Article in Word Format


The problem with McCarthyism is that American history courses do not explain it clearly enough. It was such a disruptive, disturbing period in American history, that McCarthyism requires more of an explanation than the average college American history survey textbook provides. The definitions are too simplistic. The actions of Senator Joe McCarthy were so numerous and complicated they require a clear and concise definition. Combining definitions from two different sources produced the following:

Generally, McCarthyism was a serious assault on the Western political system and its antidemocratic aspects posed genuine threat to that system. McCarthyism was, at its simplest, intolerance backed by power. Specifically, it was the use of unsupported charges and smear tactics to destroy someone's reputation and career1

The definition explains the essence of McCarthyism. However, it does not explain what McCarthy did or when he did it in enough detail.

By 1953, the nation was at war in Korea, recovering from the traumas of depression and World War II. Those factors in addition to the Cold War with the Soviet Union created a climate of fear that was easily exploited. Joseph McCarthy was the shrewdest and most ruthless exploiter of such anxieties. He took up the cause publicly on February 9, 1950. In that Wheeling West Virginia speech McCarthy stated that the State Department was infested with communists, and that he had a list of their names. The exact number ranged from 57 to 205 to a lot. The fact is McCarthy never had such a list. Nevertheless, he continued to hurl accusations and lies at innocent people some of whom chose to invoke their rights under the Fifth Amendment. McCarthy called them Fifth Amendment communists. He overreached himself in 1954 when he attacked the Army. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December 1954. He died in 1957 of alcoholism.

The Cause

A special Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations investigated the charges made in McCarthy's Wheeling speech and found that they were `a fraud and a hoax.’ The issue might have died there if not for the Korean War. After the election of Eisenhower in 1952 Senator McCarthy became chairman of the Committee on Government Operations in January 1953. Soon after McCarthy took control of the committee, it focused almost exclusively on communist infiltration of the government.2McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, conducted hearings on the State Department, Voice of America, U.S. overseas libraries, the Government Printing Office, and the Army Signal Corps.3 There were so many hearings and so many witnesses, committee staff had very little time for preparation. “No real research was ever done. Most of the investigations were instituted on the basis of some preconceived notion by the chief counsel or his staff members and not on the basis of anything that had been developed.”4 The haphazard, disorganized nature of committee proceedings did not lend itself to the fair treatment of witnesses or make the proceedings easy to understand.

McCarthy defined the constitutional rights of witnesses narrowly. He had little patience for due process. During 1953, some seventy witnesses before the subcommittee invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to answer questions concerning communist activities. McCarthy called them Fifth Amendment communists. He went so far as to suggest that anyone who exercise that right had something to hide and McCarthy encouraged employers to fire anyone who did not answer questions before the committee.5As a result, some witnesses lost their jobs even at colleges and universities.6 During hearings McCarthy would constantly rephrase witnesses’ testimony “into something with more sinister implications than they intended.”7 Often acting as a one man committee, McCarthy held most of his hearings in “executive session” which meant private, secret behind closed doors, and not to be made public. However, McCarthy did whatever he wanted. Then told reporters whatever he pleased.8 McCarthy’s actions suggest his reasons for fighting communism were purely political and that he was only interested in getting publicity.

Army-McCarthy Hearings

McCarthy used the same tactics investigating the Army Signal Corps. The Army objected to those tactics during that investigation leading to a series of disputes between McCarthy and the Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens. During the investigation an unpaid committee consultant G David Schine was drafted into the Army. As the Signal Corps investigation continued, McCarthy and Cohn accused the Army of holding Schine hostage to get McCarthy to stop the investigation, and the Army charged that Senator McCarthy and members of his staff pressured the Army to give Schine special treatment.9 There were so many charges and countercharges that a special investigation was held. From 22 April-17 June 1954, what came to be known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings mesmerized the public. A wallpaper hanger called on a woman to discuss a job during the hearings and related an interesting story:

…She could not talk to me but kept her eyes glued to the hearings. She didn't know a word I was saying and so there was nothing to do but leave and ask her to be sure and call me after the hearings ended.10

It is difficult to understand how hearings plagued with digressions and irrelevancies were a nationwide sensation. Additionally, it is difficult to accept that the public’s minds were not changed about McCarthy.11The results of a nationwide survey conducted during the hearings revealed that the number of people who were concerned either about communism in the United States or about civil liberties was less than one percent.12

While McCarthy's public support may not have eroded as a result of the hearings, his political support did, and largely because the hearings were televised. They did not show McCarthy or the Republican Party in a good light. Although television gave McCarthy national exposure, it was that exposure that helped end his career.13 Many people involved in the hearings, including McCarthy, were aware of that possibility. Among the others were the Republican leadership, Special Counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch, and President Eisenhower.

Eisenhower and McCarthy

Historiography on McCarthyism has maintained, with a notable exception,14 that Eisenhower was mistaken not to confront McCarthy publicly and that when Eisenhower did act it was too little, too late. Recent scholarship, however, sheds new light on Eisenhower's hidden hand in dealing with McCarthy. David Nichols has argued Eisenhower ran a strategic deception campaign in order to destroy McCarthy.15Nichols demonstrated that Eisenhower was engaged as early as July 1953, around the time Schine received his draft notice. Fred Seaton Eisenhower's troubleshooter was given “a redesigned assistant Secretary position in the Defense Department. …The top liaison job on the Hill.” That meant Seaton would often deal directly with McCarthy.16

In the beginning of January 1954, the Attorney General Herbert Brownell, at Eisenhower’s direction, sketched out a statement of Executive Privilege to protect the president, his advisers, and classified information from McCarthy.17Then, on January 21, 1954, at a meeting in the office of the Attorney General, John G. Adams Counsel for the Army was directed, by Sherman Adams Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, to prepare a detailed chronology of the efforts of Cohn and McCarthy to get special treatment for Schine. Eisenhower, although not present, had ordered the meeting.18 The report complete, Adams, on February 16, 1954, leaked it to a journalist at the Washington Post, and also sent it to the White House.19 A few days after receiving the report, Eisenhower ordered Fred Seaton to edit it into something “appropriate for publication.” “The original version had too many landmines that McCarthy could exploit.”20 On March 11, 1954, the Army, through Seaton, released the Schine report. Its publication, approved by Eisenhower, led to the agitation for hearings on the controversy. Once the decision to hold public hearings was reached, Lyndon Johnson, Senate Minority Leader, instructed the ranking Democrat on the McCarthy committee to insist on televised hearings, which is exactly what Eisenhower wanted;21more bad publicity for McCarthy. On March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now program on CBS did a report on McCarthy using his own words against him.22

The Decline

Almost from the beginning of the hearings, McCarthy seemed to go out of his way to put himself in a bad light, which also shined on his fellow Republicans. Five days in to the Army-McCarthy hearings, April 26, 1954, during the testimony of Secretary Stevens, a photograph was introduced at the urging of McCarthy. It depicted Schine with Secretary Stevens seemingly the only two people in the picture. The next day Welch demonstrated that there was a third person in the original photograph – Colonel Jack Bradley. Furthermore, Welch charged that the photograph introduced the day before was “doctored:”

… I show you now a photograph in respect of which I charge that what was offered in evidence yesterday was an altered, shamefully cut-down picture, so that somebody could say to Stevens, “Were you not photographed alone with David Schine,” when the truth is he was photographed in a group.

Then, on April 30, 1954, Staff Sargent Herbert Manchester United States Air Force, testified he composed the original print of three men and sent it to Schine. Additionally, he testified he did not know how the Army received a copy of the original print.23

McCarthy’s second misstep was introducing a second piece of “doctored evidence” on May 4, 1954 an FBI letter supposedly from J. Edgar Hoover. The letter was produced during the cross-examination of Secretary Stevens. McCarthy stated “I would like to give you a letter one which was written incidentally before you took office but which was in the file … all during the time you are in office—I understand it is in the file as of today—from the FBI….”24Before McCarthy asked Stevens a question about the document, Welch requested committee counsel, Ray H. Jenkins, rule on its materiality.25 Then, Senator Henry M. Jackson, Democrat, Washington, queried where it came from and stated the letter “ought to be authenticated.”26 Jenkins ruled that McCarthy could cross-examine Stevens about the letter. Jackson still wanted to know where the letter came from, and Welch agreed. Jenkins suggested that he could question McCarthy about it under oath; Welch agreed again. Additionally, he stated:

The mere fact that we have an impressive looking, purported copy of such a letter, doesn't impress an old-time lawyer. I would like to have Mr. J. Edgar Hoover say he wrote the letter and mailed it. Then we would know what we were dealing with.

Welch then asked McCarthy, “Where did it come from then?”27

Finally, McCarthy asked Stevens to read the letter to himself, so Stevens could determine whether or not he had seen it or been informed of its contents. Stevens responded he would like the advice of counsel because he did not know whether he was at liberty to read any letter from the Director of the FBI without Hoover’s specific approval. Welch, then, stated that discussion of the letter should be approved by Hoover.28 After discussion among the members of the committee it was decided that Army files would be searched for the original of the letter that evening, and a report would be made the next day.29

The next day, according to Nichols, “McCarthy’s attempt to align himself with the popular FBI director exploded in his face.” Robert A. Collier, assistant committee counsel and a ten-year FBI veteran, testified that “Hoover flatly denied the letter was authentic.” Welch got him to reluctantly agree that the letter was fraudulent.30 Then, Welch cross-examined McCarthy under oath. Welch queried him about where the letter came from. Welch pressed McCarthy on the issue putting him in the same position he had put many other witnesses. McCarthy refused to answer, admitting only that it came from a confidential informant.31 In effect, McCarthy took his own version of the Fifth Amendment. That made McCarthy look bad to his detractors, and perhaps made his supporters consider the possibility that if McCarthy would not answer a question on principle, then maybe the people that he derided for not answering questions did so on principle.

Additionally, McCarthy urged the committee to make the contents of the letter public.32 As a result, Chairman, Karl E. Mundt wrote Attorney General Brownell requesting his opinion as to whether all or parts of it could be made public.33 The committee received Brownell’s opinion on May 6, 1954, in which he stated Hoover “never wrote any such letter” and “the document constitutes an unauthorized use of information that is classified as Confidential … it is my opinion that it should not be made public.”34 Mundt wrote the Attorney General again on the same subject. Brownell’s reply was received by the committee on May 17, 1954. He referred to his previous opinion, and stated that:

The Department has under consideration at the present time possible violations of the criminal law as a result of the referral of the transcript of the hearings to the Department by your Subcommittee. The two and one-fourth page document is involved and its declassification at this time might affect adversely or even defeat the proper prosecution of offenses involved in its preparation and dissemination.35

The Army-McCarthy report made clear McCarthy was given the letter the year before and it was kept in his safe. Furthermore, the letter could have been the starting point of the Army Signal Corps investigation at Fort Monmouth, but “at no time did Senator McCarthy call this document to the attention of any member of his subcommittee or to the newly appointed Secretary of the Army.” 36 If rooting out communists at Fort Monmouth and elsewhere in the government was so important to McCarthy he would have done so.

Television was not kind to McCarthy or the Republicans. Between May 8 and May 11, 1954, Senator Edward Dirksen, Republican Illinois, made two attempts to end the Army-McCarthy hearings. Both attempts were rejected by Eisenhower through Secretary Stevens. According to Nichols, “every time Eisenhower had the opportunity to exercise his influence to truncate the hearings he refused.” Nichols maintained, “Eisenhower made a cold-blooded decision: the hearings were proving so destructive to McCarthy’s reputation that [Eisenhower] wanted them to continue until, politically, the senator was ground into dust—even if it damaged the Republican Party in an election year.”37 McCarthy, himself, went to Stevens late in the hearings and proposed a deal to bring them to a close, or at least, get them off television. McCarthy asked Stevens to consider announcing that “for the security of the country, we are ending televised hearings.” Stevens presented the proposal to Eisenhower who responded, “No! Now we have the bastard right where we want him!”38

The same day that Brownell's second letter was received by the committee, John G. Adams read a letter to the committee from Eisenhower claiming executive privilege about the January 21, 1954 meeting in the office of the Attorney General. The letter was attached to a lengthy memorandum from Brownell which was an historically detailed explanation of similar actions taken by past presidents from Washington to Truman, and in essence stated for the interest of National Security and to uphold the Separation of Powers presidents have withheld information from Congress; and Eisenhower was justified in doing so.39 Nichols maintained, Karl Mundt observed after the “president’s letter”… the Army-McCarthy investigation “…ground to a slow halt.”40

Ten days afterward, May 27, 1954, McCarthy vented his anger. John L. McClellan, Democrat, Arkansas, during an exchange with McCarthy about the FBI letter said, “I do not believe you can receive information that is obtained by criminal means and hold it in your possession without the possibility of you, too, being guilty of a crime.”41 McCarthy fired back:

We now have you on record as saying you feel that the man who gave me information about treason in Government—that is what it is, it is nothing less than that—that he should be prosecuted. … The oath which every person in this government takes, to protect and defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that oath towers far above any Presidential secrecy directive. … I would like to notify those two million Federal employees that I feel it is their duty to give us any information which they have about graft, corruption, communism, treason, and that there is no loyalty to a superior officer which can tower above and beyond their loyalty to their country. 42

McCarthy effectively told Federal employees to disregard orders from their superiors including Eisenhower and continue giving him and the Congress information.

The next day, Eisenhower, privately, compared McCarthy to Hitler saying:

He is making exactly the same plea of loyalty to him that Hitler made to the German people. Both tried to set up personal loyalty within the Government while both were using the pretense of fighting communism. McCarthy is trying deliberately to subvert the people we have in Government, people who are sworn to obey the, the Constitution and their superior officers. I think this is the most disloyal act we had ever had by anyone in the Government of the United States.43

The above was the strongest condemnation of McCarthy Eisenhower made, but Eisenhower would never express such anger publicly.

The hearings slowly dragged on through June when the last confrontation between Welch and McCarthy took place. Welch baited McCarthy by questioning Cohn on their search for communists. Welch implied, that they had not found any. Welch’s line of questioning, which began on June 2, 1954, was designed to point out the fact that even though Cohn had information about communists in defense plants he did not give it to, or follow-up with, the Secretary of the Army or the FBI.44Then, on June 9, 1954, McCarthy mentioned Fred Fisher, which Welch expected. Two days before, Cohn had made a deal with Welch that McCarthy had agreed to; McCarthy would not mention Fisher was a member of the National Lawyers Guild, if Welch did not discuss Cohn's lack of military service. McCarthy, seeing his counsel in distress, came to Cohn's aid by violating the agreement.45 Cohn sat helpless as Welch began a speech that ended with the question, “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”46

Television gave the confrontation its significance. Millions of people saw and heard Welch’s frustration and irritation with McCarthy. Powerful emotions that simply were not conveyed by the written record. Fortunately, a visual interpretation of the televised gavel to gavel hearings still exists. Produced and directed by Emile de Antonio in 1964, the film was ninety-seven minutes long.47 The original coverage of the hearings was 188 hours long and “formless.” So, de Antonio had to impose the structure on the footage to make it a “coherent and compelling account of McCarthy’s eventual collapse.”48 The centerpiece of the film was the Welsh-McCarthy confrontation presented as it happened in all its dramatic and theatrical glory. Welch’s questioning of Cohn on the subject of communists in defense plants was condensed into two minutes and thirty-nine seconds in which Welch’s intent was unmistakably clear.49

The Army-McCarthy hearings ended on June 17, 1954 inconclusively. Nevertheless, they were a key component in McCarthy’s downfall; and they were initiated by Eisenhower. It was the release of the Army’s Schine report that caused the hearings, and it was Fred Seaton, Eisenhower’s troubleshooter, that prepared the report for publication on Eisenhower’s orders. By early December 1954 the Senate censured McCarthy effectively stripping him of his power. After censure McCarthy’s colleagues shunned him. They would not eat with him, and when he took the Senate floor to speak senators left the chamber.50 Joe McCarthy died in May 1957 of alcoholism.


1 Jerome Agel and Richard B. Bernstein, Of the People, By the People, For the People: The Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court in American History (New Jersey: Wings Books, 1993), 80; Irving Louis Horowitz, “Culture, Politics, and McCarthyism,” The Independent Review, 1.3 (Spring 1996): 107. 2 Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, 83th Congress, First Session, 1953, Vol 1: XXII (Made Public 2003)
(Hereinafter McCarthy Executive Sessions).
3 McCarthy Executive Sessions, XVIII 4 Robert F. Kennedy quoted in McCarthy Executive Sessions, XX. Kennedy was minority counsel for the committee. 5 McCarthy Executive Sessions, XXII. 6 Harold Taylor, “The Dismissal of Fifth Amendment Professors,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 300, Internal Security and Civil Rights (July 1955): 83. 7 McCarthy Executive Sessions, XXI. 8 McCarthy Executive Sessions, XIX. 9 “Investigation of Army-McCarthy Dispute” in CQ Almanac 1954, 10th ed., 08-343-08-361. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1955, accessed April 8, 2018,; Senate Committee on Government Operations Special Senate Investigation On Charges And Counter-charges Involving: Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens, John G. Adams, H. Struve Hensel and Senator Joe McCarthy, Roy M. Cohn, and Francis P. Carr 83rd Congress Second Session. Senate Report 2507, Appendix 1 103-110 (1954) (Hereinafter Army-McCarthy Report). 10 G. D. Wiebe, “The Army-McCarthy Hearings and the Public Conscience,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 22.4 (Winter, 1958-1959): 493. 11 Wiebe, 492. 12 Wiebe, 491. 13 Peter Greenfield Cocks, “The Fall of Joseph McCarthy, 1953-1954 A Descriptive and Theoretical Account,” (master's thesis Kansas State University 1967), 14 Allen Yarnell, “Eisenhower and McCarthy: An Appraisal of Presidential Strategy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 10.1 Politicizing the Presidency, 1789-1980 (Winter, 1980), 90-98. 15 David A. Nichols, Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign Against McCarthy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017), xi. 16 Nichols, 55-56. 17Nichols, 113. 18 Nichols, 122-123. 19 Nichols, 137 20 Nichols,162-163. 21 Nichols, 207. 22 Edward R. Murrow, See It Now, “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” aired March 9, 1954, on CBS. Murrow was the most respected journalist of the time, even so, confronting McCarthy as he did was extremely dangerous for him. 23 Senate Committee on Government Operations Special Senate Investigation On Charges And Counter-charges Involving: Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens, John G. Adams, H. Struve Hensel and Senator Joe McCarthy, Roy M. Cohn, and Francis P. Carr, 83rd Congress Second Session. (1954) part 7, 255-256; part 14, 553. (Hereinafter Army-McCarthy Hearings); Nichols, 238-239. Nichols cited the April 27, 1954 as the date the doctored photograph was introduced. However, according to the record it was April 26, 1954. 24 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 703. 25 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 703. 26 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 704. 27 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 704. 28 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 705. 29 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 706-710. 30 Nichols, 240; Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 18, 734. 31 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 20, 767-768. 32 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 20, 760. 33 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 21, 819. 34 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 21, 820-821. 35 Army-McCarthy Hearings, part 34, 1246-1247. 36 Army-McCarthy Report, 76. 37 Nichols, 245. 38 Nichols, 250. 39 Army-McCarthy Hearings part 34, 1269-1275. 40 Nichols, 260. 41 Army-McCarthy Hearings part 42, 1573. 42 Army-McCarthy Hearings part 42, 1573, 1575. 43 Nichols, 273. 44 Army-McCarthy Hearings part 49, 1945-1948; part, 59, 2424-2426. 45 Nichols, 280. 46 Army-McCarthy Hearings part, 59, 2429. 47 Emile de Antonio, dir. Point of Order, 1964; (Hereinafter Point of Order). 48 Emile de Antonio, “The Point of View in Point of Order,” Film Comment, 2.1, (Winter, 1964): 35-36; Vance Kepley, Jr. “The Order of `Point of Order,'” Film History, 13.2, Non-Fiction Film (2001): 200. 49 Point of Order,, 01:10:22-01:12:39; 01:12:40-01:24:59 50 Nichols, 295.