McCarthy, Joseph (1908–1957)

Senator Joseph “Joe” McCarthy from Wisconsin is best known for his role in launching the most famous Red Scare in U.S. history. During his time in office from 1947 to 1957, Joseph McCarthy led the most extreme anticommunist movement within the United States during the twentieth century, a passion that made him one of the most controversial and hated politicians of all time.

After high school, McCarthy was admitted into Marquette University in the fall of 1930. McCarthy eventually decided to pursue a career in the law. While in law school at Marquette, McCarthy worked full time, was a member of the boxing team, and participated in many different extracurricular activities. All of these distractions prevented him from being a serious student. Nevertheless, in 1935 McCarthy earned his law degree and turned his attention toward politics.

McCarthy first attempted to gain access to the world of politics in 1936 when he ran for district attorney in Shawano County. McCarthy became a successful campaigner and organizer for the Democratic Party. It was during this campaign that McCarthy first learned that to gain political relevancy and power he had to be at the center of a sensational issue. McCarthy then launched unfounded accusations against his opponent. Although unsuccessful in his first attempt, he was successfully elected to a nonpartisan district circuit judge position in 1939. As a district court judge, McCarthy was generally considered to be hardworking, clever, and fair.

While a district court judge, McCarthy gave many speeches that urged the people of Wisconsin not to give in to calls for intervention in Europe in 1939. Like many Americans, however, he changed his attitudes after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In July 1942 McCarthy resigned from his judgeship and joined the marines. McCarthy believed that the marines offered him the best possibility of becoming a war hero, which would further his political career once he returned to the United States. McCarthy served as an intelligence officer for dive bombers. He left the marines as a captain in 1945 and returned to Shawano County covered in glory.

McCarthy used his service to gain political prestige. For example, he broke his leg during an initiation ceremony but sent a press release back home stating that he was wounded in battle. McCarthy exaggerated his participation in missions and flyovers, and he played up his nickname of “Tail-Gunner Joe.” It was during World War II that McCarthy switched his political affiliations from Democrat to Republican. After resigning his commission in 1945, McCarthy regained his district circuit judgeship. Using his judgeship, military service, and his newfound conservatism, McCarthy ran again for Wisconsin's Senate seat in 1946.

His first three years in the Senate were lackluster. While popular in Wisconsin, McCarthy was unable to gain power and access to committees in Washington, DC, due to his explosive and aggressive personality. However, on February 9, 1950, McCarthy gave a speech to the Ohio County Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that completely remade his political career. Building upon growing fears of communism, the heightening of the Cold War, and the Alger Hiss case, Joseph McCarthy claimed to have access to a list of 205 known communists working in the State Department. McCarthy instantly became a sensation. When pressed for more information, McCarthy changed the number from 205 to 57 but continued to claim that the U.S. government was being infiltrated by communist spies. McCarthy used his newfound popularity to gain more power in the Senate and the Republican Party.

In response to McCarthy's numerous charges, Congress created the Tydings Committee to investigate his accusations. Democrats supported the committee in hopes it would silence his embarrassing allegations while Republicans hoped that it would help them gain control of Congress and the White House in the upcoming elections. While the committee concluded that McCarthy's claims were fraudulent, the damage had been done. Congress never voted to accept the Tydings Committee's findings, voting strictly along party lines. It represented the widening gap between Republicans and Democrats during the Cold War.

Following the Tydings Committee, McCarthy became the face of anticommunism. To his supporters and to many Republicans, McCarthy was a national hero. His enemies denounced his ideas as “McCarthyism” and as an unjustified persecution of liberal Americans. McCarthy even used the Korean War to make accusations against President Harry Truman, Secretary of Defense George Marshall, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

From 1950 to 1952, McCarthy not only won his own reelection but also became one of the most successful campaigners for the Republican Party—especially for Dwight D. Eisenhower. After his reelection, McCarthy was named as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which allowed him to launch his own series of investigations against his supposed communist spies. From 1952 to 1954, McCarthy investigated a number of high-profile politicians and departments for their suspected involvement in communism. Many Americans began to follow McCarthy's example, accusing neighbors, friends, and enemies of being communists. McCarthyism created mass fear and hysteria within the U.S. public.

Following his censure, Joseph McCarthy became a broken man both physically and emotionally. He was a pariah in the U.S. Senate. He eventually was hospitalized for severe alcoholism. During his final years, McCarthy continued to publicly accuse individuals and entities of being communist spies or sympathizers. No one, however, was listening. Joseph McCarthy died on May 2, 1957, from alcoholism. While he remained in the Senate until his death in 1957, he was never again was able to regain his power, status, or popularity. McCarthy became the face of everything that was wrong with the domestic Cold War—hysteria, fear, and false accusations.

Recently, some scholars have called for a reevaluation of McCarthy's legacy. The decryption of the Venona Soviet files, as well as newly released Senate hearing transcripts, indicate that McCarthy's accusations might not have been completely off base. This new evidence suggests that many of McCarthy's accused communists were in fact communists or involved in Soviet espionage. Nevertheless, Joseph McCarthy continues to represent how fear can lead Americans and its politicians to willingly and knowingly wage war on civil liberties within its own borders.

Autumn C. Lass

See also: Democratic Party ; Hiss, Alger (1904–1996) ; Hollywood Ten ; Rosenberg, Julius (1918–1953), and Rosenberg, Ethel (1915–1953)


Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Johnson, Haynes. The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism. New York: Harcourt, 2005.

Powers, Richard Gid. Not without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Reeves, Thomas. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. New York: Madison Books, 1997.