrath. When other events in the news, such as America's entry into the Korean War, and the arrest of the Rosenbergs as Russian spies, made McCarthy's crusade seem not just plausible but necessary.

News articles from 1951 show McCarthy with a large and vocal following. At a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in New York City, he was cheered wildly. The New York Times reported that he received a standing ovation from enthusiastic veterans:

"There were shouts of 'Give 'em hell, Joe!' and 'McCarthy for President!' Some of the southern delegates let out rebel yells."

At times the senator from Wisconsin was called "the most feared man in America."

Opposition to McCarthy

As McCarthy first unleashed his attacks in 1950, some members of the Senate became alarmed as his recklessness. The only woman senator at the time, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, took to the Senate floor on June 1, 1950, and condemned McCarthy without directly naming him.

In Smith's speech, titled a "Declaration of Conscience," she said elements of the Republican Party were engaging in "selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance." Six other Republican senators signed on to her speech, which also criticized the Truman administration for what Smith termed a lack of leadership.

The condemnation of McCarthy on the Senate floor was viewed as an act of political courage. The New York Times, the following day, featured Smith on the front page. Yet her speech had little lasting effect.

Throughout the early 1950s, a number of political columnists opposed McCarthy. But, with American soldiers fighting communism in Korea, and the Rosenbergs headed to the electric chair in New York, the public's fear of communism meant the public perception of McCarthy remained favorable in many parts of the country.

McCarthy's Crusade Continued

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

Dwight Eisenhower, a celebrated military hero of World War II, was elected president in 1952. McCarthy was also elected to another term in the U.S. Senate.

Leaders of the Republican Party, having become wary of McCarthy's recklessness, hoped to sideline him. But he found a way of acquiring more power by becoming chairman of a Senate subcommittee on investigations.

McCarthy recruited an ambitious and wily young lawyer from New York City, Roy Cohn, to be the subcommittee's counsel. The two men set out to hunt communists with renewed zeal.

McCarthy's earlier target, the administration of Harry Truman, was no longer in power. So McCarthy and Cohn began looking elsewhere for communist subversion, and came upon the idea that the U.S. Army was harboring communists.

McCarthy's Decline

Photograph of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow
Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

McCarthy's attacks on the Army would be his downfall. His routine of making accusations had worn thin, and when he began attacking military officers his public support suffered.

A noted broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow, helped to diminish McCarthy's reputation by broadcasting a program about him on the evening of March 9, 1954. As much of the nation tuned in to the half-hour program, Murrow dismantled McCarthy.

Using clips of McCarthy's tirades, Murrow demonstrated how the senator typically used innuendo and half-truths to smear witnesses and destroy reputations. Murrow's concluding statement of the broadcast was widely quoted:

"This is no time for men to oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, nor for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.
"The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies, and whose fault is that? Not really his, he didn't create the situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right, 'The fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"

Murrow's broadcast hastened McCarthy's downfall.

The Army-McCarthy Hearings

Photograph of woman watching Senator Joseph McCarthy on TV
A mother watching the Army-McCarthy hearings. Getty Images

McCarthy's reckless attacks on the U.S. Army continued and reached a climax in hearings in the summer of 1954. The Army had retained a noted Boston attorney, Joseph Welch, who sparred with McCarthy on live television.

In an exchange that became historic, McCarthy brought up the fact that a young lawyer in Welch's law firm had once belonged to an organization suspected of being a communist front group. Welch was deeply offended by McCarthy's blatant smear tactic, and delivered an emotional response:

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

Welch's comments appeared on newspaper front pages the following day. McCarthy never recovered from the public shaming. The Army-McCarthy hearings continued for another week, but to many it seemed that McCarthy was finished as a political force.

McCarthy's Downfall

Opposition to McCarthy, which ranged from President Eisenhower to members of Congress to disenchanted members of the public, grew after the Army-McCarthy hearings. The U.S. Senate, in late 1954, took action to formally censure McCarthy.

During the debates on the censure motion, Senator William Fulbright, a Democrat from Arkansas, said McCarthy's tactics had caused a "great sickness" in the American people. Fulbright also likened McCarthyism to a "prairie fire which neither he nor anyone else may be able to control."

The Senate voted overwhelmingly, 67-22, to censure McCarthy on December 2, 1954. The conclusion of the resolution stated that McCarthy had "acted contrary to Senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity; and such conduct is hereby condemned."

Following his formal condemnation by his fellow Senators, McCarthy's role in public life was greatly diminished. He remained in the Senate but had virtually no power, and he was often absent from proceedings.

His health suffered, and there were rumors that he was drinking heavily. He died of a liver ailment, at the age of 47, on May 2, 1957, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, in the Washington suburbs.

Senator McCarthy's reckless crusade had lasted less than five years. The irresponsible and blustering tactics of one man had come to define an unfortunate era in American history. 

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McNamara, Robert. "The McCarthy Era." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). The McCarthy Era. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The McCarthy Era." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).