Joseph R. McCarthy
Joseph R. McCarthy; drawing by David Levine

Americans under the age of sixty-five are unlikely to have any real idea of what it was like in this country during the reign of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The movie Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthy in CBS television programs, has recently given audiences a glimpse. But it hardly conveyed the pervasive atmosphere of suspicion, the paralysis of political will during the years of McCarthy’s power between 1950 and 1954.

When McCarthy’s agents combed through US libraries overseas, looking for subversive works, the State Department proscribed books by, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre and Langston Hughes. The Voice of America dismissed 830 employees, describing the action as a “retrenchment.” The secretary of the army surrendered to McCarthy’s demands lest he and his people be smeared with the Red brush. Senators who had regarded Joe McCarthy as an ineffectual lightweight before he discovered the Communist issue did not dare cross him after he had campaigned against, and defeated, colleagues he described as “soft on communism.”

An immensely popular president, Dwight Eisenhower, felt unable to make an appointment or adopt a policy without considering whether McCarthy would denounce it as “pro-Communist.” Eisenhower let Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, pursue a vendetta against Robert Oppenheimer for fear of what McCarthy might do if he stopped it. Eisenhower told his press secretary, James Hagerty: “We’ve got to handle this so that all of our scientists are not made out to be Reds. That goddamn McCarthy is just likely to try such a thing.”

Tom Wicker brings this dark time to life. It was also a grotesque time. Consider, for example, McCarthy’s attack on General George C. Marshall. Marshall was for years the most revered of Americans, the chief of staff who directed the victorious American effort in World War II and selflessly let Eisenhower achieve fame as commander of the Allied forces in Europe; he then served as secretary of state under President Truman. McCarthy said General Marshall was part of “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” He never produced any basis for his charge; it was simply a lump of filth thrown at a national hero. Yet the lie was solemnly debated. And Eisenhower, campaigning for the presidency in 1952, planned to praise Marshall in a speech in Wisconsin, McCarthy’s state, but dropped the passage rather than offend McCarthy.

Much of the tale that Wicker tells is familiar to someone who lived through those times. But much is new to me. For one thing, Wicker has gone through Eisenhower’s record and come up with episodes that can only be called shameful. It was not only that he omitted his kind words for General Marshall in that Wisconsin speech; he spoke himself in a McCarthyesque vein. Two decades of tolerance for communism, he said, had brought “contamination in some degree of virtually every department, every agency, every bureau, every section of our government. It meant a government by men whose very brains were confused by the opiate of this deceit.” It had resulted, he went on, in the fall of China and the “surrender of whole nations” in Eastern Europe. The policy was set by men who “sneered and scoffed” at the threat, allowing “its most ugly triumph—treason itself.” No one can doubt that Eisenhower detested Joe McCarthy—“that goddamn McCarthy,” as he said to Jim Hagerty. That he indulged in such crude Red-baiting himself tells you what his shrewd campaign team, headed by Herbert Brownell Jr., thought was the political necessity of the time.

Why do we need another book on Joe McCarthy fifty years after his death? Because the great question raised by his career remains with us. What was there, in him or in us, that made this country so vulnerable to his demagogy? It is not a question of dusty history.

McCarthy had human flaws that might have seemed to make him an unlikely candidate for popular adoration. For one, he was a flagrant, indeed a preposterous, liar. When he ran for a Wisconsin judgeship in 1939, at the age of thirty, he said the incumbent was too old for the job. His opponent was sixty-six, but McCarthy said he was seventy-three—and he occasionally made it eighty-nine. Running for office after the war, he said he had joined the Marines as a “buck private”; in fact, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant. He was introduced as “Tailgunner Joe,” but he had been stationed on the ground, only occasionally joining combat fights. (Wicker tells us that on Guadalcanal he ran a profitable sideline of bringing in “liquor and other goodies for the squadron”—a minor-league Milo Minderbinder.) He spoke of carrying ten pounds of shrapnel in his leg; in fact his leg was injured when he fell off a ladder during a shipboard party when crossing the equator.*


The lies multiplied when he took on the role of Communist-buster. He would make charges without any basis in truth, sometimes sounding as if they had just popped into his head. “He lied without evident fear,” Richard Rovere wrote in Senator Joe McCarthy, his classic early study, “often with very little pretense to be telling the truth.” Walt Kelly, in his cartoon strip Pogo, satirized McCarthy with deadly accuracy in a character, a bobcat with McCarthy’s grin, called Simple J. Malarkey.

But the lies did not trouble McCarthy’s fans any more than they did him. Asked by the press to explain some statement that didn’t add up, he would change the subject, bluster, or somehow get away without answering. Indeed, Wicker convincingly argues, McCarthy used attacks on his truthfulness to bolster his image as a fearless fighter against an establishment determined to protect its traitorous record.

Even his entry into the Red-hunting world was accompanied by factual confusion. That happened, famously, in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. McCarthy, an obscure first-term senator, had been assigned by the Republican speakers’ bureau to a five-day Lincoln Day speaking tour starting there and ending in Huron, South Dakota—hardly power centers. He brought two rough speech drafts with him to Wheeling, one on housing and one on communism, and jovially, Wicker says, asked reporters which subject to address. They said communism.

The Wheeling Intelligencer reported him as saying:

While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.

McCarthy claimed he had been misquoted on the figure of 205. In Salt Lake City, farther on in the speaking tour, he said he had the names of “57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party” in the State Department. (He said he would provide the names if Secretary of State Dean Acheson telephoned him in Salt Lake. Acheson did not phone.) In a Senate speech on February 20, he used the figure eighty-one.

But the number did not matter. Within weeks of the Wheeling speech, McCarthy was a national figure. Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the pre-eminent Republican in Congress, had dismissed him as a vulgar roughneck but now urged him on, calling him a “fighting Marine.”

After all, in claiming that Democrats were soft on communism McCarthy was sounding a theme that Republicans had been using for years. Wicker shows that in the rough draft of his Wheeling speech, which survived, McCarthy plagiarized Representative Richard M. Nixon, who spoke as follows in Congress on January 26, 1950:

The great lesson which should be learned from the Alger Hiss case is that we are not just dealing with espionage agents who get 30 pieces of silver to obtain the blueprints of a new weapon…. This is a far more sinister type of activity, because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy.

McCarthy, in his draft for Wheeling, February 9, 1950:

One thing to remember in discussing the Communists in our government is that we are not dealing with spies who get 30 pieces of silver to steal the blueprint of a new weapon. We are dealing with a far more sinister type of activity because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy.

What McCarthy brought to anti-Communist politics was drama: a daredevil, in-your-face quality, with a coarseness that evidently appealed to many Americans. He understood, Richard Rovere said, “the perverse appeal of the bum, the mucker, the Dead End Kid….” He was intelligent and could work hard when he wanted to. (He missed high school but at the age of twenty-one went back to school and did four years of work in nine months.)

He had a genius for manipulating the press. He would announce in the afternoon that next morning he would disclose some new perfidy. Headlines followed. The next day the supposed perfidy was forgotten. Once he ran into two reporters in the Senate Office Building. “You two looking for a story?” he asked. They said yes. After walking along awhile and thinking, McCarthy said he had one for them. “You can say that I’m going to subpoena Harry Truman, that’s what I’m going to do.” He reached in his pocket, pulled out a blank subpoena, and filled it out for the by then former president.

The press at that time was following the stenographic approach to journalism. If an official said something, you printed it. Newspapers and broadcasters felt obliged to report McCarthy’s charges, coming as they did from a United States senator. And, at least at first, they felt unable to say that his previous five or ten charges had never been proved. The New York Timescommented once: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore charges by Senator McCarthy just because they are usually proved false. The remedy lies with the reader.”


But some reporters did begin keeping score on McCarthy. Two were notable: Murrey Marder of The Washington Post and Philip Potter of The Baltimore Sun. The truth was that McCarthy never unearthed a single Communist who worked in the State Department: not one. But it was hard to write a story saying that. No one could be sure he might not find one somewhere. The press really needed an authoritative public figure confident enough to point out McCarthy’s failures and directly challenge him; but very few politicians were ready to take him on. The state of fear is indicated by the passage in the summer of 1950, six months after the Wheeling speech, of a draconian internal security act. Liberal Democrats, eager to display their anti-Communist credentials, added an amendment that called for the internment of suspected subversives when a president declared a national security emergency. William F. Buckley, writing with his conservative partner L. Brent Bozell, said McCarthyism was “a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.”

In the end McCarthy was undone by what W.S. Gilbert would call a set of curious chances. His subcommittee counsel, Roy M. Cohn, was outraged when his friend G. David Schine, whom he had appointed as a consultant to McCarthy’s committee, was drafted. Cohn and McCarthy brought pressure on the Army to give Private Schine a commission without undergoing basic training; after this was denied, Cohn requested other special privileges for Schine. And McCarthy began investigating the Army, looking into such important matters as who had promoted an Army dentist, Major Irving Peress, who in private life had been a Trotskyist.

The key figure in the downfall of McCarthy, in my judgment, was a South Dakota lawyer named John G. Adams. The beleaguered secretary of the army, Robert T. Stevens, appointed Adams to handle complaints from Cohn and McCarthy, and Adams kept a record of the telephone calls and threats from both of them. In January 1954, in a conference with Attorney General Brownell and other high administration officials, Adams was told to draft a chronology of the efforts by McCarthy and Cohn to bring pressure on the Army on behalf of Schine. Drawing on his records, he was able to do so, and this led to the Army-McCarthy hearings, which were broadcast on television.

What happened in those hearings is well-known history, but a personal comment may be in order. As they went on, I wondered why the Army’s lawyer, Joseph N. Welch, did not press for the truth on various issues that had arisen. Who, for example, had cropped a photograph to make it appear that Schine and Secretary Stevens were smiling at each other? The loose ends were just left loose. Only when the hearings were over did I understand that Welch’s strategy was to let McCarthy destroy himself. What mattered was not the “truth” of this or that claim but McCarthy’s behavior—his bullying, whining, cruelty—all seen by millions of Americans on live television. (The idea of allowing the hearings to be televised, Robert Caro discovered, came from the Senate minority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson.)

A poll in January 1954 showed that 50 percent of the Americans asked had a favorable view of McCarthy, 29 percent unfavorable. Immediately after the hearings the poll results were 34 percent favorable, 45 unfavorable. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure Senator McCarthy. His magic was gone. The press ceased to pay attention to him. The Senate ignored his bitter speeches. He turned to drink. In January 1957 Tom Wicker, beginning his career as a Washington correspondent, walked down a long corridor of the Old Senate Office Building and came face to face with Joe McCarthy. He smelled of whiskey. “Glad to see you, sir!” McCarthy said. “Always glad to see real Amer’cans here’n these fancy halls.” Four months later he was dead.

We were lucky, in a way, that our first great national demagogue was Joe McCarthy. He was a demagogue without a cause, not even the cause of rooting out Communists. He could utter a vicious denunciation of someone—a fellow senator, say—and a little while later put his arm around that person in a friendly way. When he ran into Dean Acheson in a Senate elevator and Acheson failed to respond to his greeting, “Hello, Dean,” he was offended. “He did not have,” Richard Rovere said, “the cool, motiveless, abiding malignity of an Iago.” To put it another way, he was not serious. His motive, I think, was love of publicity. He lived for headlines. But of course that did not lessen the damage he did, to the country and to many citizens.

Government employees had spied for the Soviet Union, but they were gone by the time McCarthy arose. (Others began spying decades later.) The Communist threat inside the United States was minuscule, if it existed at all. The threat lay abroad, in Soviet power and ambition, with which successive American governments had to deal until the system collapsed. McCarthy had nothing to say about foreign policy or problems of national security policy.

Wicker does a fine job of describing the McCarthy episode: the person, the career, the ism. In a book of modest length, he describes for readers who know little or none of the history the drama, the oddity, the outrageousness of what happened. He also is fair to Joe McCarthy, which is not so easy. For instance, he is critical of an order issued by President Eisenhower during the Army-McCarthy hearings that barred Congress from obtaining “conversations, communications and documents” from inside the government. The purpose was to shut down the flow of information to McCarthy from disaffected government employees. In view of McCarthy’s excesses, the order seemed justified to many who might ordinarily have been more skeptical. But Wicker is right that this claim of executive privilege, as it came to be called, set a dangerous new precedent.

At the end of his book, Wicker says of McCarthy:

He…was intelligent, energetic, audacious, personally generous, and gifted with dramatic flair…. A half century after his death, it is easy to revile him but harder to see him as a victim of human aspiration, who fought desperately and with uncommon success to achieve the wrong dream.

In view of the limits of his “aspiration”—fame—and the wrongness of the “wrong dream,” I think that is too kind. But the generosity of this passage does not affect the accuracy or power of Wicker’s book.

He deals well with the underlying question: Why did this unlikely figure have such an impact on American life? After the war, he writes, Americans believed that

with their know-how and determination and faultless intentions, [they] could do anything…and were bound inevitably to triumph…. Failure whether in combat or diplomacy could not, therefore, be an American failure, for there was no such thing; failure could only result from subversion, espionage by the evil empire, and treason—betrayal in high places.

Something like those feelings did exist among many Americans in the postwar period; they were exacerbated by the Soviet Union’s surprise success in acquiring nuclear weapons, a success abetted by Soviet spies. They were combined with another persisting element in the American tradition: fear.

Again and again in our history times of stress have produced morbid fear, scapegoating, repression. At the end of the eighteenth century, just ten years after the formation of the republic, it was fear that French Jacobin terror would be brought to this country. Congress passed, and President Adams signed, a Sedition Act making it a crime to criticize the president. (But Adams did prevent the war with France toward which many of his Federalist Party supporters were heading.) In the middle of the nineteenth century the Know-Nothings spread fears of Roman Catholic immigrants, portraying them as a threat to native-born Americans. During World War I President Wilson’s administration prosecuted harmless radicals for espionage and sedition, and after it many states passed their own laws against communism and “syndicalism.” Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, arrested and deported hundreds of supposed radicals. Red-hunters in Congress, such as Martin Dies, were active both before and after World War II.

McCarthy, Wicker writes,

invoked the insecurity that could so easily afflict the American psyche—the dark unease that had been stirred by Soviet belligerence, by the outing of real and imagined spies, by the new threat of an atomic attack on the supposedly impregnable American heartland, by seemingly inexplicable events in China, and by decades of Republican charges of Communist tendencies in the New Deal and the Fair Deal, organized labor, and the Democratic Party.

It is impossible to read this account of Joe McCarthy without thinking about where we are in this country today. We do not have a vulgar demagogue playing on national fear, but we have a presidential administration that is doing so. In his election campaign in 2004 George W. Bush exploited Americans’ fear of terrorism. Karl Rove smeared Democrats as “soft on terrorism,” wanting to psychoanalyze terrorists rather than fight them. The President’s lawyers opened the way for the torture of prisoners, in defiance of the country’s treaties and laws. The President claimed the power to detain any American citizen suspected of terrorist connections indefinitely, without a trial and without access to a lawyer. To all this the American public has reacted with little outrage.

Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s movie, uses, verbatim, this broadcast comment by Edward R. Murrow:

The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

This Issue

June 8, 2006