McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Part I: Dirty Tactics

401px-joseph_mccarthySenator 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.



  1. Catherine Anderson on November 22, 2016 at 12:55 am

    Please, give us more! McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn, was Trump’s friend, mentor, and attorney for years in the 1970s and 1980s. Note that one of America’s greatest plays, “Angels in America”, is about AIDS in the 1980s, and the death of Roy Cohn from AIDS. It’s a very important play, and key to understanding just who Roy Cohn was. See also an excellent film, “Citizen Cohn”, 1992, based on biography by Nicholas von Hoffman.

    • pamela on November 22, 2016 at 2:54 am

      Part II is already to post on Friday!

      I didn’t realize that Ray Cohn’s death was part of Angels in America. Time to do some reading.

  2. Iris Seefeldt on November 22, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    An interesting topic today. I was just 10 when I first heard about McCarthy as we had come from Germany and I saw TV for the first time. The terms “Communism” were batted around and it seemed ominous to me, but in a child’s mind just another thing you shouldn’t do in those years. It was akin to not going into the church of other denominations, for fear of becoming indoctrinated. I look back at those times now and feel lucky we got over it, for the most part due to those who had a higher standard. The media was mostly the written word, although TV and Radio was beginning to have more attention with the public after Eisenhower ran for President. In the background, J.Edgar Hoover was stirring his pots and making things hot for many people albeit covertly. So we have much to look back on from which we can learn. Some people refuse to look however and look where it is getting them.

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