McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Part 2: Attacking “Communists”, and Anyone Else Who Got In His Way

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:

McCarthy hearings

Joseph Nye Welch, chief counsel for the US Army, being questioned by Joseph McCarthy

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.



  1. Molly Heise on November 25, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    Rock solid, Pam!

  2. Iris Seefeldt on November 26, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    It is hard to believe that a person like that was ever allowed to open his mouth in public or anywhere much less the venue of the public forum. I guess the press at large in that time were in search of sensationalism hanging on every word. Where were the scruples then? Who were the voices speaking out against him. Where are they now? In our American history it has always been a fight for one side or the other. It is time to make a change. I believe the Internet must be the discerning means of giving the inquisitive public the complete story and to those who wish to misconstrue its share of honest pablum.
    Those of you who are to young to know what that is, it’s a food product like porridge that can be smeared around in your mouth. That means it takes a while to digest before it is swallowed.

  3. Iris Seefeldt on November 26, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    upon reading over my comments from a year ago, I find things have come pretty close to what we were reading about at the time of that article. We still have honest journalists, honest forthright Media and honest truth seekers among the general public. Those of us who remember the 50’s were loathe to think it could happen again and again and it did. The past will always haunt us.

    • pamela on November 26, 2017 at 8:10 pm


  4. Ken Joyce on February 8, 2018 at 3:31 am

    Bull ! Why is it that you leftist’s always suck back this crap because it fits the way YOU want people to see things. The fact is, the Democratic Party of the United States was in cahoots with the Communist Party of the United States. The leader of the CPUSA Earl Browder endorsed Roosevelt and during WWII sections of the CPUSA morphed with the Democrats. I have found archival information in the UK and Canada that bolsters a lot of what the House of Un-American Activities was stating. This includes a secret OSS/SIS recruiting scheme to recruit Communists in the US and South America for operations into Eastern Europe in support of the Soviets. We also have evidence of the depth of infiltration of the US State Department. This also occurred in the UK and Canada. Most of these records are still CLOSED. So how the hell do you morons think you have the entire picture? What I have found were snippets of info lost in files dealing with other matters or others convicted of espionage that are widely known. Even the release of only a fraction of the US Army Signals Security Service VENONA decrypts exonerate McCarthy. Much of what was stated about his military service has now been corroborated as being a lie. This is because, unlike the slanderous LEFT, someone actually thought to get his service record !!!!! The fact is that beginning in 1922 the CPUSA was linked to Moscow and was a member of the COMINTERN. In fact their archives is in Moscow NOT the USA. So what did they have to hide? You morons have to understand that Communists wanted to take over the world by FORCE. This meant violence and murder, coersion, subversion and espionage. Their printed manifesto went against everything the US stood for. Their compatriots in Germany put Hitler in power. Their combined effort of evil and stupidity murdered over 140 MILLION HUMAN BEINGS. So frankly go f-k yourself if you think Communism is in anyway, shape or form acceptable to a sane human being.

    • pamela on February 8, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      And yet I have allowed you to share your opinion here.

      For the record, I don’t approve of despots on either the right or the left.

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