What Impact did Joseph McCarthy have on the Red Scare? – Part One: McCarthy’s Accusations Background

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What Impact did Joseph McCarthy have on the Red Scare? – Part One: McCarthy’s Accusations


First elected as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin in 1946, few noticed Joseph McCarthy during his first three years in the Senate. All that changed when in February 1950 he made a bombshell speech. Addressing the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, he announced that he had evidence that in spite of the Truman administration's efforts to eliminate disloyal elements from government service, 205 members of the Communist Party continued to work for the State Department.

It is likely that even McCarthy himself was surprised at the public reaction to his revelations. In the past two years the United States had watched as China had become a communist country, the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, and North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea. America, which had seemed the world's dominant power in 1945, felt its position slipping away, and McCarthy's accusations provided a convenient explanation.

The Senate, therefore, was inclined to look into these charges, and a committee was soon set up under Maryland Democrat Millard Tydings. The charges, Tydings concluded, were without foundation, but few were paying attention. Three days after the Maryland senator publicly rejected McCarthy's accusations Julius Rosenberg was arrested for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The issue of Soviet penetration of the U.S. government seemed shockingly real. As for Tydings, when he stood for reelection later that year McCarthy and his allies accused him of being "soft on communism." Marylanders took the charge seriously—Tydings, who had been in the Senate since 1927, was defeated.

The message sent by the Tydings defeat was clear—it was dangerous to stand in the way of Joe McCarthy. For the next two years the accusations flew, and quite a few Democrats (and even some Republicans, such as Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who dared criticize the senator from Wisconsin) found themselves accused of being "communist sympathizers." In 1952, aided in part by McCarthy's accusations (but probably more so by the stalemated war in Korea), the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress, while GOP candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in a landslide.

In the short term at least, Republican dominance in Washington gave McCarthy new prestige and power. He was awarded the chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and used his position to subpoena a series of government employees. His accusations did not remain limited to the State Department. Soon employees of Voice of America, and even officers and enlisted men of the U.S. Army, were called before McCarthy's committee and accused of being at best naïve dupes of communism, and at worst traitors to their country.

In the long run, however, Republican control of Congress and the White House led to McCarthy's downfall. Many Republicans had privately expressed doubts about McCarthy's reckless accusations, but had remained silent when his targets were Democrats. Among these was Eisenhower himself, who had refused even to defend his former Army colleague George C. Marshall when McCarthy suggested that he was a subversive. However, after 1952 the Wisconsin Senator was becoming more and more of an embarrassment to the GOP. When in 1953 he began to suggest that communists had infiltrated the Army, Eisenhower went on the attack, issuing an order forbidding any member of his administration from testifying before McCarthy's committee.

The final straw came in 1954, when the Army accused McCarthy and his chief lieutenant, Roy Cohn, of pressuring the Army into giving preferential treatment to Cohn's friend G. David Schine. Now it was McCarthy himself who was on the hot seat, and in the resulting Army-McCarthy Hearings, broadcast on nationwide television, the Wisconsin Senator came across as a common bully. Meanwhile, the Army's chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, finally shamed him with the famous words, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" In December 1954 he was formally censured by the Senate, which put an end to his investigations once and for all. A painful chapter in America's history had at last come to its close.

Activity 1 – McCarthy’s Accusations

Read through Sources 1-4 and answer the following questions as you go. Be prepared to discuss next lesson:

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