U.S. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy was one of the most controversial figures of the 1950s. His charges that the U.S. State Department had been infiltrated by Communists were never substantiated, but his widespread popularity caused many government officials to avoid challenging him. After televised hearings in 1954 where he accused the U.S. Army of coddling Communists, he lost popular support and was censured by the Senate for methods he used in his investigations.
McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin in 1908 and educated at Marquette University. He practiced law in Wisconsin until 1939, when he was elected circuit-court judge. During World War II he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, attaining the rank of captain during service in the Pacific. In 1946 he was elected on the Republican ticket to the U.S. Senate and was re-elected in 1952.
The first accusations - 1950
In February 1950, McCarthy made a public charge that 205 Communists had infiltrated the State Department. In a nation traumatised by the Cold War, McCarthy's claims were bound to receive widespread attention. He testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations later that year and depspite being unable to name a single card-carrying Communist in any government department, he gained increasing support for his campaign of accusations.
Are you, or have you ever been...?
McCarthy proceeded to instigate a nationwide anti-Communist campaign. He appeared as a dedicated patriot and guardian of Americanism to his supporters. His detractors considered him irresponsible and self-seeking, undermining the nation's traditions of civil liberties.
In 1952 he became Chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate and its permanent sub-committee on investigations. In this position, McCarthy interviewed a great many people and asked them Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? A particularly vicious witch-hunt occurred in Hollywood and even President Eisenhower didn't escape scrutiny. Whilst there was rarely any evidence to back up McCarthy's claims, many careers were damaged or ended by the investigations. This persecution of innocent people on the charge of being Communists became known as McCarthyism.
McCarthy's influence waned after 1954 when he accused U.S. Army officers of subversion in televised hearings. For the first time, the American people were able to see the brutal and truculent tactics that he used in the hearings. The tide of public opinion turned against him. He descended into alcoholism and died of liver failure in 1957, aged 47.