Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political career was in danger when he walked into
the Colony Restaurant in Washington, DC for dinner with three of his friends. The date
was January 7, 1950. A month earlier, he had been voted worst U.S. Senator in a poll of
Senate correspondents. In his earlier years as Senator, he had been known for taking
loans and funds from businesses totaling $30,000. This included the Pepsi-Cola
company, which earned him the nickname “Pepsi-Cola Joe”1, and the Lustron
Corporation, which dealt in prefabricated houses. About this time McCarthy was also
deemed responsible for the resignation of Senate subcommittee chairman Raymond E.
Baldwin, who left politics citing McCarthy’s abuse towards him during the Malmedy
WWII hearings the “last straw” 2.
Not only was his political career in danger, but McCarthy was also suffering from
financial troubles. He had squandered all the money from his political funds into soybean
investments and horse racing, which left him nearly broke3. With these things in mind,
McCarthy and his three associates- William Roberts, a Washington lawyer; Charles
Kraus, a political science professor at Georgetown; and Father Edmund Walsh, a dean
also at George University set out to discover that fateful night what could possibly
rejuvenate the political career of Joseph McCarthy before the upcoming election of ‘52.
The trio of Roberts, Kraus, and Walsh recommended that McCarthy should try
taking up a cause, and to do so seriously and passionately. But what should it be? Ideas
and issues were tossed about the group concerning old age pension to the St. Lawrence
Seaway. McCarthy dismissed them all. But then Walsh suggested communism, and
McCarthy’s ears realized that they had just struck gold.
“That’s it!” exclaimed an excited McCarthy. “The government is full of
Communists. We can hammer away at them. 4” And with that statement, Senator Joseph
McCarthy’s witchhunt against communism had begun.
33 days later in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy stood on a
podium before the Ohio Valley Women’s Republican Club. “I have in my hand,” he
began, “a list of 205 card-carrying Communists who are now employed in the State
Department and whose identities are well known to the State Department as being
members of the Communist party. 5”
On that night his life, as well as the lives of many other Americans, would forever
change. McCarthy would begin a brief but astounding crusade against the so-called
Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. During a span of about 4 years,
McCarthy accused hundreds of government and former government workers of being
Communist with little or no concrete evidence. Even so, McCarthy was able to win many
convictions and ‘victories’ without much protest and opposition.
Why did McCarthy go relatively unscathed throughout his witchhunt until he was
finally censured by the Senate in 1954? According to a nationwide poll taken during the
era of McCarthyism, 50% of those polled said they approved of his methods, with 21%
undecided6. What allowed him to do this for so long with the approval rather than the
condemnation of the people? The key to the success and tolerance of McCarthy was due
to a combination of several things. First, there was the recent espionage cases of Hiss and
the Rosenbergs. McCarthy also greatly benefited from the pro-McCarthy media, which
took up and glamorized his cause. There was also the fact that communism was in many
cases a viable scapegoat for a frightened and restless people. McCarthyism was also
Americanism; it represented the duty of the patriotic American. McCarthyism became an
offensive tool against the threat of the spread of communism.
At the time of McCarthy’s infamous Wheeling speech, the nation had just learned
that the threat of Communists in high level positions in Washington was in fact real.
Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and at the time President of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, had been convicted of perjury just one month prior
to McCarthy’s speech7. Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist himself, had charged
Hiss with supplying classified information to the Soviet Union. The guilty verdict in this
case rose many eyebrows and gave many people cause for alarm.
A couple of months later, McCarthy’s cause was helped along even more by the
arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg8. Julius Rosenberg, an army electrical engineer, and
his wife, Ethel, were both arrested in the spring of 1950. The two had given sketch
blueprints of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union back in 1945, which had accelerated
Soviet development of the atomic bomb. The Soviets managed