Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, representing Wisconsin from 1947-1957, came to symbolize the early Cold War era of American politics with accusations that a number of politicians, government agents, and military leaders were functioning as members of the communist party and were infiltrating the United States with an ideology that (he argued) would destroy the country.
Often referred to as “McCarthyism”, the senator’s accusations were relatively plausible to the American public of the early 1950s, especially since his allegations coincided with Cold War fears, concerns that the Soviet Union was increasing its sphere of influence in Asia and Eastern Europe, and the onset of the Korean War. McCarthy remains a significant figure in American politics for the negative impacts caused by his accusations, including the decline of his own credibility and the damaging image that his ill-mannered assertions bestowed upon the Republican Party (and the entire Senate as a whole). McCarthy’s accusations, which ultimately proved to be unfounded, directly resulted in his censure by the U.S. Senate in December of 1954. Thus, the allegations posed by Senator McCarthy serve as a warning that ill-founded accusations against political counterparts are largely unconstructive and can easily lead to the complete loss of credibility for an individual.
Historically, most levels of government of the United States have strongly opposed the communist ideology. For example, the U.S. intervened in the Russian Revolution in an attempt to prevent communist Bolsheviks from taking power and, following World War I, fears of communist infiltration arose with the First Red Scare. Moreover, a total of 28 state governments took direct actions between 1940 and 1950 to prevent Communists from influencing the American public; these state governments disqualified communists “from public employment…access to the ballot as candidates…serving in public office”, and some placed temporary bans on the party altogether. Anticommunist sentiments increased following World War II, with the U.S. entering a Cold War (in opposition to the Soviet Union) that would define American politics for decades and impact “a wide swath of American society…rousing citizens to combat the ‘Red Menace.’” The accusations made by Senator McCarthy encapsulated and further propagated fears of the Cold War to the extent that McCarthyism essentially became synonymous with the 1950s anticommunist movement in the U.S.
(The political comic shown below depicts the communist ideology of the U.S.S.R. as a deadly iceberg that contributed to the downfall of countries such as Poland and China. The comic suggests that the United States must deliberately avoid communism to evade a similar fate.)
During a Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9,1950, Senator McCarthy presented his initial claims that communist were actively infiltrating the State Department. In this impactful speech, McCarthy stated, “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.” Moreover, McCarthy claimed to possess a list of 205 communist working for the State Department. With these allegations, McCarthy effectively commenced his anticommunist campaign and the Second Red Scare.
McCarthy’s allegations seemingly appeared to contain credibility and quickly captured the attention of the American public for several reasons. First, President Harry S. Truman, following WWII, issued the Truman Doctrine and firmly declared that the U.S. would utilize a policy of containment to prevent the spread of Communism. Moreover, the U.S. entered the Korean War (to prevent the spread of Communism in Korea) just months after McCarthy’s Lincoln Day speech. Essentially, McCarthy’s accusations gained immense credibility due to the active American policy of preventing the worldwide spread of communism as well as the historical opposition to communism in the U.S.
After three years of examining the State Department, and without any substantial findings of communist infiltration, McCarthy turned his attention to the U.S. military in 1953. In essence, McCarthy’s examination of the army served as a double-edged sword; although the Army-McCarthy hearings presented the senator’s accusations and his anticommunist campaign to a large, national audience, the hearings also served as McCarthy’s downfall. As one historian, Rebeca R. Raines, notes, “The hearings’ main accomplishment had been to expose McCarthy’s ruthless tactics to a nationwide audience.” For example, McCarthy, as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a position in which he was assisted by his counsel Ray Cohn (pictured with McCarthy below), regularly ignored Fifth Amendment pleas (which guarantees due process rights) during the hearings. With these actions, Raines argues, “McCarthy’s methods gave anticommunism a bad name…his trampling of civil rights and due process threatened the very freedoms he professed to be protecting.” Ultimately, McCarthy’s unsympathetic actions and accusations caused his credibility to diminish in front of the American public.
In one of the more prominent moments from the Army-McCarthy hearings, Joseph Welch, an attorney representing the U.S. Army, asked Senator McCarthy, “Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?” Prompted by McCarthy’s interrogations that he believed equated to smearing, Welch’s question essentially condenses the errant approach taken by McCarthy; the senator not only accused individuals of association with the communist party without substantial evidence, but he also disrespectfully attacked them. Welch, following his rebuke of McCarthy, received an applause for scolding the senator and ignoring his request to hear further witnesses. Welch effectively highlighted McCarthy’s insensitive tactics and his disregard for standard Senatorial protocol, leading to a further decline in the legitimacy of McCarthy’s claims and a complete disintegration of McCarthy’s image to the American public. McCarthy’s indecent actions led directly to a meeting to rule on his censure by the Senate.
(The political cartoon below depicts the negative impact of McCarthyism on the Republican Party. An elephant, a symbol of the Republican Party, is suggested to have vomited the word “McCarthyism”.)
During the censure meeting conducted by the Senate, McCarthy, in his opening statement, attempted to offer several justifications for his wide-ranging accusations; for example, he stated:
“I became convinced that this country and its institutions were in imminent peril of destruction by international communism…I learned from dedicated Americans…that the threat was not just from the outside, but that the agents of the Soviet Union were firmly entrenched in our midst…I conceived it my duty to expend every effort of mind and body to fight subversion, to help clean traitors and potential traitors out of the Government. I conceived this to be my first duty to my constituents, and to my country.”
Moreover, McCarthy argued that communists, along with any individual who refused to stamp out communism, helped to present the false premise that “vigorous anti-communism is more dangerous than communism…”, a premise that he believed would “be a fitting epitaph on the grave of American civilization.” Nonetheless, McCarthy, by a vote of 67 to 22, was censured by the United States Senate for refusals to cooperate with (and his abuses of) both the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections and the Select Committee to Study Censure on December 2, 1954.
Taken as a lesson on how to instill diplomacy in politics, Senator McCarthy’s accusations demonstrate that unsupported allegations against political counterparts can cause one’s self, an entire party, or an entire branch of government to lose credibility. Instead of accomplishing his goals, McCarthy became an infamous symbol in American political culture by misrepresenting his colleagues (and the anticommunist movement he supported), and by entirely disregarding the constitutional rights of the individuals he accused. Consequently, McCarthy’s accusations were found to have no substance, his credibility diminished considerably, and he received a censure by the Senate that formally condemned his actions. Moreover, McCarthy’s personal life suffered a similar decline, as the senator prematurely died before the age of 50, just a few years after his censure in 1957.
In short, the accusations made by Senator Joseph McCarthy of communist infiltration in the U.S. government and military convey a relevant message today: allegations made without substantial evidence can easily lead to the loss of an individual’s credibility. Despite the anticommunist movement having relevance to his claims (the U.S. actively opposed communism with its policy of containment during the 1950s) and serving as a historically popular sentiment in the United States, McCarthy misrepresented the ideology with aggressive accusations that equated to the unconstitutional smearing of political counterparts. Due to the relevance of his accusations, McCarthy has been studied since the 1950s with references in textbooks, films (such as Good Night, and Good Luck), documentaries (such as the PBS documentary playlist on YouTube entitled “American Experience: McCarthy”), and popular culture (such as Arthur Miller’s allegorical play, The Crucible). Overall, the largely undiplomatic allegations employed by McCarthy primarily serve as an example that the avoidance political indecency is necessary for a government, institution, and politician to maintain credibility.
 James L. Gibson, “Political Intolerance and Political Repression During the McCarthy Red Scare.” The American Political Science Review 82, no. 2 (1988): 513, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1957398.
 Marc J. Selverstone, “A Literature So Immense: The Historiography of Anticommunism”, OAH Magazine of History, 24 no. 4 (2010): 7. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23210194.
 “‘Communists in Government Service, McCarthy Says,’” United States Senate, accessed April 13, 2021, https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/investigations/mccarthy-hearings/communists-in-government-service.htm.
 Rebeca R. Raines, “The Cold War Comes to Fort Monmouth: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Search for Spies in the Signal Corps”, Army History no. 44 (1998): 13, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26304812.
 Raines, “The Cold War Comes to Fort Monmouth: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Search for Spies in the Signal Corps”, 14.
 “‘Have You No Sense of Decency,”’ United States Senate, accessed April 13, 2021, https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/investigations/mccarthy-hearings/have-you-no-sense-of-decency.htm.
 “Excerpts from the Transcript of First Day of Senate Hearings on Censure of McCarthy”, New York Times, September 1, 1954, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.usca.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/112962905/pageviewPDF/B3B5810FA3CB45A1PQ/1?accountid=25998.”
 “The Censure Case of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (1954),” United States Senate, accessed April 13, 2021, https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/censure/133Joseph_McCarthy.htm.
How to Cite This Article:
Rhett Jordan, “Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism, Anticommunism, and the Second Red Scare,” Digital History at USC Aiken, 2021, https://digitalhistoryusca.com/?p=486.
- Arthur Miller’s The Crucible play serves as an allegory for McCarthyism, and is one example of how McCarthyism influenced popular culture in the U.S. The following links directly to a PDF of the play in its entirety:
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. 1953. https://ia800209.us.archive.org/17/items/TheCrucibleFullText/The%20Crucible%20full%20text.pdf.
- Cartoonist Herbert Block (Herblock) created several memorable political cartoons related to Senator McCarthy. The following is a list, from the Library of Congress, of a few Herblock cartoons that examine topics such as McCarthy, McCarthyism, and anticommunism:
Library of Congress. “Herblock! Naughty, Naughty.” https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/herblock/naughty-naughty.html.
- The following Herblock cartoon (not featured in the list mentioned above) depicts Senator McCarthy’s claims to have the names of communists in the State Department as fabrications:
Block, Herbert. “I Have Here in My Hand…” May 4, 1954. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/item/00652203/.
- The following includes a concise summary of the First Red Scare:
Ohio History Central. “First Red Scare.” https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/First_Red_Scare.
- The following includes a concise summary of the Second Red Scare:
Ohio History Central. “Second Red Scare.” https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Second_Red_Scare.
- The following includes summary of McCarthy’s accusations and hearings:
The Miller Center. “McCarthyism and the Red Scare.” https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/educational-resources/age-of-eisenhower/mcarthyism-red-scare.
- The following provides access to official records of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s major Senatorial hearings:
United States Senate. “Historic Senate Hearings Published.” https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/investigations/mccarthy-transcripts.htm.
- The following offers a timeline of the career of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy:
Wisconsin Historical Society. “Joseph R. McCarthy Career Timeline.” https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS3935.
- To view a YouTube playlist created by PBS, entitled “American Experience: McCarthyism”, that offers a detailed examination of McCarthy’s political career, click the following:
- The film Good Night, and Good Luck, from 2005, offers a cinematic re-creation of McCarthy’s hearings and tells the story of two CBS reporters who attempted to expose the inaccuracies of McCarthy’s claims. The following provides general information on the film, as well as information on how to purchase or view the film:
IMBd. “Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433383/.