If ever there was a blot on the USA’s political escutcheon, it was paranoid anti-communist activity as the Cold War heated up after World War II. Senator Joseph McCarthy never belonged to the congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities with its famous question ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of America?’ but would give his name to the sort of witch-hunts it mounted.
After becoming Wisconsin’s youngest circuit judge in 1939, McCarthy volunteered for the US Marines and flew combat missions, subsequently embroidering his war record to gain political advantage. He became the Junior Republican Senator for Wisconsin in 1946 but only found his vocation in 1950, making endless demagogic speeches after being pleasantly surprised by avid media attention after he claimed to have a list of 205 communists working in the US State Department. The term ‘McCarthyism’ was soon coined by a Washington Post cartoonist and passed into the language.
McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Committee of Government Operations and used its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to mount virulent attempts to expose imaginary subversion and espionage. It came to a head when McCarthy took on the US Army, inventing rumors of dangerous spy rings to justify this unpopular action. His extended confrontation with the military, much of it televised, revealed him as a bombastic bully and led to a collapse in his popularity. In 1954 the Senate censured McCarthy for his intemperate behavior, a rare dishonor that effectively destroyed his political influence.
The Senator from Wisconsin died of hepatitis and alcoholism at Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1957, but his name lives on as the description of any political activity that involves reckless accusations made without proof, or frenzied public criticism of the character and patriotism of political rivals.
When: 1940s and 1950s
Toll: Although the patent excesses of Senator McCarthy’s reckless and unjustified attacks eventually led to a reaction against the sort of ‘reds under the bed’ hysteria that had been gripping the nation, his rabid anti-communist crusade was a reflection of the USA’s genuine abhorrence of the rival political ideology and McCarthyism helped to reinforce the attitudes that led America into its disastrous Vietnam misadventure.
You should know: As an indication of the intellectual rigor with which America’s pursuit of closet communists was pursued, at one pre-war session of the House Committee on Un-American Activities a reluctant witness – who headed the Federal Theatre Project, an organization allegedly riddled with communists – was asked if the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was (or ever had been?) a member of the Communist Party.