Censure of senator joseph mccarthy (1954)



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CENSURE OF SENATOR JOSEPH MCCARTHY (1954)

Periodically American society has been gripped by fear, and its responses have not done credit to its democratic nature. In this century the Red Scare following World War I (see Document 43) saw hundreds of innocent aliens rounded up, imprisoned and deported, for no reason other than fear of their allegedly radical ideas. The Cold War unleashed another Red Scare in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But where there had been no great alien menace in 1919, communism did exist and did pose a danger to western democracy in the post-World War II era.

The hunt for subversives started during the war itself, and was furthered by congressional committees that often abused their powers of investigation to harass people with whom they differed politically. Then in February 1950, an undistinguished, first-term Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, burst into national prominence when, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, he held up a piece of paper that he claimed was a list of 205 known communists currently working in the State Department. McCarthy never produced documentation for a single one of his charges, but for the next four years he exploited an issue that he realized had touched a nerve in the American public.

He and his aides, Roy Cohn and David Schine, made wild accusations, browbeat witnesses, destroyed reputations and threw mud at men like George Marshall, Adlai Stevenson, and others whom McCarthy charged were part of an effete "eastern establishment." For several years, McCarthy terrorized American public life, and even Dwight Eisenhower, who detested McCarthy, was afraid to stand up to him. Finally, however, the senator from Wisconsin over-reached himself.

In January 1954, in what were to be the first televised hearings in American history, McCarthy obliquely attacked President Eisenhower and directly assaulted Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens. Day after day the public watched McCarthy in action -- bullying, harassing, never producing any hard evidence, and his support among people who thought he was "right" on communism began to evaporate. Americans regained their senses, and the Red Scare finally began to wane. By the end of the year, the Senate decided that its own honor could no longer put up with McCarthy's abuse of his legislative powers, and it censured him in December by a vote of 65 to 22.

For further reading: Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (1959); Stanley

Joe McCarthy entered history in 1947 when he made a speech claiming to know the names of Communists agents working in the State Department. With unsupported accusations and exhausting investigations, McCarthy made Communism the hottest domestic issue of the 1950s. (1)

Born in 1908 in Wisconsin, Joseph Raymond McCarthy began his career as a lawyer. He served as district attorney and judge before entering the military during World War II in order to help his political career. In 1946 he won the Republican nomination for Senator, and went on to win the election to become the junior Senator from Wisconsin.

While in Washington, McCarthy quickly attracted attention because of his outrageousness. His accusations of Communist infiltration in the US brought attention to an issue that sparked fear in many Americans. Though his claims were often unsubstantiated, the media portrayed his accusations as hard news, so many people thought McCarthy was fighting an honest war against Communism.

Responding to McCarthy’s accusations, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began a full study and investigation "as to whether persons who are disloyal to the United States are or have been employed by the Department of State." Upon investigation, the Committee declared the charges were "groundless and that the Senate and the American people had been deceived." (2) McCarthy did not stop the accusations, though, and in 1953 he targeted the army, claiming it, too, was infested with Communists.

The Army-McCarthy hearings began in 1954 and were aired on television, which gave the American people a chance to witness a new side of McCarthy. Before the hearings, fifty percent of Americans approved of Senator McCarthy, but by the end his approval dropped to thirty-four percent. Roberta Feuerlicht, in Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism, wrote "Besides his ceaseless bullying and complaints, there were several when McCarthy and McCarthyism were revealed so nakedly no one could ever be misled again." (3)

Following the hearings, McCarthy was found in contempt of the Senate and its Committees. His career was over. "The circus had come to an end, and so had McCarthy. His real work never had been digging out communism, crime and corruption. It had been running a political circus. …For five years he had held the center of the stage with his traveling carnival on communism, but the show had finally closed." (4)


Senator Joseph McCarthy was the leading American anticommunist figure in the late 1940s and early 50s. McCarthy himself was a product of Wisconsin. He left school at 14 years of age to tend to a farm. Six years later he returned and completed High School. The following year he was a student at Marquette University. He received his law degree from that institution in 1935. Eleven years later, he was elected to the Senate.

McCarthy first began his witch hunt in February of 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia. This is when he waved a piece of paper and claimed it had the names of 205 Communist Party members who held high positions in the State Department. A special committee looked into the accusations, and then denounced them all as false, and attacked McCarthy for unethical tactics. For the next couple of years these attacks continued, on several people, no one was safe.

After winning reelection in 1952, McCarthy had guaranteed himself a position of chairman of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate Government Operations Committee. His first attack was on Charles E. Bohlen. This was the man who President Eisenhower had nominated for the ambassador to the Soviet Union. This accusation put quite a distance between the President and the Senator.

Each new investigation into McCarthy's accusations drove him into further excess. In November of 1953, he attacked President Eisenhower on national television of not acting to eliminate subversives from the federal government and that America had been "reduced to a state of whining and whimpering appeasement."

In December of 1953, McCarthy accused one person too many. This time the communist was supposed to be Major Irving Peress, who was a memeber of the left-wing American Labor Party. In November of 1953 Peress had been routinely promoted to the rank of major under the Doctor Draft Law, although he invoked the 5th Amendment when asked about loyalty. A few weeks later the Pentagon learned of his background, and ordered a discharge. McCarthy called Peress before his subcommittee on January 30, 1954. When McCarthy asked about the loyalty of Peress, he again took the 5th. McCarthy then demanded that Peress be court-martialed, but the process of the discharge had already started. Immediately after his appearance before McCarthy, Peress was given an honorable discharge.



From this point on, the public image of McCarthy dwindled. Politicians and comedians everywhere took part in the bashing. Perhaps the most damaging of attack came from then Vice President Richard Nixon, who speaking on behalf of the administration on March 13th, 1954, he denounced "reckless talk and questionable methods" of McCarthyites. From here it was only a matter of time. On December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22. McCarthy responded with a bitter attack on the Eisenhower administration, and apologized to the American people for urging them to vote for Eisenhower. His health deteriorated, and he began to drink. McCarthy died on May 2, 1957. The official cause of death was acute hepatitis. However, according to a number of sources, it was due to liver cirrhosis.

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