If you’re coming in late to the party, you may want to read the previous post. Here’s the short version: in 1948 Joseph McCarthy won a seat in the US Senate with a dirty campaign and began his senatorial career with a press conference calling for striking miners to be drafted, court-martialed, and then shot. Here’s what happened next:
By 1950, McCarthy’s Senate career was in trouble. The fact that he had lied about his war record during the election campaign had become public. Moreover, he was under investigation for tax offenses and for accepting bribes from Pepsi-Cola to vote in favor of removing wartime restrictions on sugar.
McCarthy directed public attention from his own problems by going on the attack. On February 9, 1950, while speaking to a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy announced that he had a list of 205 State Department employees who were “card-carrying” members of the American Communist Party,* some of whom were busy passing classified information to the Soviet Union.
When the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations asked McCarthy to testify, he was unable to provide the name of a single “card-carrying communist” in any government department. Undeterred by the absence of facts, McCarthy began an anti-communist campaign in the national media. He began by claiming communist subversives had infiltrated President Truman’s administration. When the Democrats accused McCarthy of using smear tactics, he claimed that their accusations were part of the communist conspiracy.
As a result of McCarthy’s tactics, the Republicans swept the 1950 elections. Having watched him use scare tactics to discredit his opponents during the election, the remaining Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize him. McCarthy, whom the Washington press corps once voted “the worst US senator”, was now one of the most powerful men in Congress.
After being re-elected in 1952, McCarthy became the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations, and more importantly of its permanent investigation subcommittee. In an ironic mirror image of Stalin’s trials of alleged counter-revolutionaries,** McCarthy used his position to hold hearings against individuals whom he accused of being communists and government agencies that he claimed harbored them. He attacked journalists who criticized his hearings. He campaigned to have “anti-American” books removed from libraries. He accused newly elected Republican president Dwight Eisenhower of being soft on communism.
McCarthy ran into trouble in April, 1954, when he turned his attention to supposed communist infiltration of the United States Army. The army fought back by providing information to journalists known to oppose McCarthy, including evidence that McCarthy had tried to use his influence to get preferential treatment for his aides when they were drafted. The end came with the decision to broadcast the “Army-McCarthy” hearings on national television. For thirty-six days Americans watched from their living rooms as McCarthy bullied witnesses and offered evasive answers to questions. At one point, after McCarthy attacked a young Army lawyer, the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Nye Welch, demanded “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
By the end of the hearings, McCarthy had lost most of his allies and the trust of the American people. Later that year, with a vote of sixty-seven to twenty-two,** the Senate officially censured McCarthy for conduct “contrary to Senate traditions.” He remained in office, but had no power beyond his senatorial vote. (Which is not nothing.) He died before the end of his second term, leaving as his legacy a cautionary political tale of popular fear, demagoguery, abuse of power, and the value of a democratic system of checks and balances.
*Personally, I doubt that the American Communist Party issued membership cards at the time. It was a disorganized group prone to fracturing along theological lines.
**Ironic from an historical perspective. It is unlikely that McCarthy intended the irony.
***Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states. But unless I’m doing the math wrong that still means some senators must have abstained or taken a convenient bathroom break.