How did a junior senator from Wisconsin hold such sway over the nation’s thinking? A former marine, full of bluster and backroom poker-game charisma, McCarthy came across as an underdog “skunk-hunter,” the plainspoken guy-next-door who would run the Red Menace out of town. He promised to hunt down and purge “Un-American,” disloyal bleeding hearts and “fellow travelers.”
Voters loved his unsophisticated Midwestern bluntness, tough simplistic rhetoric, and bad-boy image. They had grown angry and resentful of the East Coast establishment that had surrounded FDR and delighted in McCarthy dismissing Ivy League educated, New Deal liberals as “eggheads.”
Once in office, McCarthy sowed doubt in those he attacked by using sarcasm, innuendo, and derogatory labels. For instance, McCarthy repeatedly referred to respected diplomat turned liberal presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as “Alger…oh I mean Adlai” (referencing Alger Hiss, a man convicted of perjury and suspected of spying for the Soviet Russians). He called witnesses taking their constitutional right against self-incriminating testimony as “Fifth Amendment Communists.” His belief in guilt by association, became a national mantra to convict purely on suggestion: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it has to be a duck.”
It must be said that the Soviets did have spies working in the United States. (See What is Fact? and the Cold War sections for more). There were communist agents trying to steal military technology and to recruit or radicalize Americans. Some Americans did betray our country. McCarthy did not start the Red-Scare, he just hyped it and fanned it into a national inferno of paranoia and accusation. Now his name is forever associated with that era of suspicion, belligerent dogma, and disregard for our Bill of Rights guarantees of innocence until proven guilty, freedom of speech, and the right to assembly.
Joseph McCarthy Links:
Trump and McCarthyism?: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/donald-trump-joseph-mccarthy/399056/
When McCarthy tried to subpoena Harry Truman to testify before his committee, accusing him of being soft on communism during his administration, the former president defined McCarthyism as “the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security.”
Across the nation and across professions, rules were adopted to require employees to sign loyalty oaths. Review boards investigated employees’ opinions, behaviors, and friendships. Civilian watchdog groups mushroomed and coordinated letter-writing campaigns against “un- American” influences. Books, movies, and TV shows were scrutinized and then banned or boycotted if believed to contain “subversive” themes—ideas that challenged or questioned our status quo, capitalist society, or national leaders and laws.
McCarthy called hundreds of people before his Senate subcommittee. Often his accusations were nothing more than “guilt by association,” e.g., knowing Communists or attending social events sponsored by groups his staff suspected to be “Red” or “pinko,” (leaning sympathetically toward “Red.”) Even if a person’s encounters with radical groups or politics had taken place decades beforehand (during the Depression, for instance, when so many were desperate for jobs and more humane labor laws). Typically, the only way for a witness to save his or her reputation and employment was to “name names,” to identify others who might have dabbled in Communist or left-wing politics.
The total effects of McCarthyism in terms of breeding fear and suspicion, ruining careers and friendships, are hard to tangibly measure. But historians estimate 12,000 people lost their jobs. The loyalty oaths and security reviews that ensued would harm a wide range of Americans—from the 300 screenwriters, directors, and actors blacklisted by Hollywood to the 3,000 sailors and longshoremen fired from cargo ships and docks. The damage lingered for years. An anthropology professor who lost her university post after McCarthy smeared her was unable to find another teaching job for eight years.
PBS on McCarthy, the Blacklist, and The Crucible: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/arthur-miller-mccarthyism/484/
Edward R. Murrow and his CBS news magazine See It Now
Murrow had risen to fame as a gutsy radio journalist in London during WWII. Standing on rooftops during the Nazi Blitz to record the sound of explosions or going along on bombing missions with the RAF, Murrow’s brave eye-witness reports detailed events with meticulous precision and an almost poetic sense of mood and the arch of human emotional reactions to war. He was renowned for his integrity and never backing down from a story that needed to be told.
That included taking on McCarthy before other news broadcasts were willing to.
McCarthy often used smear-tactics to shame journalists into silence or to disrupt their ability to work. He was not above threatening broadcast stations, for instance, with asking the FCC to review their licenses if he didn’t like what they reported or if they did not grant him airtime for his public pronouncements.
When Murrow reported on the Army’s discharging an Air Force reservist because of his sister’s politics and on McCarthy’s overall investigation tactics, the senator insinuated Murrow was “a Red” because a British scholar and socialist dedicated his book to Murrow (in thanks for his braving the Blitz to broadcast from London) and because of Murrow’s involvement with the Institute of International Education that had organized cultural exchange summer camps in places like England, Germany, AND the Soviet Union almost twenty years earlier, during 1934.
But Murrow persisted in his reporting, laying the ground work for the push-back that followed after the Army-McCarthy hearings (see Welch below)
Transcript of Murrow’s report on McCarthy: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/murrowmccarthy.html
Milo Radulovich: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/21/us/21radulovich.html
Walter Cronkite on Murrow vs Red Channels and Loyalty Oaths: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQQaX2h1plo
Joseph Welch and the Army-McCarthy Hearings:
Televised hearings also helped unravel McCarthy’s reign. When McCarthy accused a decorated WWII general (who was close friends with President Eisenhower and former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces’ defeat of Hitler), the Senate allowed TV cameras into the 36 days of Army-McCarthy testimony. Forty million Americans heard and saw for themselves how McCarthy and his aides exploited fear, inflated and perhaps even fabricated evidence, and browbeat witnesses. When McCarthy tried to discredit the Army’s highly respected lead attorney by smearing one of his firm’s junior associates, Joseph Welch responded with a passionate outcry: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?” The audience in the Senate Caucus Room burst into applause. McCarthy’s hold on America was broken.
Six months later, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover supported McCarthy’s efforts. Hoover had been “hunting Reds” for decades, starting in World War I, when he served in the alien enemy branch of the War Emergency Bureau. He was soon head of the FBI’s Radical Division, a counterterrorism office. A 25-year-old Hoover oversaw the deportation of dozens of radical Socialists following Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and a series of coordinated bombings in the United States during 1919.
While this terrorist threat was very real, Hoover also arrested many who were simply labor union workers, or pacifists who had protested American troops going to fight in World War I. He started a watch list. His devotion to rooting out Communists steeled when a horse-drawn carriage filled with dynamite was detonated at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in New York City in September 1920. Thirty-eight people died and 300 were injured. The American Anarchist Fighters claimed responsibility.
Under Hoover, the FBI solved many crimes, hobbled mob bootlegging and violence, and caught a number of Nazi agents. But Hoover was also a rigid moralist and detested progressive lifestyles and ideology. He did all he could to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. He hated First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her outspoken support of African Americans’ push for equality. Once asked why he never married, Hoover reportedly quipped, “Because God made a woman like Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Much of Hoover’s power came from damaging files and tapes he amassed on members of Congress and White House staff, with which he essentially blackmailed them. Besides being a grotesque abuse of power, it was a stunning irony since Soviet agents used that tactic to turn Americans. Truman was one of the few presidents Hoover couldn’t find dirt on. Yet, he was able to pressure Truman into creating the Federal Employee Loyalty Program that required background checks on federal workers--which quickly spawned a general “hunt for the disloyal” by Americans.
By the time McCarthy rose to fame, Hoover had perfected his bureau’s surveillance techniques. Hopeful that the news spotlight McCarthy was generating would help the FBI destroy spy rings it had been investigating for years, Hoover instructed his agents to feed names and incriminating information about those individuals to McCarthy’s committee.
Hoover praised McCarthy as earnest, an amateur boxer, “a vigorous individual who is not going to be pushed around.” The two became friends. They often spent afternoons together at nearby Maryland racetracks—despite federal workers losing their jobs for the same pastime.
Some historians also question Hoover’s close friendship with the FBI’s number two man, Clyde Tolson, given the fact that any hint of homosexuality became reason for dismissal as well. The lavender scare is a term many use for the persecution of gays by McCarthy-era loyalty review boards. Hoover and Tolson vacationed together, rode to work together, and dined together daily. Tolson inherited Hoover’s property upon his death and is buried within a few feet of the director in Congressional Cemetery.
Eventually, Hoover distanced himself from McCarthy when the senator recklessly attacked the army and a decorated World War II veteran general. In December 1954, McCarthy was denounced in a formal censure by the Senate for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.” He died three years later from cirrhosis of the liver. His belligerent right-hand man, the chief counsel on McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, lawyer Roy Cohn, was disbarred for ethical violations in the 1980s. Before that, he remained a much-feared attorney, helped elect President Richard Nixon, and befriended and advised young would-be leaders such as Donald Trump.
Hoover retained his influence and stature. When he died in 1972, his body lay in state in the Capitol building—an honor afforded to no other civil servant before or since.
Hoover testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDCVdh08TYM
Edward R. Murrow