Senator Joseph McCarthy: Biography, Facts & Timeline

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

What happens when a man makes baseless claims that can ruin lives. . . and everyone listens? Senator Joseph McCarthy, who rose to power during a period of anti-Communist hysteria, shows what a climate of accusation can allow.

McCarthy: the Power of Accusations

What's the worst thing you've ever done? Fortunately, for most of us, the answers are usually troubling but garden-variety; we've lied, or cheated, or abused the trust of someone we love. And just as fortunately, many of these mistakes are just that, mistakes, acts we would take back or seek forgiveness for, if we could. But what if your act was deliberate? And what if, by doing it, you hurt many people - maybe even thousands? Maybe even the entire nation?

This is the story of a man who did just that - a man whose defenders say he was just trying to help, but whose critics say he was just trying to help himself. Joseph McCarthy is one of those few historical figures whose own name becomes representative of a bigger idea; unfortunately for McCarthy, that idea is something pretty awful.

Joseph McCarthy was born in Wisconsin in 1908. He earned a law degree from Marquette University and starting practicing in 1935. When World War II began, McCarthy volunteered for the Marine Corps and was stationed in the Pacific. He claimed to have flown 32 combat missions, when in truth, he had flown 12, as a gunner-observer. This habit - taking the true account of something and contorting it to better serve his own purposes - would become emblematic of McCarthy's later life.

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  • 0:02 McCarthy: The Power of…
  • 1:17 The Senate
  • 3:30 McCarthy and Murrow
  • 4:09 The Army-McCarthy Hearings
  • 5:36 The End of McCarthyism
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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The Senate

In 1946, McCarthy won a U.S. Senate seat by exploiting his wartime record and accusing his opponents of various offenses. For three years, McCarthy was a quiet member of the U.S. Senate, achieving and attempting little. In fact, his record was so undistinguished that at one point, in a poll of congressional reporters, he was voted the worst senator currently holding office. That all changed after February 9, 1950.

That day, McCarthy was speaking in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he made a striking charge - that the U.S. government was infested with communists. Now, it's important to note that at this point, in 1950, most Americans feared communism more than they feared just about anything; the idea that the Soviet Union would be trying to overthrow our way of life was a mainstream view. In fact, the House of Representatives had been very recently investigating 'un-American' activities through its aptly named House Committee on Un-American Activities. In this context, then, McCarthy's speech wasn't all that unusual.

What was unusual was that McCarthy said he had names to go with the accusation. In the speech, he said 'here in my hand' he had a list of 205 employees of the U.S. State Department that were known to be members of the Communist Party. As he gave similar speeches around the country over the next few weeks, the numbers changed - from 205 to 57, to 81, to 10. McCarthy never named a single name, or even any real evidence, but he had managed something no one else had to that point: to tap into Americans' latent fear of communism and to use it as a platform for his own celebrity.

In 1952, McCarthy was reelected to the U.S. Senate, and as he continued to rail against agents, Russian sympathizers, and homosexuals, his rise to power really began. He was made chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was effectively a platform for McCarthy to accuse practically anyone he wanted of practically anything. With his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, McCarthy investigated government employees and private citizens alike. To be called to testify was identical to a conviction, in McCarthy's view, and the impact on citizens was enormous, as many Americans assumed that, if a Senator said someone was a Communist, it was more than likely true.

McCarthy and Murrow

McCarthy's power over the American political system at this point seemed unassailable; all it took was the threat of an accusation and normally combative rivals would shrink. This began to change in March 1954, when Edward R. Murrow, the host of CBS TV's See It Now, decided to broadcast two back-to-back episodes devoted entirely to McCarthy's abusive tactics in the Senate.

On April 6, McCarthy appeared on See It Now, and rather than substantiate any of the charges he had made, he turned his attack on Murrow, the 'cleverest of the jackal-pack,' accusing him of harboring Communist sympathies. The assault on America's most respected journalist backfired on McCarthy.

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