Humiliation of Joseph McCarthy

The Humiliation of Joseph McCarthy

By Jon Grinspan

“This is the most unheard of thing I ever heard of” was all Sen. Joseph McCarthy could stammer to reporters 52 years ago today, on December 2, 1954. Usually verbose and combative, he was struck dumb. The United States Senate had voted to censure him.

This condemnation would have seemed impossible only a few years earlier, but the redbaiting Wisconsin Senator had made many recent enemies in Washington. Now the Senate had officially rebuked the most feared man in America, for turning his anti-Communist crusade into a national inquisition.

McCarthy’s place in American history is often half-taught. Many know about the tobacco-smoke-hazed hearings, the vicious attacks on politicians, and the damage he did to many entertainers’ reputations. Few, however, remember that he was disowned by his party and President and rebuked in public opinion after four short years in the national spotlight. While his censure did not end “McCarthyism,” his personal downfall did announce a limit to what the American people would allow.

Even in his early years, Joseph McCarthy demonstrated drive, aggression, and recklessness. Raised on a chicken farm and deprived of a traditional education, he completed a four-year high school program in just nine months while coaching boxing on the side. A wild and obsessive gambler, he spent his college years trapped in perpetual poker matches. He was terrible at the game—some say he never truly understood the rules—but was so good a bluffer that he often won huge pots. The game would become a metaphor for his political style.

He rose fast. He opened his own law firm, on a dare, the very day he passed the bar exam, and he soon became the youngest district judge in Wisconsin. When World War II broke out he enlisted in the Marines. Though he would later tell adoring audiences he had served as a “buck private,” Judge McCarthy was actually made first lieutenant automatically. From then on he referred to himself as “Tailgunner Joe”—though he never operated a bomber’s tail gun—and was “wounded” only when he fell downstairs with a bucket over his head during a drunken hazing.

After the war, he won an underdog, dirty campaign for the Senate. Senator McCarthy had one problem: He had few discernable beliefs. Instead he relied on popular American anxieties, playing to worries about Mao’s victory in China, the first Soviet nuclear test, and Communist espionage in the United States. In 1950 he stole the national spotlight when he told a Republican crowd in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he held a list of 205 Communist party members working in the State Department. Perhaps these well-placed subversives could explain the country’s recent reversals overseas, he suggested. With strong national support, he launched investigations into the State Department, the CIA, the Army, and Voice of America radio over the next four years.

Although there were certainly Soviet agents in the U.S. government—as has been borne out by the recently disclosed Venona files—he failed to convict a single Communist. A few days after he said he knew of those 205 “bad risks,” he changed his number to claim there were 57 Communists in the State Department. When reporters asked to see his list, he said he had misplaced it and promised to reveal it later. This was a continuous trend. He invented quotes, made up statistics, and even altered photographs. In hearings, he liked to end cross-examinations by asking: “Does your employer know you’re a functionary of the Communist party?” adding “You may step down,” before the witness could respond.

As McCarthy went on at this, more and more Americans recognized that while the government had a responsibility to defend itself against espionage—the nation was locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union, after all—it had no right or reason to besmirch law-abiding citizens. McCarthy’s baseless slander was far easier than the real work of counterintelligence, mostly conducted in the late 1940s. As one critic put it, he began his crusade as the postwar struggle died down, “arriving on the battlefield to finish off the wounded.”

Moreover, he was a serious alcoholic who often arrived drunk at his Senate subcommittee investigations. His chief counsel, Roy Cohn, was widely disliked for being just as aggressive and twice as smug. Cohn even pressured the Army into giving preferential treatment to a man he was secretly having an affair with, a status-seeking millionaire who had twice failed his physical. Yet it was McCarthy’s belligerence that most hurt his image. Funny and personable with friends, he could bring military men to tears with his vicious personal attacks in his subcommittee hearings.

One of those attacks on a military man brought about his downfall. While investigating subversives in the Army, McCarthy repeatedly abused a popular general, calling him “stupid, arrogant, or witless.” This was too much. The Democratic party was scared to go after McCarthy, for fear of seeming soft on Communism, but moderate Republicans, among them the immensely popular President Eisenhower, began to show they had had enough. They launched a televised airing of McCarthy’s conduct during his Army hearings in the spring of 1954. The sessions drew 68 percent of the TV audience.

The new medium aired his worst traits for all of America to see. He was argumentative, rude, annoying, and usually drunk. The Army’s counsel caught Roy Cohn citing doctored photos as evidence. At one point the senator blurted out that the Army’s chief lawyer, Joseph Welch, had a young colleague with supposed Communist connections.

The dignified, bow-tied Welch coolly replied, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. . . . Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I’m a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.” The standing-room-only crowd erupted in applause.

When McCarthy tried to persist in his assault, Welch said, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The effect was devastating.

And so the hearings broke McCarthy’s hold on the Senate. His public image plummeted. Soon only a third of Americans viewed him favorably. Ralph Flanders, a moderate Republican senator from Vermont, introduced the resolution for censure. At first the idea seemed absurd—the Senate had censured only five men in its history—but then Lyndon Johnson, a rising Democratic star, gave the resolution his support.

McCarthy didn’t take the news well. He began to drink a bottle of bourbon a day, and his health deteriorated. At night he sometimes wandered the halls of the Senate unshaven, stinking of liquor, ranting to strangers. He accused a Senate panel of being “handmaidens” of the Communist Party.

On December 2, after a 67 to 22 vote, the Senate censured McCarthy. The language of the resolution condemned him for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions” and listed insults he had thrown at his fellow senators. There was little mention of his lies and other abuses. Instead, the Senate focused on his “innate character.”

In a way, McCarthy personified the tough aggressiveness of a generation raised on the Depression and World War II. He was to many, for a time, the most glamorous figure in the Senate—slander, bourbon, firearms, and all. But his rebuke by Republican moderates, backed by a like-minded President, marked a triumph of American freedoms against an overwhelming fear of Soviet power. McCarthy can seem to stand for a darkness in America in his time, but his quick decline, like the Supreme Court’s historic move against segregation earlier in 1954, reveals an alternate image of the 1950s, one of fear and paranoia vanquished.

—Jon Grinspan lives in New York City and writes for Military History magazine.

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