Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) gave his name to one of the most destructive and controversial pathologies in U.S. political history. “McCarthyism” has become synonymous with reckless opportunism, cruel and baseless accusation, and bullying coercion. The way in which the word is used has changed since McCarthy’s brief strut on the national stage, but it is still one of the dirtiest words in the American political lexicon.
“McCarthyism” is unalterably connected to the life of McCarthy himself. When he returned from his much publicized and exaggerated service with the Marines in World War II, McCarthy decided to enter politics and won a campaign as circuit judge at the age of 29. He upset Wisconsin’s iconic Republican incumbent Senator Robert LaFollette in the Wisconsin senatorial primary of 1946 and then went on to easily beat his Democratic opponent and take the seat.
Dismissed as a buffoon by the Republican leadership in the Senate, McCarthy looked for a way to circumvent the slow rise to power offered by that body. Anti-communism was in the air. Blacklisting of Hollywood celebrities had begun in 1947, and extensive loyalty reviews were begun by the Truman administration at roughly the same time. Former State Department official Alger Hiss was accused of spying for the USSR and was convicted of perjury in 1950 after his celebrated confrontation with Whittaker Chambers.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted in 1951 (and executed two years later) for giving atomic secrets to the Soviets. In February 1950 McCarthy found his shortcut to power when -- during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia -- he suddenly claimed that he had a list of 205 Communists in his pocket—individuals who were subversively involved in policy-making decisions in the State Department. Repeating (and sometimes changing the figures) his accusations in the weeks ahead, McCarthy was an overnight sensation, a national figure who parlayed postwar fears about “the Communist menace” into a power undreamt of by his fellow legislators; power that ultimately challenged institutions such as the U.S. Army and cowed the Eisenhower presidency itself.
Becoming the symbol of the unprincipled master of the “witch hunt” (leftwing playwright Arthur Miller would implicitly compare the McCarthy era to the witch trials of an earlier era in America in “The Crucible”), McCarthy became ever more grandiose in his ambitions and self-destructive in his alcoholism over the next few years. He finally destroyed himself by his overreaching and incoherent performance in the Army-McCarthy hearings which riveted the nation in 1954.
The legacy he left behind would have a long and ominous half-life in American politics. “McCarthyism” became an imprecation used to silence those who wanted to discuss the Communist penetration, including espionage, of American life. Richard Condon’s fantasy of a McCarthy-like demagogue in The Manchurian Candidate would capture the Wisconsin Senator’s effect: the ruthless demagogue who, by discrediting anti-Communism, insidiously advances the Communist cause. For the next generation it would be assumed that anyone taking up McCarthy’s themes must be a villain like him, and anyone who was attacked as a Communist must be a noble patriot suffering unjustly.
McCarthy was aided in his meteoric rise by the mendacious denial, on the part of the left, of the nature and success of a communist movement directed by Moscow in the United States. It was also true that his “reign of terror” would be greatly exaggerated by historians writing after his fall and on into the present time. They would use terms such as “The Great Fear” to characterize all anti-communism as a dark and destructive crusade that released the paranoia and nativism always threatening to burst through the surface of American life.
Although newly released archival materials such as the Venona intercepts show the extent of Communist subversion in pre- and post-war America, contemporary leftwing historians like Ellen Schrecker (The Age of McCarthy and other books) continue to use critiques of McCarthyism as a way of exonerating American communists, denying that they ever spied for the USSR, and presenting them as victims whose only sin was fighting too hard for civil rights and civil liberties. Writers like Nicholas von Hoffman have recently challenged the prevailing orthodoxy in provocative articles with titles such as “McCarthy was Right.” But the left will not relinquish the notion of an American Dark Age when communists were innocent victims. This is part of its foundation myth and it is spread not only in the university, but by Hollywood as well, where films about the malicious excesses of anti-Communism have become a familiar sub-genre.
“McCarthyism” has morphed from a term that once described a specific pathology, into a verbal club that is used to invoke cloture on politically correct subjects.