“The junior senator from Wisconsin, by his reckless charges, has so preyed upon the fears and hatreds and prejudices of the American people that he has started a prairie fire which neither he nor anyone else may be able to control.”
-Senator J. William. Fullbright
When most people today remember the Cold War, they think of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, the Cold War had a presence in the United States well before these events. Though it may come as a surprise, the majority of Baby-Boomers (born 1946-1964) were born into a world where the Cold War was already in full engagement, starting with events such as the 1948 Berlin Blockade and the 1950 Korean War. The “Red Scare,” a fear that was reflected in the McCarthy Investigations and Hearings during the early 1950s, surrounded their young lives.
Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was elected into office in 1946 and had a relatively uncontroversial tenure, until his 1950 Wheeler speech. During the Wheeler speech, which gained McCarthy notoriety and fame, McCarthy claimed to possess a confirmed list of known Communist spies working at the State Department. McCarthy was called to the Tydings Committee hearing later the same month to give supportive evidence to his claim. During the hearings, McCarthy gave little to no evidence and made many slanderous and vicious verbal attacks against several supposed Communists on the list. Though the committee concluded that McCarthy’s list was fraudulent, his outrageous demagoguery had ruined the careers of several people. He had also garnered a strong national support, typically along partisan lines, driven by the fear of Communism.
After the committee, McCarthy continued his attack campaign with full fervor, claiming that the Truman administration was failing to deal with subversive Communists in its ranks. His national support continued to grow, particularly within the Republican Party. McCarthy campaigned for several Republican Senators during this time, and successfully helped them to win their campaigns by making false accusations that their opponents were “Communist sympathizers.” It was clear that underhanded campaign tactics and the fear of Communism made successful political allies for McCarthy, and amongst his fellow Senators, he began to be treated with deference and fear.
In 1952, McCarthy was re-elected to the Senate and was made chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He commissioned Roy Cohn and Robert F. Kennedy as counsels, and used the committee to investigate communists in the government. He investigated the Voices of America, a United States Information agency, making wild accusations on television in front of the press that destroyed the careers of many innocent people. One engineer even committed suicide. McCarthy then turned the International Information Angency international library program, demanding the removal of inappropriate Communist reading material (those books on the subject of Communism or authored by known and supposed Communists). The State Department complied with these requests and some of the libraries even had book burnings for the forbidden material. In response to these book burnings and in defiance of McCarthy, President Eisenhower implored Americans: “Don’t join the book burners … Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.”
In 1953, McCarthy turned his investigation on the United States Army. In an ill-fated move, McCarthy summoned General Zwicker to a hearing for promoting supposed Communist sympathizer Irvin Pressing to the rank of General. During the hearing McCarthy verbal assaulted Zwicker, a decorated hero of World War II, resulting in an angry response of the Army, newspapers, and civilians. In retaliation, the U.S. Army accused McCarthy and Roy Cohn of using their political power to pressure the Army into give a personal friend, Private G. David Schine, preferential treatment.
The Army-McCarthy hearings began on April 22, 1954. They were led by McCarthy’s very own Subcommittee on Investigations, with Karl Mundt appointed as temporary chair of the committee. The hearings lasted for 36 days and were broadcasted on live T.V. While the hearings provided no evidence that McCarthy was guilty of coercion, they did change the opinion of many of the American audience that McCarthy was an aggressive, dishonest bully. According to a public opinion gallop pole, national support for McCarthy in March 1954 before the hearings had a Net Favorable Score of +10, where after April 1954 his Net score had dropped to -8. Many Democratic and Republican politicians, who had feared to speak up before, outwardly disapproved of McCarthy.
In December 1954, Senate hearings to “censure” and “condemn” McCarthy were held and passed by a significant majority vote. Though McCarthy remained in office of the next 2.5 years, he was completely ignored by colleagues and the press; his outside speaking engagements were nearly empty. Essentially, his career was destroyed. He died May 2, 1957 of hepatitis that was believed to be the cause of heavy drinking. However, his legacy lives on in the term “McCarthyism, ”in the memories of those people adversely impacted by his witch-hunt, and in the young Baby-Boomer generation who learned from an early age to distrust the claims of dishonest politicians.