12 Facts About McCarthyism

Updated on November 30, 2018
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Paul studied political philosophy at the University of Leicester in England. He currently works as a freelance writer in Florida.

McCarthyism is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was a leading figure in the hunt for so-called Communist subversives. The roots of the phenomenon were in place before Joseph McCarty first became involved, however.
McCarthyism is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was a leading figure in the hunt for so-called Communist subversives. The roots of the phenomenon were in place before Joseph McCarty first became involved, however. | Source

McCarthyism was a phenomenon of the Cold War period in American history. A growing fear of Communism spreading through China and Eastern Europe, known as the "Red Scare," was exploited by certain politicians, particularly Senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy made accusations of subversion or treason against public figures without proper regard for evidence, and this style of political machination became known as "McCarthyism."

12 Facts About McCarthyism

  1. Fear of communism led to his rise in power.
  2. The term "McCarthyism" comes from his damaging policy ideas.
  3. He claimed that communists infiltrated the United States government.
  4. McCarthy had no formal connection with the House Un-American Committee.
  5. He was influential in creating the Loyalty Review Program.
  6. Involved in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.
  7. Government employees lost their jobs, due to McCarthyism.
  8. Actors, actresses, and writers were blacklisted.
  9. No American was ever successfully convicted.
  10. McCarthy was a bully who fought dirty.
  11. His fall from grace came in the spring of 1954.
  12. Joseph McCarthy drank heavily.

1. Fear of Communism Led to His Power

McCarthyism was able to become strong because of the increasing fear of Communism in China and Eastern Europe that came to the United States. Fear of Communism had begun with the Russian Revolution, then re-emerged in the 1930s, only to be muted with the alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Anti-Communism blossomed again after WWII ended, however, as Stalin sought to extend his influence and Mao took over in China.

Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time, and ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down — they are truly down.

— Senator Joseph McCarthy

2. The Term "McCarthyism" Comes From Him

The term "McCarthyism" comes from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who spearheaded the drive to defeat Communist infiltration, despite having no proof for many of his accusations. McCarthyism peaked during the "Second Red Scare" of 1950-56. McCarthy attacked not just the government and military but also private industry, entertainment, and schools.

Anti-communist propaganda poster from the 1950's.  The poster is aimed at the U.S. entertainment industry.   The movie and entertainment industry were one of McCarthyism's main targets and many people would lose their jobs as a result.
Anti-communist propaganda poster from the 1950's. The poster is aimed at the U.S. entertainment industry. The movie and entertainment industry were one of McCarthyism's main targets and many people would lose their jobs as a result. | Source

3. He Claimed That Communists Infiltrated the United States Government

McCarthy claimed that 200 Communists had infiltrated the United States Government. He offered no real evidence for this assertion, however.

4. McCarthy had no Formal Connection With the House Un-American Committee

Although McCarthy is often associated with the House Un-American Committee, the truth is that there was no formal connection between them, although HUAC was, in practice, boosted by McCarthy's actions. The HUAC was set up in 1938 to investigate people and organizations with Fascist or Communist ties. It is perhaps most famous for its investigation of the Hollywood film industry, which resulted in the blacklisting of many writers, actors and directors. It became a permanent committee in 1945, two years before McCarthy was elected as a senator.

When public men indulge themselves in abuse, when they deny others a fair trial, when they resort to innuendo and insinuation, to libel, scandal, and suspicion, then our democratic society is outraged, and democracy is baffled. It has no apparatus to deal with the boor, the liar, the lout, and the anti-democrat in general.

— J. William Fulbright

5. He Was Influential in Creating the Loyalty Review Program

The Loyalty Review Program was set up under Executive Order 9835 on March 21, 1947. Its aim was to assess the loyalty of federal employees and to check out any new applicants seeking to work in the U.S. government.

J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to investigate the perceived Communist threat, resulting in thousands of government workers losing their jobs.  In most cases the identity of informers was kept secret, meaning that they could not be cross-examined.
J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to investigate the perceived Communist threat, resulting in thousands of government workers losing their jobs. In most cases the identity of informers was kept secret, meaning that they could not be cross-examined. | Source

6. Involved in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act

The 1947 Taft-Hartley act had an anti-Communist clause that required union leaders to take an oath stating that they were not Communists.

7. Government Employees Lost Their Jobs, Due to McCarthyism.

More than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs, due to McCarthyism.

The junior senator from Wisconsin, by his reckless charges, has so preyed upon the fears and hatreds and prejudices of the American people that he has started a prairie fire which neither he nor anyone else may be able to control.

— J. William Fulbright

8. Actors, Actresses, and Writers Were Blacklisted

Many Hollywood actors, actresses, and writers were blacklisted and had their careers damaged by McCarthyism. These included: Charlie Chaplin, Dashiell Hammett, Waldo Salt, Lena Horne, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Lucille Ball.

The movie actor Charlie Chaplin was just one of the film stars who's career was cut short by McCarthyism.   After having his re-entry visa revoked, due to his political views, Chaplin relocated to Switzerland and lived in Europe from then on.
The movie actor Charlie Chaplin was just one of the film stars who's career was cut short by McCarthyism. After having his re-entry visa revoked, due to his political views, Chaplin relocated to Switzerland and lived in Europe from then on. | Source

9. No American Was Ever Successfully Convicted

No American was ever successfully convicted by Joseph McCarthy of being a Communist.

10. McCarthy Was a Bully Who Fought Dirty.

McCarthy was a bully who fought dirty. He used smear campaigns, unethical tactics and unfounded accusations against his targets, who were often left under a cloud of suspicion, often interpreted by people as guilt.

The President at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, strongly disagreed with McCarthyism, although he declined to confront him directly .  He declared on several occasions in reference to McCarthy: "I will not get in the gutter with that guy."
The President at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, strongly disagreed with McCarthyism, although he declined to confront him directly . He declared on several occasions in reference to McCarthy: "I will not get in the gutter with that guy." | Source

The junior senator from Wisconsin, by his reckless charges, has so preyed upon the fears and hatreds and prejudices of the American people that he has started a prairie fire which neither he nor anyone else may be able to control.

— J. William Fulbright

11. His Fall From Grace Came in the Spring of 1954.

His fall from Grace came in the spring of 1954. McCarthy had turned his attention to communist infiltration of the military. His bullying interrogation style was employed with full force on the nationally televised program, referred to as the Army-McCarthy Hearings. At one point he attempted to discredit the army lawyer Joseph Nye Welch, who was defending members of the military.

Nye exploded, chiding McCarthy: ""Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness...Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

the newspapers the next day were extremely critical of McCarthy. He lost his political power and public support.

After his fall from grace, McCarthy was largely ignored by the media and other senators.  He took to drinking heavily and died from cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 48 years old.
After his fall from grace, McCarthy was largely ignored by the media and other senators. He took to drinking heavily and died from cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 48 years old. | Source

12. Joseph McCarthy Drank Heavily

Joseph McCarthy drank heavily after his fall from grace and died in 1957 from cirrhosis of the liver. He was just 48 years old and still serving as a senator, although largely ignored by the media and other senators.

More Facts About McCarthy's Life

  • He was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin.
  • McCarthy was commissioned in to the Marine Corps in 1942, where he served as an intelligence briefing officer for a dive bomber squadron.
  • Following the end of World War II, he attained the rank of major.
  • He volunteered to fly twelve combat missions as a gunner-observer, acquiring the nickname "Tail-Gunner Joe."
  • Some of his claims of heroism were later shown to be exaggerated or falsified, leading many of his critics to use "Tail-Gunner Joe" as a term of mockery.
  • McCarthy successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1946, defeating Robert M. La Follette Jr.
  • After three largely undistinguished years in the Senate, McCarthy rose suddenly to national fame in February 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of "members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring" who were employed in the State Department.

What Was the Communist Control Act?

The Communist Control Act is a piece of United States federal legislation, signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower on August 24th, 1954. The act outlaws the Communist Party of the United States and criminalizes membership in, or support for the Party or "Communist-action" organizations. It also defines evidence to be considered by a jury in determining participation in the activities of such organizations.

The overwhelming support of the Communist Control Act provided by the liberals has attracted much attention from historians. Some historians argue that the perceived gravity of the threat of Communism during the Cold War led some liberals to ignore the fact that the CCA suspended citizenship to party members. Most liberals did not even offer a token of opposition to the Act.

In 1973, a federal district court in Arizona decided that the act was unconstitutional and Arizona could not keep the party off the ballot. However, the Supreme Court of the United States has not ruled on the act's constitutionality. Despite that, no administration has tried to enforce it. The provisions of the act outlawing the party have not been repealed. The Communist Party continues to exist in the 21st century.

Why Was Communism So Feared?

Communism was often thought of as the antithesis to the West. Communism challenged some of the most fundamental ideas of Western society—capitalism, democracy, religion, class, and ownership. Communist countries were able to back up their ideology with traditional measures of power including military power. The USSR's military has been the only one to rival that of the U.S.

More People Involved in the "Red Scare"

Politician
Party
Involvement
Martin Dies
Texas Democrat
Dies authorized a Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities.
J. B. Matthews
Ex-communist
Disillusionment with communism led to anti-communist testimony before the Dies Committee in 1938. He then served as chief investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, headed by Martin Dies, Jr.
William Randolph Hearst
Democrat
Ran anti–New Deal media.
Patrick McCarran
Nevada Democrat
Headed the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.
Harry S. Truman
Democratic Party
The president's Truman Doctrine committed the United States to a policy of supporting foes of communism everywhere in the world.

How Did McCarthyism End?

Joseph Welch, special counsel for the U.S. Army, lashed out at Senator Joseph McCarthy during hearings on whether communism had infiltrated the U.S. armed forces. Welch's verbal assault marked the end of McCarthy's power during the anticommunist hysteria of the "Red Scare" in America.

Joseph N. Welch and McCarthy

Joseph N. Welch, a soft-spoken lawyer with an incisive wit and intelligence, represented the Army. During the weeks of hearings, Welch dulled each of McCarthy’s charges. The senator, in turn, became increasingly enraged. He shouted, “point of order, point of order,” screaming at witnesses, and declaring that a highly decorated general was a “disgrace” to his uniform.

On June 9, 1954, McCarthy became agitated at Welch’s steady dismantling of each of his arguments and witnesses. In response, McCarthy charged that Frederick G. Fisher, a young associate in Welch’s law firm, had been a long-time member of an organization that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.” Welch was confused. He struggled to maintain his composure, he looked at McCarthy and declared, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” The audience of citizens, newspaper reporters, and television reporters burst into wild applause. During the next two-and-a-half years, McCarthy spiraled into alcoholism. Still in office, he died in 1957.

Sources

Questions & Answers

  • Which political party did Senator Joseph McCarthy belong to?

    He served as a Republican U.S. Senator representing the state of Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957, aged 48.

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