Joseph McCarthy was born on a farm in Appleton, Wisconsin, on 14th November, 1908. His parents were devout Roman Catholics and Joseph was the fifth of nine children. He left school at 14 and worked as a chicken farmer before managing a grocery store in the nearby town of Manawa.
McCarthy returned to high school in 1928 and after achieving the necessary qualifications, won a place at Marquette University. After graduating McCarthy worked as a lawyer but was fairly unsuccessful and had to supplement his income by playing poker.
McCarthy was originally a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. However, after failing to become the Democratic Party candidate for district attorney, he switched parties and became the Republican Party candidate in an election to become a circuit court judge.
McCarthy shocked local officials by fighting a dirty campaign. This included publishing campaign literature that falsely claimed that his opponent, Edgar Werner, was 73 (he was actually 66). As well as suggesting that Werner was senile, McCarthy implied that he was guilty of financial corruption.
When the United States entered the Second Word War McCarthy resigned as a circuit judge and joined the U.S. Marines. After the war McCarthy ran against Robert La Follette to become Republican candidate for the senate. As one of his biographers has pointed out, his campaign posters pictured him in "full fighting gear, with an aviator's cap, and belt upon belt of machine gun ammunition wrapped around his bulky torso." He claimed he had completed thirty-two missions when in fact he had a desk job and only flew in training exercises.
In his campaign, McCarthy attacked La Follette for not enlisting during the war. He had been forty-six when Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and was in fact too old to join the armed services. McCarthy also claimed that La Follette had made huge profits from his investments while he had been away fighting for his country. The suggestion that La Follette had been guilty of war profiteering (his investments had in fact been in a radio station), was deeply damaging and McCarthy won by 207,935 to 202,557. La Follette, deeply hurt by the false claims made against him, retired from politics, and later committed suicide.
On his first day in the Senate, McCarthy called a press conference where he proposed a solution to a coal-strike that was taking place at the time. McCarthy called for John L. Lewis and the striking miners to be drafted into the Army. If the men still refused to mine the coal, McCarthy suggested they should be court-martialed for insubordination and shot.
McCarthy's first years in the Senate were unimpressive. People also started coming forward claiming that he had lied about his war record. Another problem for McCarthy was that he was being investigated for tax offences and for taking bribes from the Pepsi-Cola Company. In May, 1950, afraid that he would be defeated in the next election, McCarthy held a meeting with some of his closest advisers and asked for suggestions on how he could retain his seat. Edmund Walsh, a Roman Catholics priest, came up with the idea that he should begin a campaign against communist subversives working in the Democratic administration.
McCarthy also contacted his friend, the journalist, Jack Anderson. In his autobiography, Confessions of a Muckraker, Anderson pointed out: "At my prompting he (McCarthy) would phone fellow senators to ask what had transpired this morning behind closed doors or what strategy was planned for the morrow. While I listened in on an extension he would pump even a Robert Taft or a William Knowland with the handwritten questions I passed him."
In return, Anderson provided McCarthy with information about politicians and state officials he suspected of being "communists". Anderson later recalled that his decision to work with McCarthy "was almost automatic.. for one thing, I owed him; for another, he might be able to flesh out some of our inconclusive material, and if so, I would no doubt get the scoop." As a result Anderson passed on his file on the presidential aide, David Demarest Lloyd.
McCarthy also began receiving information from his friend, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). William C. Sullivan, one of Hoover's agents, later admitted that: "We were the ones who made the McCarthy hearings possible. We fed McCarthy all the material he was using." McCarthy made a speech in Salt Lake City where he attacked Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, as "a pompous diplomat in striped pants".
On 9th February, 1950, at a meeting of the Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy claimed that he had a list of 205 people in the State Department that were known to be members of the American Communist Party (later he reduced this figure to 57). McCarthy went on to argue that some of these people were passing secret information to the Soviet Union. He added: "The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer - the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give."
The list of names was not a secret and had been in fact published by the Secretary of State in 1946. These people had been identified during a preliminary screening of 3,000 federal employees. Some had been communists but others had been fascists, alcoholics and sexual deviants. As it happens, if McCarthy had been screened, his own drink problems and sexual preferences would have resulted in him being put on the list.
Raymond Gram Swing, who worked for the the Blue Radio Network, later explained the impact of his speech: "In those four years he (McCarthy) throve as a demagogue, and frightened many, if not all, diplomats into failing to give their frank opinions to the government for fear of being falsely accused of Communist tendencies. The government thus suffered from a debility among diplomats. Employees in the Information Agency had to smother their political judgments lest they be pilloried by Senator McCarthy's congressional committee. It was a season of terror for which Senator McCarthy somewhat incorrectly bears all the blame. He became the name-symbol of the epoch, not by accident, for that was precisely what he wanted. He found the Communist issue when he needed something to make himself known and powerful. Through his exploitation of it and by his attacks on innocent persons, he did the United States more harm at home, and in democratic countries abroad, than any individual in modern times."
On 20th February, 1950, McCarthy made a six hour speech on the Senate floor supporting the allegations he had made in Salt Lake City. This time he did not describe them as "card-carrying communists" because this had been shown to be untrue. Instead he argued that his list were all "loyalty risks". He also claimed that one of the president's speech-writers, was a communist. David Demarest Lloyd immediately issued a statement where he defended himself against McCarthy's charges. President Harry S. Truman not only kept him on but promoted him to the post of Administrative Assistant. Lloyd was indeed innocent of these claims and McCarthy was forced to withdraw these allegations. As Anderson admitted: "At my instigation, then, Lloyd had been done an injustice that was saved from being grevious only by Truman's steadfastness."
McCarthy also claimed that the Democratic administration had been infiltrated by communist subversives. McCarthy named four of these people, who had held left-wing views in their youth, but when Democrats accused McCarthy of smear tactics, he suggested they were part of this communist conspiracy. This claim was used against his critics who were up for re-election in 1950. Many of them lost and this made other Democrats reluctant to criticize McCarthy in case they became targets of his smear campaigns.
Drew Pearson immediately launched an attack on Joseph McCarthy. He pointed out that only three people on the list were State Department officials. When this list was first published four years ago, Gustavo Duran and Mary Jane Keeney had both resigned from the State Department in 1946. The third person, John S. Service, had been cleared after a prolonged and careful investigation. Pearson also pointed out that none of these people had been members of the American Communist Party. Jack Anderson asked Pearson to stop attacking McCarthy: "He is our best source on the Hill." Pearson replied, "He may be a good source, Jack, but he's a bad man."
With the war going badly in Korea and communist advances in Eastern Europe and in China, the American public were genuinely frightened about the possibilities of internal subversion. McCarthy, as chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, was in an ideal position to exploit this situation.
For the next two years McCarthy investigated various government departments and questioned a large number of people about their political past. Some people lost their jobs after they admitted they had been members of the Communist Party. McCarthy made it clear to the witnesses that the only way of showing that they had abandoned their left-wing views was by naming other members of the party.
This witch-hunt and anti-communist hysteria became known as McCarthyism. Some left-wing artists and intellectuals were unwilling to live in this type of society and people such as Joseph Losey, Richard Wright, Ollie Harrington, James Baldwin, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole and Chester Himes went to live and work in Europe.
McCarthyism was mainly used against Democrats associated with the New Deal policies introduced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Harry S. Truman and members of his Democratic administration such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson, were accused of being soft on communism. Truman was portrayed as a dangerous liberal and McCarthy's campaign helped the Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower, win the presidential election in 1952.
After what had happened to McCarthy's opponents in the 1950 election, most politicians were unwilling to criticize him in the Senate. As The Boston Post pointed out: "Attacking him is this state is regarded as a certain method of committing suicide. One notable exception was William Benton, a senator from Connecticut and the owner of Encyclopaedia Britannica. McCarthy and his supporters immediately began smearing Benton. It was claimed that while Benton had been Assistant Secretary of State he had protected known communists and that he had been responsible for the purchase and display of "lewd art works". Benton, who was also accused of being disloyal by McCarthy for having much of his company's work printed in England, was defeated in the 1952 elections.
McCarthy informed Jack Anderson that he had evidence that Professor Owen Lattimore, director of the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, was a Soviet spy. Drew Pearson, who knew Lattimore, and while accepting he held left-wing views, he was convinced he was not a spy. In his speeches, McCarthy referred to Lattimore as "Mr X... the top Russian spy... the key man in a Russian espionage ring."
On 26th March, 1950, Pearson named Lattimore as McCarthy's Mr. X. Pearson then went onto defend Lattimore against these charges. McCarthy responded by making a speech in Congress where he admitted: "I fear that in the case of Lattimore I may have perhaps placed too much stress on the question of whether he is a paid espionage agent."
McCarthy then produced Louis Budenz, the former editor of The Daily Worker. Budenz claimed that Lattimore was a "concealed communist". However, as Anderson admitted: "Budenz had never met Lattimore; he spoke not from personal observation of him but from what he remembered of what others had told him five, six, seven and thirteen years before."
Drew Pearson now wrote an article where he showed that Budenz was a serial liar: "Apologists for Budenz minimize this on the ground that Budenz has now reformed. Nevertheless, untruthful statements made regarding his past and refusal to answer questions have a bearing on Budenz's credibility." He went on to point out that "all in all, Budenz refused to answer 23 questions on the ground of self-incrimination".
Owen Lattimore was eventually cleared of the charge that he was a Soviet spy or a secret member of the American Communist Party and like other victims of McCarthyism, he went to live in Europe and for several years was professor of Chinese studies at Leeds University.
Despite the efforts of Jack Anderson, by the end of June, 1950, Drew Pearson had written more than forty daily columns and a significant percentage of his weekly radio broadcasts, that had been devoted to discrediting the charges made by Joseph McCarthy.
Joe McCarthy now told Anderson: "Jack, I'm going to have to go after your boss. I mean, no holds barred. I figure I've already lost his supporters; by going after him, I can pick up his enemies." McCarthy, when drunk, told Assistant Attorney General Joe Keenan, that he was considering "bumping Pearson off".
On 15th December, 1950, McCarthy made a speech in Congress where he claimed that Pearson was "the voice of international Communism" and "a Moscow-directed character assassin." McCarthy added that Pearson was "a prostitute of journalism" and that Pearson "and the Communist Party murdered James Forrestal in just as cold blood as though they had machine-gunned him."
Over the next two months McCarthy made seven Senate speeches on Drew Pearson. He called for a "patriotic boycott" of his radio show and as a result, Adam Hats, withdrew as Pearson's radio sponsor. Although he was able to make a series of short-term arrangements, Pearson was never again able to find a permanent sponsor. Twelve newspapers cancelled their contract with Pearson.
McCarthy and his friends also raised money to help Fred Napoleon Howser, the Attorney General of California, to sue Pearson for $350,000. This involved an incident in 1948 when Pearson accused Howser of consorting with mobsters and of taking a bribe from gambling interests. Help was also given to Father Charles Coughlin, who sued Pearson for $225,000. However, in 1951 the courts ruled that Pearson had not libeled either Howser or Coughlin.
Only the St. Louis Star-Times defended Pearson. As its editorial pointed out: "If Joseph McCarthy can silence a critic named Drew Pearson, simply by smearing him with the brush of Communist association, he can silence any other critic." However, Pearson did get the support of J. William Fulbright, Wayne Morse, Clinton Anderson, William Benton and Thomas Hennings in the Senate.
In 1952 McCarthy appointed Roy Cohn as the chief counsel to the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. Cohn had been recommended by J. Edgar Hoover, who had been impressed by his involvement in the prosecution of Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg. Soon after Cohn was appointed, he recruited his best friend, David Schine, to become his chief consultant.
McCarthy's next target was what he believed were anti-American books in libraries. His researchers looked into the Overseas Library Program and discovered 30,000 books by "communists, pro-communists, former communists and anti anti-communists." After the publication of this list, these books were removed from the library shelves.
For some time opponents of McCarthy had been accumulating evidence concerning his homosexual activities. Several members of his staff, including Roy Cohn and David Schine, were also suspected of having a sexual relationship. Although well-known by political journalists, the first article about it did not appear until Hank Greenspun published an article in the Las Vegas Sun in 25th October, 1952. Greenspun wrote that: "It is common talk among homosexuals in Milwaukee who rendezvous in the White Horse Inn that Senator Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities."
McCarthy considered a libel suit against Greenspun but decided against it when he was told by his lawyers that if the case went ahead he would have to take the witness stand and answer questions about his sexuality. In an attempt to stop the rumours circulating, McCarthy married his secretary, Jeannie Kerr. Later the couple adopted a five-week old girl from the New York Foundling Home.
In October, 1953, McCarthy began investigating communist infiltration into the military. Attempts were made by McCarthy to discredit Robert Stevens, the Secretary of the Army. The president, Dwight Eisenhower, was furious and now realised that it was time to bring an end to McCarthy's activities. The United States Army now passed information about McCarthy to journalists who were known to be opposed to him. This included the news that McCarthy and Roy Cohn had abused congressional privilege by trying to prevent David Schine from being drafted. When that failed, it was claimed that Cohn tried to pressurize the Army into granting Schine special privileges. Drew Pearson, published the story on 15th December, 1953.
Some figures in the media, such as writers George Seldes and I. F. Stone, and cartoonists, Herb Block and Daniel Fitzpatrick, had fought a long campaign against McCarthy. Other figures in the media, who had for a long time been opposed to McCarthyism, but were frightened to speak out, now began to get the confidence to join the counter-attack. Edward Murrow, the experienced broadcaster, used his television programme, See It Now, on 9th March, 1954, to criticize McCarthy's methods. Newspaper columnists such as Walter Lippmann also became more open in their attacks on McCarthy.
The senate investigations into the United States Army were televised and this helped to expose the tactics of Joseph McCarthy. One newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, reported that: "In this long, degrading travesty of the democratic process, McCarthy has shown himself to be evil and unmatched in malice." Leading politicians in both parties, had been embarrassed by McCarthy's performance and on 2nd December, 1954, a censure motion condemned his conduct by 67 votes to 22.
Raymond Gram Swing, who had been forced to resign from the Voice of America because of McCarthy, argued in his autobiography, Good Evening (1964) that this did not mark the end of McCarthyism: "I am more than a little disquieted that McCarthy's condemnation by the Senate and his subsequent death have satisfied so many people that McCarthyism is over. For one thing, I consider that the condemnation by the Senate has given unwarranted satisfaction. It was based on an altogether peculiar sense of the importance of secondary matters. I am profoundly grateful that the committee went as far as it did. But I feel that it left out of account in its condemnation most of what Senator McCarthy had injuriously done. It ignored his roughshod disregard of civil rights and his irrepressible mendacity, and the fact that they existed while he was acting with the authority of the Senate. These transgressions were not specifically and helpfully rebuked at the time or ever. American principles and ethics were not strengthened by the Senate resolution of condemnation. The nation did not become healthier through it. It simply was rid of a menace because some Senate conservatives realized that their dignity was being sullied."
McCarthy now lost the chairmanship of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. He was now without a power base and the media lost interest in his claims of a communist conspiracy. As one journalist, Willard A. Edwards, pointed out: "Most reporters just refused to file McCarthy stories. And most papers would not have printed them anyway."
McCarthy, who had been drinking heavily for many years, was discovered to have cirrhosis of the liver. An alcoholic, he was unable to take the advice of doctors and friends to stop drinking. Joseph McCarthy died in the Bethesda Naval Hospital on 2nd May, 1957. As the newspapers reported, McCarthy had drunk himself to death.