McCarthyism: demagogic, reckless, hysterical, deliberate, and typically unsubstantiated public accusations and/or personal attacks on the character, loyalty, patriotism, and beliefs of an individual opponent or group. Usually for political gain in the guise of patriotism and/or “national security.” Normally based on widespread racial, political, religious, ethnic, and/or sexual prejudices. Can often lead to persecution, disenfranchisement, mass hysteria, and violent mob behavior. Particularly common during periods of conflict, political unrest, migration, and economic uncertainty.
In 1950 a minor freshman Senator gave a speech in West Virginia.
A conservative from Wisconsin, he spoke before a chapter of the Republican Women’s Club.
Despite being widely disliked by his fellow congressmen for being volatile and easily enraged, and despite having recently been voted “the worst U.S. Senator currently in office” by the Senate Press Corps, the senator was regarded as charming and gregarious by those who met him in social settings. He was an accomplished and popular speaker and was invited to talk in front of many different organizations, such as the aforementioned Wheeling, WV, Republican Women’s Club – and since he was nobody important, he was usually available.
Up until that day, February 9th, 1950, with the exception of his temper, Senator Joseph McCarthy was mostly an unremarkable little blowhard.
But his speech before a small group of conservative women on that cold West Virginia day would change the very face of America and make a paranoid insecure cowardly weasel of a man famous and powerful and, above all, feared.
His speech followed predictable lines, right up until it reached this proclamation:
The State Department is infested with communists! I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five. 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.
Communism was the bogeyman of the mid 20th Century, you better believe those women sat up and took notice. And then, after the speech, they went home and told their husbands what an actual US Senator had said: Communists, in the State Department.
McCarthy’s exact words were not recorded, but the quote above is widely regarded by historians and those who were there as accurate. There is some dispute as to whether McCarthy really claimed his list contained two hundred names or whether he actually said there were fifty-seven. Witnesses said two hundred and five. They were quite explicit about it. McCarty said when questioned for the record that it was fifty-seven but he used both figures in later speeches and official records.
Two hundred communists in the State Department or fifty, it didn’t take McCarthy’s startling accusation long to attract attention.
And why shouldn’t it have?
Joe McCarthy was a hero.
Sure he was. That’s how he got elected in the first place. That’s why people wanted him to come talk to their little clubs and parties and organizations. Joe was a real live genuine war hero.
When World War II broke out, McCarthy had given up a career as a district circuit court Judge and enlisted in the Marines as a buck private. He quickly distinguished himself and rose to the rank of Captain, serving as an intelligence officer and earned himself the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Letter of Commendation from Chester Nimitz himself, and the nickname “Tail Gunner Joe” while flying thirty-two combat missions in the Solomon Islands and over Bougainville. He’d been wounded in either an airplane crash or by anti-aircraft fire (he was too modest to say which) and so why the hell shouldn’t those nice ladies take a patriotic American war hero like Senator Joe McCarthy at his word?
If Tail Gunner Joe said there were commies in the State Department, well, Sir, there were commies in the State Department and probably the White House too.
And so McCarthy’s sensational claims went the 1950s version of viral and all of a sudden the obscure bombastic senator from Wisconsin was somebody.
He gave the speech again, polishing and embellishing and amplifying and exaggerating the threat against the United States.
In Salt Lake City he once again cited fifty-seven as the number of communists working their subversive evil within the State Department and that time it was recorded. A week later McCarthy stood before a packed Senate Chamber and in a five hour speech presented a detailed analysis of eighty-one “loyalty risks” within the US Government. As a result of McCarthy’s warning, Congress convened the Tydings Committee, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to conduct further official investigations into allegations of communists in the State Department. When the committee found little substance to McCarthy’s accusations it didn’t take long for Ol’ Tail Gunner Joe to start accusing the Tydings Committee itself of communist sympathies. And just like that, McCarthy had moved from vague allegations to the naming of names, going so far as to publically accuse specific government employees, one after the other, of being actual Soviet spies, traitors, and enemies of the United States of America.
This being 1950, the Red Scare was just getting into full feverish swing but hadn’t quite achieved critical mass among the civilian population. McCarthy’s sensational accusations changed all of that and directly propelled the population into full blown panic. Sixty years on and it’s difficult for us to grasp just how close to outright insanity the United States was at that point, it is only by the slimmest of margins that we are not a police state today (I know, I know, but really, we’re not. I’ve visited police states, we’re not even close).
It didn’t take long for McCarthy and his supporters in both the Senate and the House to start seeing commies everywhere. In the Department of State and Defense. In the Army. In the White House. McCarthy actually accused President Truman and the entire Democratic Party of being in league with “The Communists.” Congress, both in the House and the Senate, disintegrated into wild accusations and sometimes fist fights. Conservatives accused liberals of being socialists and soviets and commies (boy, does this sound familiar or what?). Liberals accused McCarthy of being a closeted homosexual, the papers wouldn’t print that accusation and there’s no proof that is was anything except slander but the rumor persists to this day nonetheless. In retaliation, McCarthy publically and vocally and persistently accused Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall (he of the Marshall Plan, one of America’s most highly respected military commanders and statesmen) of communism and high treason. In fact, McCarthy went so far as to say of Marshall that he deliberately lost China to the communists and was engaged in a “conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man."
And it got worse.
Marshall had friends in high places. He was safe. Other citizens weren’t so lucky.
Americans, inspired by the increasingly paranoid insanity of their elected leaders and convinced by those same leaders that the end of the world could arrive via Soviet nuclear bomber at any moment (Any moment! Any Moment!), devolved into full on mass hysteria. Soviet spies were everywhere, they could be your neighbor, your teacher, your parents, your children, your mayor, your garbage man or your city dog catcher. The unions were full of them, so were the colleges, blue collar workers and students especially were not to be trusted. You could never be too careful. Patriotic citizens, when they weren’t busy building backyard fallout shelters, started reporting activity deemed un-American, any person out of the ordinary, any person too smart for their own good, or too educated, any non-Christian, anybody with a funny accent or dark skin, anybody different in any way. In panic and fear, laws were passed at the local, state, and federal level implementing loyalty oaths and background checks and massive new secret security organizations (Truman vetoed the McCarran Internal Security Act, declaring it a mockery of the Bill of Rights, but congress overrode him and the bill become law anyway – and McCarthy again accused Truman of communist sympathies and being un-American. Later, after the insanity had passed, almost all of the law was sheepishly struck down or quietly repealed).
Déjà vu, all over again, eh?
The fear became so pervasive and so entrenched that the Soviets were granted evil superpowers.
Americans were told that without unending vigilance the communists could literally take over their minds from the inside.
Popular movies of the time such as The Thing From Another World and (late to the party in 1957) Invasion of the Body Snatchers were thinly disguised lessons in the dangers of infiltration, subversion, invasion, mind control, and the fact that nobody, nobody, could be trusted – especially those who questioned the wisdom of pouring billions into nuclear bombs and secret weapons and the smoldering Cold War. Even John Wayne got into the act, playing a heroic extra-constitutional investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee rooting out commies in Hawaii as Big Jim McClain (He’s a Go-Get-‘Em Guy for the USA on a Treason Trail that leads Half-A-World Away! No really. If you’ve never seen this propagandistic stinker, it’s a damned painful 90 minutes). The Duke might have been True Blue, but much of Hollywood wasn’t patriotic or conservative enough to suit the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and many actors, directors, and producers were blacklisted as suspected communists. And like Jews on the streets of Germany twenty years before, half of Hollywood suddenly found themselves despised enemies in their own country – and a bitter irony that, given that many of them were Jews.
The FBI and the HUAC investigated everyone and anyone (including each other), nobody was above suspicion. The insanity became so deep and so wide that even the faintest, most tenuous, hint of communism was enough to see you detained, questioned, investigated, blacklisted, or made a pariah – for example a baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, the oldest major league team in the country, was forced to change their name to the Redlegs or go out of business just because their name, Reds (a name adopted in 1881, long before there even were any communists) led to accusations that they were secretly baseball playing commies.
It wasn’t conservatives versus liberals or Republicans arrayed against Democrats, at least not entirely – though the battlefront was drawn along fairly predictable and familiar lines. American Catholics for example, though mostly Democrats at the time, lined up behind McCarthy en mass – including America’s most famous Catholics, the Kennedy family. Tail Gunner Joe was a frequent guest at Hyannis Port and even dated Pat and Eunice Kennedy (supposedly not at the same time, though you never really know with the Kennedys). Moderate and sane Republicans tried to distance themselves from McCarthy – especially Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower needed McCarthy to win Wisconsin during the 1952 presidential election, but once in office Ike kicked McCarthy to the curb. This enraged McCarthy and he began accusing the Eisenhower Administration of communism and treason. McCarthy had referred to the previous two decades of Democrats in the White House as “Twenty-years of treason.” When Ike wouldn’t bow to McCarthy’s agenda, McCarthy updated his catchphrase to “Twenty-one years of treason.”
Again, this tune sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
McCarthy eventually ended up in charge of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which was also responsible for a little known outfit called the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (SPSI). McCarthy turned this organ into something very similar to the Gestapo in all but name. Led by McCarthy the SPSI went after public radio including the Voice of America, writers, actors, newspapers, and libraries – resulting in actual book burnings of volumes deemed subversive or questionable. They investigated churches, calling protestant clergymen the “largest single group supporting the communist apparatus” (ironically, evangelicals being protestants and all, you’d think they would remember this kind of crap, but we’ll come back to that in a minute, or rather back to one specific evangelical in particular). The committee went after the Army with a vengeance, convinced that the ranks were chock-a-block with comrades and Soviet infiltrators – McCarthy even cut short his honeymoon to open the investigation. McCarthy verbal flogged generals and the Secretary of the Army himself. All of this and more occurred in public hearings, much of which was broadcast on the primitive electronic media of the time and via the printed press.
It was all bullshit, of course.
Oh, there were communists alright, even spies, certainly.
And a small few of the thousands of accusations made by the HUAC and the SPSI might even have been legitimate. But overwhelmingly, McCarthy’s fear of suspected communists was about as valid as Salem’s fear of witches had been three hundred years before. The vast, vast majority of the accusations leveled by Senator McCarthy, the SPSI, and the HUAC turned out to be utterly baseless. The majority of accusations were the result of outright lies, deliberate hysteria, political agendas, and mean spirited revenge – just as they had been at Salem.
Eventually McCarthy was brought down in large part by the journalist Edward R. Murrow, one of the very few people left in the United States by that point with the guts, integrity, and determination to take on Tail Gunner Joe and expose the louse for what he was, a petty small minded hateful paranoid fraud who had gone mad with power.
McCarthy was no hero, he was never a “Buck Private” or worked his way up through the ranks as he had repeatedly claimed. He’d been commissioned into the Marines as a 2nd Lieutenant based on his education as a lawyer. He did serve as a minor intelligence office, or more specifically as a briefing officer, for a USMC dive bomber squadron based in the South Pacific. He told his cronies that he had joined the Marines not out of patriotism but specifically because he believed that branch of the military would serve him best in his future political career – and he in fact, first ran for the Senate while still in uniform. He flew eight missions, not the thirty-two he claimed, and somewhere in there he started calling himself Tail Gunner Joe (reportedly his squadron mates referred to him as “Low Down Joe,” oddly he never mentioned that after the war).
That Distinguished Flying Cross? He put himself in for that in 1952, that’s why he exaggerated his record to thirty two missions, eight wouldn’t have gotten him a cup of coffee let alone the DFC.
The Letter of Commendation from Chester Nimitz? McCarthy wrote that himself.
The war wound? Like the letter, he just made that up.
He got himself elected to Congress by claiming his opponent was a draft dodger and a war profiteer, when in fact the opponent in question, Robert La Follette, was nearly fifty when the war broke out and ineligible for service. As to profiteering, La Follette had invested in a radio station before the war which made him about $23,000 a year for about two years, hardly what you’d call “war profiteering” (McCarthy meanwhile had invested in the stock market and made $43,000 during the same period).
And it turns out that McCarthy was a chronic untreated alcoholic, though what few friends he had left continued to deny McCarthy’s addiction – right up until drinking killed him.
After hemming and hawing and fiddling around for more than two years, the Senate finally decided to condemn McCarthy for damned near destroying the country. Note that McCarthy wasn’t given a formal censure, but rather a weak and watered down “condemnation.”
He stuck around for another couple of years, but he was a ruined man. McCarthy was mostly ignored while the House and Senate and all his previous rabid supporters, including John Wayne, shamefacedly pretended like they hadn’t actually gone right along with McCarthyism – which Eisenhower started calling McCarthywasm.
And there there wasn’t much question that McCarthy was history, he died in Bethesda Naval Hospital on May 2, 1957 at the age of forty-eight from hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.
And good goddamned riddance to Joseph McCarthy.
Though many of the abuses of the House Un-American Activities Committee were already known, the full extent of the Senate’s appalling excesses and blatant disregard for the law and Constitution only came to light in 2004, which prompted Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Carl Levin (D-MI) to issue a joint statement:
Senator McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government. His freewheeling style caused both the Senate and the Subcommittee to revise the rules governing future investigations, and prompted the courts to act to protect the Constitutional rights of witnesses at Congressional hearings . These hearings are a part of our national past that we can neither afford to forget nor permit to reoccur.
These hearings are a part of our national past that we can neither afford to forget nor permit to reoccur.
Yes, that is exactly correct.
We are still feeling the effects of McCarthyism sixty years and a new century later. Much of the partisan rancor we now face can be traced directly back to Tail Gunner Joe and McCarthyism – hell, even the words are the same, commie, fascist, Nazi, un-American, traitor.
We must never allow this type of un-American persecution to reoccur. Ever again.
There are many ways to be an American, McCarthyism isn’t one of them.
Any elected official engaged in such truly un-American activities must be called out and called to account, forcefully, immediately.
If the accusations are found to be baseless, or especially if they are found to be part of a political agenda or issued for the purpose of personal gain or for inciting public hysteria and/or deliberately diverting precious resources into a witch hunt, then Congress has a duty and obligation to the people of the United States, along with the Executive, to move for immediate formal censure, if not impeachment, of any member engaged in such baseless and paranoid ravings.
Actions such as those described above are contrary to everything this country stands for. They are contrary to the Constitution and the ideals of our founders.
This type of baseless hysteria, this turning of brother against brother for nothing more than political gain, nearly destroyed us once. It must never be permitted to happen again.
It is not enough to condemn such actions on the floor of the Senate.
It is not enough to protest such witch hunts in the press.
It must be done as a formal action of the Legislature. And it must be done immediately and with alacrity.
Representative Michelle Bachmann, along with her cronies in Congress, Representatives Trent Franks, Louie Gohmert, Tom Rooney, and Lynn Westmoreland need to pony up detailed public proof of their insidious and paranoid allegations against their fellow Americans or face immediate and significant consequences.
In letters to the Inspectors General of the Department of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, Bachmann and her Lieutenants accused American citizens of un-American activities and demanded an investigation:
“It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has been found to be an unindicted co-conspirator on terrorism cases and yet it appears that there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency.”
That statement from Bachmann is nearly indistinguishable from the words of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
“We seek answers through these letters because we will not tolerate this group and its affiliates holding positions of power in our government or influencing our nation’s leaders."
And in the wretched miserable spirit of McCarthyism, Bachmann doubled down and personally accused Huma Abedin, top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of no less than outright treason – and, of course, by implication that would make Clinton and President Obama guilty too.
Bachmann, in cowardly predictably fashion after being condemned by both her fellow Republicans and by Democrats and pilloried in the press, claims her words are being taken out of context. She also claims she is privy to secret information that substantiates her accusation – information she’s not at liberty to share with the rest of us, just like the accusations of Joseph McCarthy and his cronies. She doesn’t bother to explain how Abedin managed to spoof her security background check (something I have personal and intimate and extensive experience with, it is quite unlikely in this post-911 world that any association with known terrorists would go unnoticed). Note that Abedin is a naturally born American who has never displayed anything other than the highest level of integrity, patriotism, and loyalty to the United States. Bachmann apparently believes that Abedin is so dedicated to her secret radical Muslim mission to infiltrate the US government that she would marry a Jew and have a child with him to further her agenda (Abedin is married to disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner). What’s next? Body snatching?
Of course, this hysterical nonsense is being pitched by a Birther, so I suppose secret Muslims stealing our souls and precious bodily fluids isn’t that big of stretch for this batshit crazy loon.
Bottom line, any accusation of treason, especially from a sitting member of Congress, and especially directed at a person in Abedin’s position must be immediately met with a formal demand for public proof.
Abedin and the others who stand accused, as Americans, have a right to face their accuser directly, in public and demand satisfaction.
This isn’t Salem.
This isn’t Tail Gunner Joe’s personal Subcommittee for Investigations.
This isn’t the Soviet Union and we’re emphatically not the goddamned communists.
This is the United States of America and a petty small minded hateful power mad fraud like Michele Bachmann must be held to account for her baseless and hateful and un-American actions.
Letters to my own Senators and my Representative have already gone out.
If you value your freedoms, if you value the country you live in, if you value the ideals we veterans put our lives on the line for, if you remember all those lives ruined and destroyed by the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy, if you believe that you have the power to hold back the darkness, then stop what you’re doing right now and contact your own representatives and demand that Michele Bachmann be held to account before the American people. She needs to show proof, not vague accusation and insinuation, but proof, solid and irrefutable – or she needs to be censured and relieved of her duties on any House Committee. And there needs to be a public polling of the House and Senate, we as Americans have the right, no the duty, to know who stands with her and who does not.
Now. Not later. Not after the election. Now.
This isn’t about Left or Right.
This isn’t about Republican or Democrat.
This isn’t about Liberal or Conservative.
This is about a malignant cancer.
A festering pustulent rot.
A deadly disease that we stamped out once, but now it’s back and it needs to be dragged into the daylight before it spreads any further.
We’ve faced this shame once before, we should never have to do it again.
McCarthy, Bachmann, Franks, Gohmert, Rooney, Westmoreland, and their cowardly cronies are a far, far greater threat to your liberty and the freedom of all Americans than any Muslim Brotherhood could ever hope to be.
Do it now.
Note: Previous versions of this post listed Representative Michele Bachmann as a Senator. I have some kind of mental block about this. I know she’s a Representative and yet I still almost always manage to type “Senator” in front of her name. Sigh. It’s fixed. I think // Jim