Mr. President, Let's Discuss McCarthyism

by Gabriella Novello about a year ago in history

If you'd like to invoke his name, you might want to read up on his legacy.

Mr. President, Let's Discuss McCarthyism

He timed his allegations so there’d be no time for a wire to get a response from the accused or find evidence. Then-Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) made accusations against members of Congress and other public figures of being communist sympathizers.

During the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the fear of communism spread throughout the halls of Congress. McCarthy used his public profile to fan the fear of communism by taking advantage of the speed of news media. He once claimed to have a list of more than 200 individuals working within the U.S. State Department that were communist sympathizers. Standards of objectivity meant journalists couldn’t provide an interpretation or write about the truth of his claims.

"I have here in my hand a list of 205... a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department..." - Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), February 9, 1950

Soon after his "Enemies from Within" speech, he lowered the number of individuals on his list to 57 individuals. There was, however, no such list in existence for the public to see. As a result, leading broadcast journalists like Edward Murrow spoke out and used McCarthy's own words against him. As a CBS anchor, Murrow used excerpts from McCarthy's speeches and accusations to criticize and point out contradictions. What happened next, if you could only imagine, is that McCarthy accused Murrow of being a communist sympathizer in response to such fact-checking criticism.

The fiery Senator won his 1952 re-election which was heavily based on fighting Communism. As Chairman of the House Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he called many hearings often on short notice. The demands made by McCarthy caused him to lose not only the cooperation of his Democratic colleagues but eventually his own party's.

Through McCarthy's Orwellian disguise via the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he used hyperbolic labels such as, "Communist sympathizer" and "Un-American" to abuse the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

McCarthy then took his war on communism to the U.S. Army, where he attempted to convince the public security issues at a particular base was secretly aimed at supporting the former Soviet Union. The hearings lasted three months and televised on major news networks.

Army lawyer Joseph Welch delivered one of the most well-known statements in modern-Ameican politics during a hearing on June 9, 1954. McCarthy accused Welch of having ties to a Communist organization, where Welch responded, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"

“If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good.” - Joe Welch, June 9, 1954

It was clear that the walls were closing around McCarthy, but his attacks on the investigation on his actions grew. It was the people investigating himself that were "unwitting handmaiden of the Communist Party," said McCarthy. Ultimately, McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate for his actions on the Committee on Government Operations. Moreover, he died before he could finish his term as Senator of Wisconsin in 1957.

When he rose to notoriety in 1950, it was through lies and manipulation. When his political career fell, it was through truth and investigations.

This morning, Donald Trump compared the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to McCarthyism. To take Trump's tweet seriously and study McCarthyism, one can't help but notice the man referenced and the man calling for us to study share one specific characteristic: they both sought legal advice from the late-Roy Cohn.

Gabriella Novello
Gabriella Novello
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Gabriella Novello

Hi there. My name is Gabriella Novello and I enjoy writing enterprise stories on higher education, public service, sports, and the media. Thanks for stopping by! Follow me on Twitter at

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