An American Devil Figure: The Complex Legacy of Joseph McCarthy

One of the most infamous figures of 20th-century American history gave one of the most infamous speeches of 20th-century American history 70 years ago this winter. Speaking before a Republican women’s group in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI), declared that a certain number of US State Department employees (the precise number was unclear and changed over time) were Communists and that he possessed a list of these Communists’ names.[1]

Like so much of what McCarthy said, the list was fictitious, yet that did not prevent the Wisconsin senator from becoming a national political celebrity over roughly the next four years. First as a senator of the minority party in Congress and then, starting in 1953, as chair of the Senate’s Government Oversight Committee and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy’s celebrity rested on the same approach pioneered in the Wheeling speech.

McCarthy would make dubious accusations of Communism or disloyalty, usually against government employees or people who had a government connection, however tenuous.[2] A few examples give a sense of the senator’s approach. One McCarthy victim was Haldore Hanson, an administrator of the State Department’s Point Four foreign aid program. Hanson’s only offense was writing a book in 1939 that was sympathetic to the Chinese Communists, who were at the time involved in the war against Japan. Yet McCarthy declared of Hanson that “Here is a man with a mission—a mission to communize the world.” McCarthy dismissed the many years that had elapsed since Hanson had written his Communist-leaning book, cautioning “Hitler’s Mein Kampf was published ten years before he started putting each and every paragraph into action.”[3]

Another recipient of McCarthy’s ire was Gustavo Duran, a former State Department employee who in 1950 worked for the United Nations. Although Duran had been accused in the 1940s of being a Communist and had subsequently been cleared, McCarthy attacked him and claimed (without proof) that Duran exerted influence “screening refugees in connection with our Displaced Persons program.”[4] He also attacked Esther Brunauer, a liaison officer between the State Department and UNESCO who had once been accused of being a Communist. To smear Brunauer, McCarthy dragged in the case of Alger Hiss, a former State Department employee convicted of perjury in connection with accusations that he had been a Soviet spy. McCarthy fabricated the claim that Brunauer had been “the first assistant to Alger Hiss” at a 1945 San Francisco diplomatic conference.[5]

Others targeted by McCarthy for their alleged Communist connections included Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins University professor who served as a State Department consultant (and who became in McCarthy’s telling “the top Russian agent” in the country); Anna Rosenberg, a nominee for assistant secretary of defense; employees of the Voice of America; civilian and uniformed employees of the Defense Department; journalists James Wechsler and Drew Pearson (the latter of whom McCarthy referred to as a “Moscow-directed character assassin”); and even General George C. Marshall, who served variously as secretaries of state and defense under Harry Truman. McCarthy accused Marshall of following a pro-Communist foreign policy during his years in high public office, making the dark insinuation that “I do not think that this monstrous perversion of sound and understandable national policy was accidental” and claiming that Marshall was part of “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”[6] During his period of celebrity, McCarthy damaged a great many people’s reputations, got some people (including Hanson and Brunauer) fired from their jobs, and may have helped drive at least one man to suicide.[7]

McCarthy thrived on bravado, overstatement (“unheard of,” “fantastic,” and “unbelievable” were favored adjectives), and a willingness to make accusations that in spite of, or perhaps because of, their sheer outrageousness, would garner him publicity.[8] As Richard Rovere aptly noted, the scale of McCarthy’s claims actually made them harder to dismiss:

If he had said, at the outset, that he knew of one Communist in the State Department or even of three or four, and if he had failed to prove his case pretty quickly, he would have lost the suspended-judgment school early in the day and some of the benefit-of-the-doubt school not long after. But as things turned out, there was little but gain in the extravagance of his claims, and even the confusion he bred by repeatedly changing his story worked to his advantage. It kept the story alive and lively and made it practically impossible ever to dispose completely of his charges. Moreover, even among those disposed to deny him the benefit of the doubt, he created an interest in himself.[9] 

This brazen approach, combined with his status as a United States senator and his careful cultivation of the press, helped make McCarthy such an influential figure for four years.[10]

The senator helped create a new term and concept—”McCarthyism”—that is sometimes applied to an entire era, stretching from the late 1940s through the 1950s. McCarthyism is often invoked as a short-hand for this era’s widespread fear of Communism and how this fear motivated the US government and others to take questionable measures to suppress the Communist threat. The fear of Communism, the resulting anti-Communist measures, and McCarthy’s status as the ultimate symbol of both, are all worth examining seven decades later. They are significant and perhaps not just of historical interest.

Civil Liberties during the Cold War

How to protect citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of speech—even when their views are unusual, unpopular, or potentially dangerous—and other civil liberties while also protecting citizens from domestic and foreign threats has been a perennial problem in American history. Episodes of the government restricting civil liberties in the name of national security recur from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the 21st-century Global War on Terrorism, and these episodes have been subjects of enduring controversy. Joe McCarthy came into the public eye during such an episode.  

As during other periods of wartime or perceived external threat, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was marked by fear, veering into paranoia, of America’s enemy. This fear was not only of Soviet military power but of internal espionage or subversion by Soviet agents and other Communists—a fear made credible by the capture in the late 1940s of actual spies working for Moscow. To counter the perceived Communist threat, the federal government, state governments, and private groups took steps that included the following:

  • The federal government indicted, tried, and convicted 11 top leaders of the American Communist Party in 1948-1949 under a law that prohibited advocating for the violent overthrow of the US government.[11] These leading Communists’ convictions would be upheld by the Supreme Court in 1951 (Dennis v. United States). Other, similar prosecutions followed, leading to the conviction of dozens more Communists under the law. The Supreme Court eventually curtailed these anti-Communist prosecutions in 1957. By that time, however, the American Communist Party had been financially bankrupted and reduced to a tiny number of 16,000 official members and a secret “underground” network of members.[12]  
  • Congress passed, over President Truman’s veto, the Internal Security Act of 1950, which required certain groups to register with the Justice Department. The American Communist Party and other organizations deemed Communist were subsequently ordered to register under the Act. Failure to register could be punished with a fine or prison sentence. The Act also gave the president the power, in a war or national emergency, to detain Communists or other people deemed dangerous. Other provisions of the Act barred Communists from working in military-related industries or from obtaining or using passports.[13]
  • Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed into law the Communist Control Act (1954), which outlawed the American Communist Party altogether. As a result, the Party theoretically could no longer appear on ballots, maintain bank accounts, or sue in court (although the Act was rarely enforced).[14] 
  • The federal government conducted, in accord with executive orders, various investigations and tests of federal government employees’ loyalty and reliability. Following an executive order issued by President Truman in 1947, federal Loyalty Boards, working in tandem with the FBI, tried to investigate about two and a half million government workers. Over 5,000 government employees had hearings before Loyalty Boards in the roughly two years following Truman’s order, although only about 100 were eventually fired.[15] Later, under President Eisenhower, investigations of federal employees expanded to include not just suspected disloyalty but any potentially scandalous behavior that could make them subject to blackmail by Soviet agents. Eisenhower would boast, in October 1953, of almost 1,500 people being removed from the government under this new approach.[16]
  • Congress investigated possible Communist infiltration into or influence on various spheres of American life, such as labor unions, the universities, and most notoriously the entertainment industry.[17]
  • Private institutions such as universities and movie studios disciplined, fired, or refused to hire Communists or people suspected of Communist ties or sympathies. More than 100 professors—58 in New York City alone—lost their jobs at various higher education institutions.[18] Within the entertainment industry, hundreds of people working in the movies, TV, and radio were “blacklisted” for political reasons. Some committed suicide as a result.[19]

These anti-Communist measures varied in their effects and each presented a different set of ethical and legal issues. Nevertheless, I would venture a few generalizations about the various Cold War-era efforts to counter Communism’s internal threat.

First, they were contrary overall to the values of freedom of expression and association that the United States is supposed to value. To be sure, respect for such freedoms did not oblige a government to ignore Soviet espionage, which genuinely occurred during the Cold War. Spying for a foreign government was a far more specific and overt offense, however, than an amorphous “Communist threat” that consisted of Communist Party membership, connections, or sympathies. By responding to the latter with prosecution, surveillance, investigation, and similar measures, the government and private institutions were engaging in the questionable—and sometimes arguably unconstitutional—practice of punishing people for their political beliefs.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, in dissenting from the 1951 Dennis decision, wrote of the Communist Party leaders on trial,

They were not charged with overt acts of any kind designed to overthrow the Government. They were not even charged with saying anything or writing anything designed to overthrow the Government….The indictment is that they conspired to organize the Communist Party and to use speech or newspapers and other publications in the future to teach and advocate the forcible overthrow of the Government. No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids.[20]

Black made a similar point more succinctly in a marginal note on the Dennis majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Fred Vinson. Vinson asserted that it was “within the power of Congress to prohibit acts intended to overthrow the government by force or violence.” Black wrote the comment, “Of course—but these people were not convicted for acts.”[21]

Similar criticisms could be made of other government penalties on Communists, such as the requirement to register or the outright banning of the party. Congressional investigations of Communist influence in various institutions effectively served as a kind of indirect penalty for Communist Party membership and sympathies. Professors, screenwriters, or other citizens who received subpoenas to testify under oath before Congress about their political views or associations were effectively being required, on penalty of contempt or perjury, to answer embarrassing questions that might harm their reputations or careers. This served as a means for the government to punish them for their views while technically remaining within the bounds of the First Amendment.[22] The Supreme Court implicitly condemned these methods, and limited such Congressional investigations, in the 1957 decision Watkins v. United States, which required that Congressional committees ask questions relevant to legislation and placed other restrictions on questioning. Chief Justice Warren wrote that Congress must not have “a general power to expose where the predominant result can only be an invasion of the private rights of the individual.”[23]

Measures to ensure the loyalty and reliability of government employees were more ambiguous: one could plausibly argue that the government has a right to exercise broad discretion in who it hires, especially for positions relevant to national security. Nevertheless, the internal review procedures applied were often unfair. Government employees under scrutiny by Loyalty Boards would not be told who had made allegations against them, for example. Later, during the Eisenhower years, State Department employees had their mail opened and phones tapped. The standards applied for judging who might be a security risk could verge on the paranoid. Reading the Communist Daily Worker newspaper could get a government employee fired.[24]

Further, while constitutional protection of freedom of expression did not apply to non-public employers such as private universities and movie studios, practices such as the blacklist did violate the general spirit of promoting such freedom. Overall, this period in American history could justly be judged another episode where public and private institutions failed to balance concerns about national security with respect for civil liberties.

The second generalization I would offer about the anti-Communist measures of the 1940s and 1950s is that they added up to a massive overreaction. The American Communist Party and its affiliates were so relatively small and weak by the 1950s as to have only marginal influence on American politics. Even in the 1932 presidential election, before the Cold War and in the depths of the Great Depression, the American Communist Party won a measly 102,785 votes. By 1936, votes cast for the Communist ticket fell to 80,169. The Communist-influenced Progressive Party won almost 1.2 million votes in 1948, but this was equivalent to about only 5 percent of the votes cast for the Democrats or Republicans, and the Progressives failed to carry a single state.[25] By 1947, even before the prosecutions of Communist leaders and related measures, the FBI estimated Party membership at 47,000.[26] Communist influence in Hollywood produced perhaps three movies, out of a total output of thousands, that propagandized for the Soviet Union—and all were made during World War II, when the Soviets were US allies.[27]

As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas argued in his dissent in the Dennis case, while “Communism in the world scene is no bogey-man; but communism as a political faction or party in this country plainly is. Communism has been so thoroughly exposed in this country that it has been crippled as a political force.”[28]

McCarthy’s Role

The third and final important generalization to make about these dismal Cold War-era measures is that all of them occurred completely independently of anything Joseph McCarthy did. McCarthy played no role in the executive branch’s prosecution of Communist leaders or internal investigations into federal employees. He was not a decisive figure in the passing of the Internal Security Act or Communist Control Act. Although he investigated alleged Communist infiltration, he played no role in the investigations of Hollywood or the blacklist—McCarthy’s unlucky targets were in the State Department, Army, and other government agencies. In fact, many of the anti-Communist, anti-civil liberties measures taken during this period pre-dated McCarthy’s rise to prominence in 1950.

Perhaps more important, McCarthy’s particular brand of menace was quite different from that posed by other anti-Communist zealots of the time. The most significant and damning charge against McCarthy was not that, frightened by a perceived Communist threat, he failed to respect civil liberties. The most significant and damning charge against McCarthy was that he was a liar. He gained public prominence by making accusations that he essentially fabricated—or, if one wishes to be charitable, based on speculation and flimsy evidence. Thus, purely imagined Communists materialized within the State Department and Lattimore, who may have been a Communist sympathizer, was elevated by McCarthy to a prominent Soviet spy. Such behavior was simultaneously despicable and laughable but also oddly beside the point given the larger issues at stake during this period.

Viewed in this light, McCarthy’s status as the ultimate representative of the anti-Communist excesses of the 1940s and 1950s seems strange and more than a little misleading. Yet such invocations of McCarthy as a general stand-in for all the civil liberties’ violations of that period frequently occur.

The writer Ted Morgan, in Reds (2003), his history of the period, warned that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was using counter-terrorist measures “similar to those used by the government in its anti-Communist operations: deportation, detention without due process, the targeting of ethnic groups, and alarmist announcements about perils, real or imagined.”[29] Morgan’s warnings were well taken, yet his association of such civil liberties’ violations with the “recurring McCarthyite figure” in American history is striking, as McCarthy did not have the power to deport people or detain them without trial.

More recently, provisions of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) led to a debate over whether the provisions gave the president power to detain people indefinitely without trial. Arguing against criticisms of the 2012 NDAA, Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress insisted that the act did not represent a return to the “McCarthy era.”[30] While Gude at least did not claim that McCarthy personally ordered people’s detention, his use of the term raises the question of why McCarthy should be identified with measures he never carried out.

I do not have a definite answer to this question, but I can speculate on a few of the possible reasons why McCarthy and “McCarthyism” have become such catch-all terms for attacks on civil liberties, especially in the name of national security.

Drama. While McCarthy may have played only one, relatively narrow, role in the anti-Communist repression of the early Cold War, the senator’s rise to notoriety and subsequent disgrace was among the most dramatic tales of the period. As such, the story lent itself well to remembrance and mythologizing.

McCarthy’s personality and methods made him an ideal villain. He was loud, bullying, dishonest, and even violent: he once took the opportunity at a Washington club to corner and assault his vocal critic Drew Pearson.[31] (That McCarthy would verbally attack Pearson in the Senate shortly after the physical assault is perhaps one of the most notable historical examples of adding insult to injury.) Moreover, McCarthy was a villain perfect for the new medium of television. As Steven Stark noted, in a history of American TV, “If there was ever a soul not made for TV, it was the sweaty, darty-eyed, balding, and frumpy senator from Wisconsin.”[32] The senator’s aggressive, hectoring style, which might have been intimidating or rousing in person, made him look crazed on TV.[33]

Even better for future dramatists and myth-makers, this telegenic villain faced off against not one but two media-savvy white knights. The first was the lawyer Joseph Welch. Welch, serving as counsel for the Army, confronted McCarthy in 1954 during televised hearings related to a complicated set of accusations and counter-accusations between the Army and McCarthy and his staff. Welch managed to meet McCarthy’s typically egregious behavior—the senator had just attacked one of Welch’s colleagues for alleged Communist ties—with a well-timed display of righteous indignation, famously asking “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch’s riposte managed to get a round of applause from onlookers and embarrass McCarthy.[34]

The second heroic foil to McCarthy was CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow, whose See It Now program aired a 1954 episode skewering McCarthy. Given time to reply on air, McCarthy gave a blustering, rambling response that probably left him looking worse than if he had not replied at all. Murrow’s attack on McCarthy became the stuff of journalistic legend and would be immortalized in the movie Good Night and Good Luck (2005).[35]

I should note that while both Welch’s and Murrow’s famous confrontations with McCarthy were memorable and while both men deserve credit for them, neither was as crucial as later myth making would suggest. The Welch and Murrow episodes were only two incidents in a long series of events in 1954 in which McCarthy embarrassed himself with increasingly erratic behavior. McCarthy behaved badly throughout the Army-related hearings. Moreover, the Army hearings followed a notorious incident at a hearing earlier that year in which McCarthy lost his temper and berated General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated World War II veteran.[36]

Meanwhile, Murrow was only one of many journalists (such as Pearson) who had publicly criticized McCarthy over the years, as Murrow acknowledged: “I didn’t do anything. [Times columnist] Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We’re bringing up the rear.”[37] Under the circumstances, the results of contemporary Gallup polls on McCarthy are not surprising: while 50 percent of respondents reported having a “favorable” impression of him in January 1954 (versus 29 percent “unfavorable”), that number had fallen to 34 percent “favorable” by June, while the “unfavorable” had climbed to 45 percent.[38]

Compounding McCarthy’s problems at that time was that he was embarrassing and alienating his own party. Other Republicans had long had an ambivalent relationship with the Wisconsin senator (as I will discuss below), but by 1953-1954, McCarthy had accumulated a number of Republican enemies, most notably President Eisenhower. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, the chairman of the Republican National Financial Committee wrote a telling letter to South Dakota Senator Karl Mundt, who was overseeing the hearings. The message said that “My personal view coincides with the views of the general run of Republicans who are engaged in fund raising…[The hearings] are a disgraceful affair and the sooner they finish the better for the Party.”[39]

However selective and romanticized the focus on Welch and Murrow might be, however, this focus underlines a final crucial reason why McCarthy’s story was such an appealing one. In this tale, the villain received a comeuppance: McCarthy’s behavior ultimately proved too much for his senatorial colleagues, who formally censured him in December 1954. That censure marked the end of McCarthy’s four-odd years as a Communist-hunting celebrity, and he would die of alcoholism a few years later. Having vice be punished in the end made McCarthy’s tale a more dramatically satisfying one than that of, say, J. Edgar Hoover, who served as FBI director until his death in 1972 despite his long record of disregarding civil liberties. 

Partisanship. Joe McCarthy was not merely an anti-Communist senator. He was an anti-Communist Republican senator, and his attacks on supposed Communists in government blended with partisan attacks on the Democratic Party. McCarthy directed his ire toward Truman, Truman administration officials such as Marshall, and Democrats who supposedly were “soft” on Communism and failing to root out Communist infiltration of the government.

In this behavior, McCarthy was following a general pattern among contemporary Republican politicians of using the supposed Communist threat as a stick to beat their Democratic opponents. Alger Hiss’ exposure in 1948 as a probable Soviet spy, the triumph of Communists in China in 1949, and the eventual stalemate in the Korean War during 1950-1953 became occasions for much partisan controversy. Republicans attacked Hiss while Democrats such as Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson defended or sympathized with him. Republicans blamed the Democrats for “losing China” to the Communists. Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur as commander of US forces in Korea also became fodder for Republican criticism.

These and similar political battles set the stage for McCarthy’s entry into the public eye as a scourge of Communist infiltrators, and he continued to treat anti-Communism as a partisan issue. In a 1951 speech, McCarthy adopted the perspective of a disabled Korean War veteran and imagined him telling Dean Acheson “Dean, thousands of American boys have faced those twin killers [Red China and North Korea] because you and your crimson crowd betrayed us.”[40]

Of the president, he said “Truman is surrounded by…the Achesons, the old Hiss crowd” and added “Most of the tragic things are done at 1:30 and 2 o’clock in the morning when they’ve had time to get the President cheerful.”[41] McCarthy gave a showcase speech at the 1952 Republican Convention in which he blasted Truman administration officials for their “abysmal stupidity and treason.”[42]

During that year’s presidential campaign, McCarthy attacked Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, whom he warned would “continue the suicidal Kremlin-shaped policies of this nation” and whom McCarthy would “mistakenly” refer to as “Alger.”[43] He also made the blunter comment, “If you’ll give me a slippery elm club and put me aboard Adlai Stevenson’s campaign train, I could use it on some of his advisers and I might be able to make a good American out of him.”[44]

His blended attacks on Communists and Democrats earned him the sometimes-uneasy support of conservative Republicans in the Senate: Kenneth Wherry (NE), John Bricker (OH), William Jenner (IN), Herman Welker (ID), and (perhaps reluctantly) Robert Taft (OH). Bricker summed up their attitude by telling McCarthy “Joe, you’re a real SOB. But sometimes it’s useful to have SOBs around to do the dirty work.”[45] Dwight Eisenhower had a still more complicated attitude. He disliked McCarthy intensely and said so in private. In public, he even argued against McCarthy, without mentioning the senator by name. Nevertheless, politics required a tentative alliance with McCarthy during the 1952 election and avoiding a direct confrontation with him afterwards—at least for a while.[46]

Outside establishment Republican circles, McCarthy’s partisan anti-Communism made him a favored hero for many conservatives long after the senator passed from the scene. The leader of conservatism’s 1950s revival, William F. Buckley, co-wrote a book, McCarthy and His Enemies, defending the Wisconsin senator. Senator Barry Goldwater, the future leader of the Republican Party’s right wing, voted against censuring McCarthy, declaring that to do so would be a “global victory for communism.”  He eulogized McCarthy by saying “because he lived, America is a brighter, safer, more vigilant land today.”[47]

Nixon and Reagan White House staffer, and later presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan discussed in his 1988 memoir Right from the Beginning his admiration of McCarthy. Buchanan, who shares some of McCarthy’s rhetorical style, observed that “for four years [McCarthy] was daily kicking the living hell out of people most Americans concluded ought to have the living hell kicked out of them.”[48] The review of the Buchanan memoir in National Review noted the praise for the McCarthy era, with the reviewer sharing his own desire “to read it aloud to a bound and gagged editorial board of the New York Times.”[49] More recently, Ann Coulter praised McCarthy in her 2003 book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.

The liberal attacks on McCarthy were a kind of mirror image of the conservative praise. McCarthy became a symbol of Republican Red-baiting, or even sleazy politics generally, to many Democrats. One of McCarthy’s chief Democratic targets, Harry Truman, responded in kind, publicly saying “I think that the greatest asset the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.”[50] The Democrats responded to McCarthy’s initial charges of Communists in the State Department by setting up a committee, chaired by Democratic Senator Millard Tydings (MD), meant to discredit the charges.[51] The committee concluded that McCarthy was guilty of a “fraud and a hoax” and used information “colored with distortion and fanned by a blaze of bias.” (McCarthy predictably dismissed the report as “a green light for the Reds.”)[52] Later, Democratic members of McCarthy’s sub-committee on Investigations temporarily boycotted hearings in protest over McCarthy’s claim to the exclusive right to hire and fire sub-committee staffers.[53]

After leaving the White House, Truman responded to criticism from the Eisenhower administration by identifying it with McCarthy’s tactics. He commented,

the present administration has fully embraced, for political advantage, McCarthyism. I am not referring to the Senator from Wisconsin. He is only important in that his name has taken on a dictionary meaning of the word. It is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process of law…It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and destruction of faith in every level of our society.”[54]

Stevenson struck a similar note when he described the Republican Party as being “half Eisenhower, half McCarthy.”[55]

As I already noted, McCarthy earned the enmity of many journalists, as well. Liberal Democratic cartoonist Herbert Block famously caricatured McCarthy and may have been the one originally to coin the term “McCarthyism.” A March, 1950, Block cartoon featured the Republican elephant being led by various contemporary Republican politicians toward a tower of mud-filled buckets, labeled “McCarthyism”; the elephant asks apprehensively “You mean I am supposed to stand on that?”[56] Moreover, McCarthy has remained an icon of evil for left-leaning writers and thinkers in the decades since his death. 

McCarthy’s status as a Republican who attacked Democrats over the Communism issue and who became a hero or villain to partisans on either side makes him an appealing representative of the era’s anti-Communist fears. Then and now, the two major political parties dominate American political life. The parties’ positions are often taken as defining the spectrum of possible views on political issues and public policies. Their disagreements similarly tend to set the terms of debate on issues and policies. When this limiting, partisan point of view is applied to the anti-Communism of the 1940s and 1950s, the result is to narrow issues to a matter of disagreements between Republicans and Democrats. This narrowing process serves the partisan interests of both sides.

Conservative Republicans can portray anti-Communism as essentially a right-wing product: they, including the unfairly maligned Joe McCarthy, were scourges of the Communist menace, while Democrats and others on the left were naïve dupes or Communist sympathizers. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats can portray anti-Communist paranoia and civil liberties’ violations as essentially conservative phenomena, of which they were as much victims as anybody else.

However useful such interpretations of the period may be for partisans, however, they are widely misleading, for multiple reasons. For one thing, support for and opposition to McCarthy did not always fall neatly along party lines. McCarthy had supporters among Democrats who appreciated his anti-Communist zeal. Perhaps the most notable—and, for subsequent Democratic myth-makers, embarrassing—examples of these were Senator John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. The Kennedy family was on friendly terms with McCarthy, and John Kennedy managed to avoid voting to censure McCarthy by being absent. Robert Kennedy even briefly worked for McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.[57]

McCarthy also had Republican and conservative opponents. Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith led other Republicans in 1950 in signing on to an anti-McCarthy “Declaration of Conscience.” Smith warned “Certain elements of the Republican Party have materially added to [national] confusion…through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance.”[58] More important, McCarthy eventually earned the clear opposition of President Dwight Eisenhower. The president’s tolerance for McCarthy finally ended when McCarthy began attacking the United States Army. The abuse of General Zwicker was especially offensive to Eisenhower. He publicly made his opposition to McCarthy’s behavior clear and privately encouraged the Army to go on the offensive with its charges of misconduct by McCarthy and his staff.[59] (The Army-McCarthy conflict that brought about the senator’s downfall illustrates another way McCarthy’s behavior stood apart from the larger Red Scare: although done in the name of fighting Communism, McCarthy was essentially going after one of the most powerful and respected institutions in the United States, not a hated minority political party.)

Meanwhile, some conservative anti-Communists, in contrast to the defenses of Buckley, Goldwater, and others, pointed out that McCarthy’s antics were actually harming the anti-Communist cause by making it seem ridiculous and dangerous. One such critic was Whittaker Chambers, the former Communist turned ferocious anti-Communist who brought about Alger Hiss’ downfall. In a letter to Buckley, Chambers expressed his fear that McCarthy’s “flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us into trouble.”[60] Another anti-Communist critic was the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. During his tenure as editor of Punch, the British humor magazine, Muggeridge even penned a satire, “Senator McCarthy McCarthyized” that pointed out how McCarthy could be as easily condemned as any of his targets for aiding Communism.[61]

More important, the McCarthy-centered partisan interpretation of anti-Communist hysteria ignores the degree to which the many civil liberties’ violations of the period were bipartisan ones. Harry Truman’s Democratic administration convicted Communist leaders of conspiring to overthrow the government and conducted extensive loyalty investigations of federal employees. A conservative Democrat, Pat McCarran, sponsored the Internal Security Act of 1950, while a liberal Democrat, Hubert Humphrey, sponsored the Communist Control Act of 1954. Congress investigated Communism in Hollywood during periods of both Republican and Democratic dominance.[62] During his long career, J. Edgar Hoover served presidents of both parties.

Moreover, if the focus shifts from the domestic struggle against internal Communist subversion to the foreign struggle against the Soviet Union and other Communist nations, anti-Communism’s bipartisan character becomes even clearer. From Truman to Kennedy and Johnson, Democrats were just as willing as Republicans during the Cold War to build up American military might and use it.

None of this means that the two major parties did not sometimes differ in their approaches to domestic and foreign Communism. However, the differences existed within a context of general agreement on the need to fight the Soviet Union and other Communist powers abroad and Communist influences at home. To ignore this bipartisan consensus and to treat controversies over Communism and civil liberties as a Republican versus Democrat partisan issue is a huge distortion. Yet focusing on Joe McCarthy and his career makes this distortion more persuasive.

 The Devil Figure. The concept of a “scapegoat” is a familiar one: someone who is innocent of actual wrongdoing but makes a convenient figure to blame for a society’s problems. A far less familiar but very real target of blame is what I will call “the devil figure.”

A devil figure is someone who, in contrast to a scapegoat, is not innocent but is guilty of very real crimes or evil deeds. This person is not the only guilty party, however: many others have committed the same evil deeds or similar ones. When people try to obscure such widespread guilt by treating one evildoer as responsible for the problems that in fact many people are responsible for, they create a devil figure.

I suspect Joe McCarthy has become so notorious over the years because he serves as a convenient devil figure for all the many civil liberties’ violations committed in the name of anti-Communism during the 1940s and ‘50s. I have tried to identify some of the reasons he makes an effective devil figure:

Being a liar and fraud, McCarthy allows people to focus on the most extreme and corrupt forms of anti-Communism and distracts attention from its more mainstream forms. Being a colorfully lurid character who received a just comeuppance, McCarthy dramatizes anti-Communism’s excesses and allows people to treat them as a problem that was essentially ended or at least discredited. Being a partisan Republican who remains a folk hero to a least some conservatives, McCarthy allows Democrats and liberals more generally to portray the violation of civil liberties in the name of fighting Communism as being an essentially Republican, conservative phenomenon.    

To emphasize, McCarthy’s status as a devil figure does not mean the criticisms of him were or are unwarranted. He was every bit the demagogue, liar, fraud, and bully he is remembered as being, and those who stood up to him at the time are justly praised for it. Nevertheless, he was not the only politician of the era who hurt people or committed injustices in the name of fighting Communism. Indeed, he was not even the most characteristic example of such a politician, nor did he necessarily do the greatest harm. Cold War fears of Communism led many people, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, public and private, to damage the civil liberties of others.

Legacy and Lessons

Seven decades after his rise to prominence, McCarthy remains infamous. This infamy is deserved, and we would do well to remember the senator’s career. McCarthy serves as an object lesson in how a lying, bullying demagogue with a talent for media manipulation can influence an entire nation. McCarthy also serves, however, as an object lesson in how such as unsavory figure can become an easy focus of blame for much larger and more complicated injustices for which politicians of both major parties are responsible. Both are lessons worth recalling today.


[1] David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: Free Press, 1983), 108-111.

[2] Ibid., 112-114, 118, 120-122, for details on McCarthy’s methods.

[3] Ibid., 127-128.

[4] Ibid., 126-127.

[5] Ibid., 125.

[6] On Lattimore, see Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 136-138, 144-145, and Richard H. Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959), 151-153; on Rosenberg, see Oshinsky, 203-205, and Rovere, 162; on Pearson, see Oshinsky, 181; on Marshall, see Oshinsky, 197-201, and Rovere, 170-179.

[7] Oshinsky, Conspiracy so Immense, 271; “ ‘Voice’ Aide Ruled Suicide,” New York Times, March 6, 1953, available at

[8] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 125.

[9] Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, 139.

[10] Rovere, 163-166.

[11] Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Random House, 2003), 312-317.

[12] Morgan, Reds, 317-319; Nat Hentoff, The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America (New York: Delacorte Press, 1988), 137-141, 145-148.

[13] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 173-174, “McGrath to Press New Curbs on Reds,” New York Times, September 25, 1950, available at

[14] Kane Madison Click, “Communist Control Act of 1954 (1954),” First Amendment Encyclopedia, accessed February 9, 2020,

[15] Morgan, Reds, 304-306.

[16] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 263, 347.

[17] William L. O’Neill, A Better World: The Great Schism: Stalinism and the American Intellectuals (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 219, 224.

[18] O’Neill, Better World, 328.

[19] Ibid., 223-224, 239.

[20] Hentoff, First Freedom, 141-142.

[21] Morgan, Reds, 318.

[22] O’Neill, Better World, 220-221.

[23] Morgan, Reds, 544-545.

[24] Ibid., 305; Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 97, 263-264.

[25] Morgan, Reds, 166, 215, 312.

[26] Morgan, Reds, 375.

[27] O’Neill, Better World, 220, 326.

[28] Hentoff, First Freedom, 143-144.

[29] Morgan, Reds, xiv.

[30] Ken Gude, “Terrorist Detainee Rules Are Not McCarthyist,” Center for American Progress, December 15, 2011,

[31] W. Joseph Campbell, “Remembering When Joe McCarthy Beat Up a Columnist,” December 9, 2010, Richard Rovere observed, of McCarthy, “the thing he valued was his reputation for toughness, ruthlessness, even brutality. He didn’t mind at all having it get around Washington that he had threatened to ‘kick the brains out’ of Robert Stevens if the Secretary of the Army didn’t get in line” (Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, 49).

[32] Steven D. Stark, Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today (New York: Dell Publishing, 1997), 61.

[33] See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 116.

[34] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 457-464, provides a good summary of the famous moment.

[35] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 397-400; also, see Jack Shafer, “Edward R. Movie,” Slate, October 5, 2005,, for a critical account of Murrow’s approach to McCarthy and its subsequent cinematic treatment.

[36] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 366-367, 377.

[37] Shafer, “Edward R. Movie.”

[38] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 464.

[39] Ibid., 435.

[40] Ibid., 196.

[41] Ibid., 194

[42] Ibid., 230; Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, 180-181.

[43] Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, 182-183.

[44] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 242.

[45] Ibid., 130-134.

[46] Ibid., 234-238, 258-260, 350-353.

[47] Lee Edwards, Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1995), 61-62.

[48] Jacob Weisberg, “The Heresies of Pat Buchanan,” New Republic, October 22, 1990, 22.

[49] Joseph Sobran, “The Happy Native,” National Review, July 8, 1988, 45.

[50] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 143.

[51] Ibid., 115-117.

[52] Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, 156.

[53] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 321.

[54] Ibid., 348-349.

[55] Ibid., 393.

[56] Alyssa Rosenberg and Stephen Stromberg, “How Legendary Washington Post Cartoonist Herblock Might Have Drawn the 2016 Election,” Washington Post, November 1, 2016,

[57] See Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 239-242, 255, 361, 489-491; Arthur Herman, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 9-10. For a notable discussion of the historical amnesia on this topic, see Philip Terzian, “Profiles in Courage?,” Weekly Standard, June 7, 2016, available at

[58] Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, 180.

[59] Oshinsky, Conspiracy So Immense, 362-363, 390-393, 437-438.

[60] Ibid., 309; see also Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “The Truest Believer,” New York Times, March 9, 1997, available from

[61] Malcolm Muggeridge, “Senator McCarthy McCarthyized or the Biter Bit,” Most of Malcolm Muggeridge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 273-276.

[62] O’Neill, Better World, 219, 224.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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