Political Education

The McCarthy Era

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Joseph R. McCarthy was elected United States Senator from Wisconsin in 1948 following his upset victory over ‘Young Bob’ LaFollette in the Republican primary. For the first four years of his term, McCarthy was a relatively obscure junior senator. What little reputation he had was for his association with special-interests, especially the soft drink industry.

Early in 1950, McCarthy hit upon a theme that made him a national figure. At a Lincoln Day Dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy claimed that there were “subversives” working in government. He claimed to have a list of known security risks working in the State Department. The charges received nationwide publicity in the press. McCarthy continued to hammer away at the anti-communist theme.

His friends and foes alike admitted that his style was reckless and his charges exaggerated. He would promise evidence to back up his accusations, but the proof never came. By the time reporters looked into the claims themselves, McCarthy was on to new claims. McCarthy could afford to make unsubstantiated charges because being a Senator gave him immunity from slander prosecution. Outside of the Senate chambers, McCarthy usually tempered his remarks.

Many of McCarthy’s followers were sincere anti-communists who put up with the Senator’s tactics because of the perceived threat’s enormity. Along with this popular support came financial backing from wealthy right-wingers. This financial backing allowed McCarthy to build a political war chest and travel the country on speaking engagements.

McCarthy expanded the focus of his attacks to include members of the Democratic party. He charged the Democrats with overseeing “twenty years of treason.” He condemned the Secretary of State, former General George Marshall, over Far East policy.

After Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, Republicans expected McCarthy to drop his investigations and attacks. Politicians believed he would not want to embarrass the new G.O.P. administration. Rather than become a ‘loyal party man,’ McCarthy continued the subversives-in-government theme. McCarthy’s investigations included looking for homosexuals in the State Department and checking into U.S. overseas libraries for subversive literature. McCarthy sent his legal assistant Roy Cohn and an aide, David Schine, to Europe to investigate the libraries. Cohn and Schine would later figure in McCarthy’s downfall.

Late in 1953, McCarthy turned his investigations to the Army. He took his investigating subcommittee to New York to investigate Fort Monmouth, a site of some communist activity in the late 1940s. McCarthy came up empty-handed at Fort Monmouth but later found a new target, Major Doctor Irving Peress.

Major Peress was an Army dentist who had been a member of a communist front organization. The Army promoted Major Peress to Major per Army procedure concerning the rank of medical personnel. Before McCarthy could call the dentist to testify before the committee, the Army gave Peress an honorable discharge. “Who promoted Peress” became a battle cry for the McCarthyites. McCarthy cross-examined Major Peress’s commanding officer, General Ralph Zwicker, on the Peress case because Zwicker granted Peress his discharge. General Zwicker’s evasiveness drove McCarthy into a rage, and he repeatedly insulted the general. The Secretary of the Army ordered General Zwicker not to return to the hearings.

The Army responded to the Zwicker attacks with a charge of its own. David Schine, a friend of McCarthy’s now chief counsel Roy Cohn, was drafted in November 1953. McCarthy and Cohn attempted to use political clout to gain more favorable treatment for Schine. The Army charged that McCarthy’s investigations were retribution for the Army’s refusal to grant Schine special privileges. Cohn was quoted as saying he would “wreck the Army” for its treatment of Schine. McCarthy charged that the Army was holding Schine hostage to halt the investigations.

The media was essential to the Army-McCarthy hearings. Journalist Edward R. Murrow attacked McCarthy on his show “See It Now” one month before the hearings began. The print media had been kind to McCarthy, giving his charges dramatic front-page coverage. Television did not treat McCarthy with kindness. It captured his boorish behavior and bullying tactics.

The Army-McCarthy hearing began in March of 1954, and the networks televised it in its entirety. The hearings did not resolve any issues of substance. However, Army legal counsel Joseph Welch’s cross-examination of Roy Cohn provoked enraged McCarthy so much that he destroyed his public image.

McCarthy accused one of Welch’s young law associates of having been a member of a pro-communist legal guild. Welch dramatically pleaded with McCarthy to stop the reckless character assassination of his assistant.

After the Army hearings, Republican Senator Ralph Flanders moved to censure McCarthy for “behavior unbecoming a Senator.” The censure vote passed in December of 1954. McCarthy’s fall from public prominence was as quick as his rise. The media ignored new claims and accusations he made, and the Senate mostly ignored him.

Joseph McCarthy died of hepatitis in 1957 at the age of 48.



Thanks and a tip of the hat to wikipedia.org for the image

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