Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
On February 9, 1950, a freshman senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy was giving a speech to Republican donors in West Virginia. “The State Department is infested with Communists,” he told them, unaware that his speech would be fodder for parodists for the next seventy years. “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 shaping policy in the State Department.”McCarthy himself hadn’t invented these conspiracy theories about Communists scheming to take down the U.S. government by infiltrating it, but when these theories showed signs of helping him with his career, he was more than happy to jump on them and flog them for all they were worth.
McCarthy had little evidence for his claims, and he didn’t even seem to care much about the number—within a few weeks of the speech, he had given similar speeches where the number of Communists in the State Department was “fifty-seven” and “eighty-one”—but for whatever reason, the media picked up on the West Virginia speech and ran with it. Overnight, McCarthy found himself a national celebrity.
If McCarthy seized on the moment, it was maybe somewhat difficult to blame him; his preceding three years in the Senate had done very little to distinguish him from his peers. Aside from a bit of mediocre union-busting and basically accepting some bribes from Pepsi (motto: “Are bribes from Pepsi okay?”), McCarthy hadn’t done much. McCarthy himself hadn’t invented these conspiracy theories about Communists scheming to take down the U.S. government by infiltrating it, but when these theories showed signs of helping him with his career, he was more than happy to jump on them and flog them for all they were worth.
Whether there was a threat of Communist infiltration of the U.S. government as significant as McCarthy alleged remains a topic of substantial debate. The Cold War was, of course, a real thing; Stalin had been cool when he was helping us beat Hitler, but following that he started acquiring nuclear weapons, putting adorable doggos in space, and generally being a jerk. There’s no doubt the Soviet Union was sending some spies to the United States, but little evidence for McCarthy’s “205” figure. The idea of a “card-carrying Communist” in the United States has pretty much always been a unicorn—even at its height, the U.S. Communist Party’s official membership rolls have barely managed to crack five figures.
To the extent that Communist espionage was a problem in the United States, though, throwing around random, evidence-free accusations was hardly a good solution to it. Historians generally agree that McCarthy’s “205” figure (or, y’know, whatever the number was) probably came from the “Lee List” (so called because it was assembled by an FBI agent named Robert E. “Not That Robert E. Lee” Lee), a list of state department employees who may have been “inclined toward Communism” (which is a phrase that you’ll notice can mean pretty much anything). The list, though, was based almost entirely on hearsay, and many of the people on it were no longer employed by the State Department at the time. That didn’t really seem to bother McCarthy, however, who refused to acknowledge anything in particular as his source, insisting instead that he personally had “penetrated the iron curtain of the State Department”—a word salad that didn’t mean a lot, but sure sounded cool.
Eventually, though, the Senate managed to press McCarthy into actually naming names, instead of just waving around a piece of paper that for all they knew could have been blank. He pointed the finger at nine individuals (a number you’ll notice is smaller than 205), which was enough to get the Senate to call some hearings. These hearings, like everything McCarthy had done up to this point, were fueled mainly by McCarthy’s desire to further his own career; he blustered and made accusations, but again, provided no evidence for his claims.
McCarthy, though, was merely surfing the wave, not single-handedly creating it. Parallel to his activities in the Senate, the House Un-American Activities Committee—which could not have had a more ridiculous, on-the-nose name if it had tried—was combing through Hollywood, looking to out every actor, director, writer, and producer who’d ever even heard of the color red. (Hollywood, of course, had spent the previous decade dutifully churning out wartime propaganda for the U.S. government, but that was apparently not sufficient proof of their loyalty.) When the now-iconic question—“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”—was asked, several of these personalities tried to point out that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech and assembly, but the House was having none of that sassback and jailed them for contempt of Congress. Other film industry workers who didn’t feel like naming names tried pleading the Fifth Amendment instead of the First, which seemed to work okay—and by “work okay” I mean they were blacklisted and decried by McCarthy himself as “Fifth-Amendment Communists,” which I think we can all agree is a pretty sick burn.
For a while, the wave seemed to be keeping McCarthy afloat. While 1952 Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower thought McCarthy was, at best, a dangerous nutjob, Dwight still went to Wisconsin to campaign for him, because that’s how political parties work. Both men won the election that year, and the Republican Party managed to gain control of both houses of Congress, which at the time was basically unheard of. Things were going great for McCarthy—until he made the mistake of going after the military. Because while Americans may hate Communism, we absolutely love brutally enforcing our will on the world. Perhaps even more importantly, ABC decided to air McCarthy’s attempts to root Reds out of the Army live on TV, which gave viewers a chance to witness his blustering, accusatory methods firsthand. People… weren’t impressed. Within just a few months, McCarthy’s approval rating plunged from fifty to thirty-four percent. The final nail in the coffin was when Army lawyer Joseph Welch demanded that McCarthy either put up or shut up, and make his list of “known Communists” in the military available to the U.S. Attorney General. McCarthy tried the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I defense, implying—again, without evidence—that a young partner from Welch’s firm was (you guessed it) a Communist; Welch responded simply with a now-iconic, long-faced takedown: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?”
Welch was rewarded with a round of applause from everyone in the chamber.
From that moment, things were basically over for McCarthy, which was good because by then the sixties were almost here and people were looking for something new to be paranoid about, like maybe hippies and LSD. McCarthy, for his part, died from alcoholism before he even got the chance to seek a third term, and Americans never, ever, let fear and paranoia run their politics again.