Senator Joe McCarthy* and the Red Scare of the 1950s have been on my mind a lot lately. McCarthy took the very real fear many Americans felt about the spread of communism** and turned them into an official witch-hunt for his personal political benefit.
Born to a Wisconsin farm family in 1908, McCarthy left school at fourteen. He worked as a chicken farmer and a grocery store manager before he went back to high school at the age of twenty. He went on to get a law degree from Marquette University. Up to this point, McCarthy’s career looks like a textbook example of the American dream.
In 1948, McCarthy was elected to the United States Senate in an upset victory over the incumbent senator, Robert LaFollette, Jr. LaFollette was a second generation progressive Republican senator.*** His seat in the senate seemed so secure that people said if “Little Bob” could be unseated anyone could be unseated.
McCarthy fought a dirty campaign. He lied about his war record, claiming to have flown thirty-two missions during World War II when he actually worked a desk job and only flew in training exercises. LaFollette was too old for military service when Pearl Harbor was bombed, but McCarthy attacked him for not enlisting and accused him of war profiteering. Ad hominem attacks make for sexy headlines. Fact checking does not. McCarthy won the election.
On his first day as a senator, McCarthy called a little-noticed press conference that was a dress rehearsal for his later performance as a demagogue. He had a modest proposal for ending a coal strike that was in progress: draft union leader John L. Lewis and the striking miners into the army. If they still continued to strike, he argued that they should be court-martialed for insubordination and then shot.
It was an ugly start to a career that would get even uglier.
*Not to be confused with Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005), who was the opposite of the early Senator McCarthy in pretty much every way possible.
**Whether those fears were legitimate is another question all together.
***Yes, you read that correctly. A progressive Republican. So progressive that he was accused of being a fellow-traveler with communists. The world has changed.