American History 102: 1865-Present
Stanley K. Schultz, Professor of History
William P. Tishler, Producer


Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was a Republican Senator from Appleton, Wisconsin, who did the most to whip up anti-communism during the 1950s. McCarthy was a WWII veteran who liked to call himself "Tailgunner Joe," although he actually flew more desk than plane during the war. First elected to the Senate in 1946, McCarthy did little during the first four years of his term. He failed to attach his name to any significant bills and even the Republican party leadership considered him a legislative lightweight. Then, on February 9, 1950, he dropped a political bombshell. McCarthy gave a speech at the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claimed to have a list of 205 Communists in the State Department. No one in the press actually saw the names on the list, but McCarthy's announcement made the national news.

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McCarthy, Joseph

Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), anti-Communist crusader

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin


McCarthy continued to repeat his groundless charges and the number of Communists on his list fluctuated from speech to speech. Senior Republicans didn't care for McCarthy, but appreciated his attacks on the Truman administration. McCarthy labeled Secretary of State Dean Acheson "Red Dean." He also claimed that World War II General George Marshall had been "hoodwinked into aiding a great conspiracy." Furthermore, McCarthy argued that Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson--who would run for president on the Democratic ticket in 1952--"endorsed and would continue to endorse the suicidal, Kremlin-directed policies of this nation." The fact that the United States wasn't winning the Korean War (1950-53) also gave credibility to the argument that "subversives" were at work in the government.


McCarthy's attacks emerged within a climate of political and social conformity. During this time, for example, one state required pro wrestlers to take a loyalty oath before stepping into the ring. In Indiana, a group of anti-communists indicted Robin Hood (and its vaguely socialistic message that the book's titular hero had a right to rob from the rich and give to the poor) forced librarians to pull the book from the shelves. Baseball's Cincinnati Reds renamed themselves the "Redlegs." Cosmetics companies recalled a face powder called "Russian Sable" and renamed it "Dark Dark." Starting in Dearborn, Michigan, and spreading to other parts of the country, "Miss Loyalty" beauty contests became the rage.

McCarthy's Supporters

The ranks of McCarthy's supporters were generally defined along political, religious, and occupational lines. They typically included:

  1. Republicans
  2. Catholics
  3. Conservative Protestants
  4. Blue-collar workers

One prominent Democrat who supported McCarthy was Joseph Kennedy. In fact, the senior Kennedy secured for his son, Robert, a job in Washington as an investigator for McCarthy.

McCarthy continued his anti-communist barrage until 1954. Unlike other congressional investigators, McCarthy seemed not to notice that the administration had changed in 1952. With Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House, McCarthy's campaigns against subversion in the government became an attack on his own party and an increasing liability for Republicans. In the spring of 1954, however, the tables turned when McCarthy charged that the United States Army had promoted a dentist accused of being a Communist. The ensuing hearings proved to be McCarthy's downfall. For the first time, television broadcast allowed the general public to see the Senator as a blustering bully and his investigations as little more than a misguided scam. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure him for his conduct and to strip him of his privileges. McCarthy died three years later, but the term "McCarthyism" lives on to describe anti-Communist fervor, reckless accusations, and guilt by association.