It isn’t every junior Republican senator from Wisconsin who is accorded an “ism” after his name, but such was the case with Joe McCarthy, who ushered in “McCarthyism” this week (Feb. 9) in 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia. There, McCarthy gave a speech in which he claimed that 205 members of the Communist Party worked in the State Department. With that statement, “Tail Gunner Joe” (a nickname he gave himself while serving as an airman in WW II) took off on a flight that — when it crash landed four years later with McCarthy’s condemnation by the U.S. Senate — left a lot of human debris in its fiery wake. During the McCarthy era he and his acolytes accused hundreds of innocent people of being Communists, which in many cases ruined their careers and destroyed their lives.
And McCarthyism was basically an accident. Having spent an undistinguished four years in the Senate, McCarthy had been looking for an issue to run for re-election on in 1952, and anti-Communism seemed as good as any. But when McCarthy began accusing Democrats of being “soft on Communism,” and “harboring Communists” within the government, he never dreamed he would give voice to a widely shared fear that in the uncertain post-war world America faced a grave threat from “the enemy within” — a phalanx of subversives sympathetic to, if not controlled by, the Communist Party. It mattered little that McCarthy never proved his accusations, or that the number (and names) of these so-called Communist subversives changed almost daily. What mattered was that Republicans had an issue with which to regain power, and to the extent that there actually were Communists in the government (and there were — lots of them, in fact), so much the better.
Which in a sense helped ensure McCarthy’s downfall. McCarthyism certainly helped Republicans regain control of both the White House and Congress in the 1952 elections, but McCarthy — both drunk with power and (a serious alcoholic) often just plain drunk — somehow failed to notice. He kept up his attacks on “Communists in government,” even though his own party now controlled that government. Thus did Republican President Eisenhower join with the Democrats to bring McCarthy’s wild ride to an end. Outraged that McCarthy was even accusing the U.S. Army of harboring Communists, Eisenhower encouraged Congress to investigate McCarthy, which it did in April of 1954. When the Army-McCarthy hearings ended in June, McCarthy was shown to be a demagogue and a bully. He never recovered and died of alcoholism three years later.
But his memory lived on. Indeed, for the next half-century, the fear of being branded “soft on Communism” shaped the foreign policy, for good or ill, of every subsequent American president — Democrat and Republican.