Little in the early career of Joseph McCarthy marked him as exceptional, but beginning in 1950, his political activities spawned an entirely new word that has become a permanent part of the American lexicon — McCarthyism.
Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born to devout Catholic parents on November 14, 1908, in Grand Chute, Wisconsin. A third-generation American and the fifth of nine children, McCarthy traced his ancestry to Ireland and Germany. Educated through the eighth grade in a one-room country school, he moved to Manawa, Wisconsin, in 1929, and completed high school in one year. After graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee, in 1935, he was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar.
After failing to win election on the Democratic ticket for district attorney, he switched to the Republican ticket and was elected judge of the 10th judicial circuit of Wisconsin in 1939. During the campaign against his opponent, Edgar Werner, McCarthy shocked local officials by publishing slanderous material about him. McCarthy had originally supported Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, but later spent much of his time discrediting proponents of it.
After World War II, he was successful, winning the Republican nomination against Robert M. La Follete, in the general election of 1946. During his smear campaign, McCarthy accused La Follete of profiting from the war while he (McCarthy) was away fighting in it, and for not joining the military to fight.
Actually, LaFollete had purchased a radio station with a slim profit margin and was too old to enlist during the war. La Follete was so disturbed by the campaign waged against him by McCarthy, that he retired from politics and later committed suicide.
On McCarthy’s first day in office, he called a press conference to air his proposal for the end of a coal miner’s strike led by labor leader John L. Lewis. His proposal was for the coal miners, including Lewis, to be drafted into the military, and then when they refused to mine coal, they were to be court martialed for insubordination and then shot. During his first years in the senate, McCarthy voted along generally conservative lines, although he did not follow the Republican line. He worked against sugar rationing and fought for housing legislation. Nevertheless, after three years in [1932:Washington^, he was little known nationally. He would, however, become a household name quite suddenly.
The truth about McCarthy's highly embellished military service began to be revealed and an investigation had begun regarding allegations that McCarthy had taken bribes from the Pepsi-Cola Company. Faced with possible expulsion, McCarthy consulted with his closest advisers, including a Roman Catholic priest who suggested that he begin a campaign to rid the government of communists.
In a speech given at Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, McCarthy took the priest’s advice and held up a piece of paper announcing that it contained the names of known communists working for the State Department. He also verbally attacked Secretary of State Dean Acheson for being "a pompous diplomat in striped pants."
The list had already been published by the State Department in 1947, based on a screening of 3,000 people. Some of those listed had been members of the Communist Party of America but others were allegedly fascists, alcoholics, and “sexual deviants.”
A Senate investigation by the Tydings Committee did not substantiate his charges, but McCarthy realized that slander and innuendo would keep him in the headlines and discourage nearly all opposition. When he successfully brought down Senator Millard E. Tydings, a four-term Democratic incumbent, in the 1950 elections, the power of his tactics became obvious.
Because of the election results, most senators became wary of speaking out against him, fearing they would be next on McCarthy’s hit list. An exception that proved the rule, Connecticut Senator William Benton, spoke out against McCarthy’s smear techniques. Benton introduced a resolution to remove McCarthy from the Senate body, stating that he had "lied" and "practiced deception" with his assertion that he had a list of communists working for the State Department. Benton, owner of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, was then accused by McCarthy of aiding communists in the State Department, purchasing and displaying “lewd artworks,” and for printing his encyclopedias in England.
In the November 1951 elections, Benton was defeated because of McCarthy’s smear campaign against him — paid for with American tax dollars. Benton retired from politics.
The Republicans returned to congressional power in the November 1952 elections, and many considered McCarthy's efforts to have helped bring down a number of liberal Democrats — including Harry S. Truman, whom McCarthy labeled a “dangerous liberal,” and Adlai E. Stevenson. He was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its subcommittee, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
McCarthy began to receive information from Federal Bureau of Investigation head J. Edgar Hoover. Confrontational hearings led to sensational charges, but there was little hard evidence to support McCarthy's charges. He identified Johns Hopkins University professor Owen Lattimore as the number one Soviet spy in America.
Notwithstanding the fact that the federal government was now controlled by Republicans, McCarthy continued his attacks on purported subversives working for it, to the growing irritation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. McCarthy’s investigation and attempts to discredit Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens in 1953, along with many others in the military, convinced Eisenhower that something had to be done to stop McCarthy’s “witch hunts.”
Next, McCarthy turned to book banning. His researchers found that the Overseas Library Program contained 30,000 books written by "communists, pro-communists, former communists, and anti-anti-communists." After the list was published, those books were banished from the library.
Finally, McCarthy overreached his power. His 1953 investigation of the U.S. Army resulted in the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954. The first televised hearings in American history, they exposed McCarthy's tactics and led to a decline in his prestige and power.
As a result of the hearings, his nasally “point of order” phrase became a national cliché and members of the subcommittee became household names and faces. The Army-McCarthy Hearings live on in the memories of millions of Americans, aided by filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s documentary, Point of Order.
Even during the height of McCarthy's power, a few members of the U.S. Senate had opposed him. The first was Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine and the only woman in the Senate at the time. Smith issued a “declaration of conscience” speech in June 1950, which identified McCarthy without naming him. As a result, McCarthy ousted Smith from a key investigation subcommittee and attempted to foil her 1954 re-election bid, but to no avail. Others also rebuked McCarthy for his tactics, including Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon.
After the Army-McCarthy Hearings had sufficiently wounded McCarthy, the Senate finally recovered its nerve and voted an official censure against McCarthy on December 2, 1954, for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." The censure cost McCarthy his committee chairmanship and effectively ended his power.
McCarthy died on May 2, 1957, in a Bethesda, Maryland, naval hospital at age 49, of acute hepatitis brought on by alcoholism. Services were held in the U.S. Senate Chamber, and he was interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Appleton, Wisconsin.