Joseph Raymond "Tailgunner Joe"note McCarthy (November 14, 1908 – May 2, 1957) was an American judge and politician from Wisconsin. He is known by history for serving as a United States senator (as a Republican from 1947 until 1957) and inspiring the term "McCarthyism". Said word became (and still is) a byword for political demagoguery that uses the rhetoric of Witch Hunt, Red Scare, and Patriotic Fervor to undermine the user's opponents by questioning their unconditional loyalty to their country and their personal convictions without offering proof and really not caring whether proof even exists. During his lifetime, he tried unsuccessfully to reclaim the label. McCarthy was an extremely anticommunist U.S. senator during The '50s, and the term derives from his methods. Due to his status as the icon of the greatest Red Scare in American history, McCarthy is often Mis-blamed for all the excesses of the period.
To be clear, he had nothing to do with the investigations into Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs,note the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), or The Hollywood Blacklist. HUAC and the blacklist were certainly in the spirit of McCarthyism, but McCarthy wasn’t actually involved in those things. The big clue is that whereas HUAC (as its full name suggests) was a committee of the House of Representatives, McCarthy was never a member of the House, only ever a senator, that is, a member of the Senate, a discrete chamber of the Congress. What makes him representative of this era is the fact that these pre-McCarthy investigations were far less controversial and more popular than Tailgunner Joe's antics, at least in their own time. McCarthyism represented the point where elite and public opinion turned solidly against the Red Scare, with McCarthy alienating other anti-communists from the hardline platform that they had once advocated but which, having been co-opted by McCarthy, became unacceptable. McCarthyism is largely a disagreement about means rather than ends (anti-communism remains mainstream and has bipartisan consensus), and the means McCarthy advocated, i.e. militant anti-communist advocacy of political consistency and paranoid overreaction of the same, were not original to him. He simply took it to the extreme and discredited it in American mainstream politics.
McCarthy first rose to prominence in 1950, three years after he became the junior senator from Wisconsin.note Prior to that he had been a relatively undistinguished senator, having incurred criticism for supporting corporate subsidiesnote and, rather more bizarrely, accusing American military prosecutors of torturing Nazi SS officers accused of the Malmedy Massacre into false confessions.note Making a speech to the Republican Party women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia, he declared that the U.S. State Department was infested with known communists. The press took notice and launched McCarthy into the national spotlight. McCarthy came to be treated as a major campaigning asset for his party beginning with the 1950 Senate elections, when he helped stump for several successful Republican challengers to leading Democratic senators (though how much credit he personally merited for it is uncertain; even in his own party he was regarded as a Small Name, Big Ego type). Still, by 1952, the Democratic Party had been in control of the federal government for twenty years,note under the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, and they had implemented several reforms inspired by social democracy in that time. McCarthy accused the Democratic administrations of perpetrating “twenty years of treason” and, of course, supported Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election, which he won.note In office, Eisenhower pursued a strongly anticommunist foreign policy, but it wasn’t quite anticommunist enough for McCarthy. A year into Eisenhower’s presidency, McCarthy didn’t like Ike anymore and had updated his Catchphrase to refer to twenty-one years of treason.
During Eisenhower's presidency, McCarthy served on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, during which he investigated The Voice of America, the U.S. government's radio program, where he ruined many careers via televised interviews that included highly personal and aggressive interrogation. He, alongside Roy Cohn (who worked as his chief counsel), also monitored the libraries in American embassies overseas and began crusading against books and authors that were considered communist, which eventually led to book burnings by McCarthy supporters at home (though McCarthy did not personally order any of them). McCarthy attacked government employees, librarians, and other state officials, codifying the anti-intellectual climate of the time. It became clear that McCarthy was burning his bridges when his staff director, J. B. Matthews, wrote an article entitled "Reds and Our Churches." It began with this claim: "The largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States is composed of Protestant clergymen." Even McCarthy was reluctant to support a potential breach into the First Amendment and many of his fellow senators were taken aback by this attack on the American clergy.
While McCarthy is best known for his crusade against communists, he also led a similar contemporaneous crusade against homosexuals, arguing by the Insane Troll Logic that, since homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail, the USSR could easily use them to spy on the United States and so known and suspected gay male and lesbian government workers had to be ferreted out to gauge their loyalty better. Some historians argue that this "Lavender scare," as it is called, did much more damage than the Red one, as it marked the birth of the first real homophobic policies at a state level. Naturally, the fact that McCarthy's own staffer Roy Cohn turned out to be a closeted homosexual himself only served to tarnish his crusade and reputation posthumously (though Cohn always denied this). A fair few of McCarthy's peers suspected him of being a "confirmed bachelor", too, especially given how often he was in Cohn's company, to the point it was a open secret on Capitol Hill that several of his colleagues would often tell homophobic jokes about him and Cohn behind their backs.
Ultimately, an emerging new medium called television brought McCarthy down. In early 1954, Edward R. Murrow’s series See It Now broadcast an episode condemning McCarthy, a risky move at the time. McCarthy appeared on a later episode to respond, predictably not addressing a single point made against him and instead accusing Murrow of being a communist. That same year, the Army–McCarthy hearings investigated the U.S. Army for potential communist subversion. The television coverage of the hearings, especially the one of the young lawyer Fred Fisher, gave the American public a good, long look at McCarthy, and they didn't like what they saw.note The Wisconsin senator came off as a huge bully, and the hearings have become known for a Real Life Shut Up, Hannibal! moment when Joseph Welch said, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator, you've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Welch's words were met with applause from the rest of the room.
Public opinion began to turn against McCarthy after this, as even some of the most anti-communist Republicans now saw him as a liability and wanted him to Stop Being Stereotypical. That December 2, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy by a 67–22 margin, with six abstentions. The censure received unanimous support from the Democrats present, while the Republicans were split evenly.note McCarthy dismissed the censure as inconsequential and blamed it on (you guessed it) communist subversion. He continued to rail against the red menace, but he had permanently lost his nationwide fame and political clout.note McCarthy had already been noted to be somewhat of a heavy drinker in private, but the stress from the situation removed any inhibitions toward his alcoholism he might have had before, and his health quickly deteriorated as a result. In 1957, he died at the age of forty-eight, officially from hepatitis, which his alcoholism caused, exacerbated, or both. As McCarthy was still a sitting senator at the time of his death, a special election was held to fill the vacancy in the Senate. Ironically, his seat was taken by William Proxmire, a liberal Democrat and future opponent of The Vietnam War.
History, of course, remembers McCarthy as a wild, paranoid demagogue. A few years after the end of the Cold War, attempts were made by conservatives to reconstruct him, when the Venona papers, released in 1995, revealed that there were more Soviet agents in the U.S. government than previously believed (though not nearly as many as McCarthy or HUAC argued). The general view is that, if anything, McCarthy's antics damaged legitimate efforts to locate Soviet agents by making the cause look irrational. Even in his own time, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower thought so, making similar snarky comments about how the Kremlin might as well put McCarthy on its payroll. (For instance, the only confirmed Soviet agent whom McCarthy ever named was Mary Jane Keeney, an American librarian who worked for the United Nations, and even then McCarthy only accused her of being a Communist Party member, rather than an actual spy, making this a case of him being Right for the Wrong Reasons.) The release of the Mitrokhin documents showed that the KGB shared a similar opinion. McCarthy had a history of mendacity, having doctored his military record to appear more heroic than he was and using that as a cudgel to attack his opponents,note and when in office, he exploited preexisting anti-communist fervor more than he tried to deal with actual communists or their activities competently.
Joseph McCarthy in fiction:
- Most works of fiction dealing with McCarthyism depict a No Celebrities Were Harmed version of McCarthy rather than actually naming him. A notable example of this is The Manchurian Candidate, in which the McCarthy analogue turns out to be a Soviet agent sowing discord on purpose, perhaps building from Truman’s and Eisenhower’s comments.
- Stock Footage of McCarthy is used in Good Night, and Good Luck.. Not realizing they were seeing footage of the real McCarthy, test audiences thought the actor playing McCarthy was hamming it up too much.
- In an episode of M*A*S*H, Frank Burns complains that Hawkeye and Trapper drew fangs on his picture of Senator McCarthy.
- The Front opens with a montage of old newsreel footage from the early 1950s. Footage of McCarthy is prominently featured.
- Pogo satirized McCarthy as Simple J. Malarkey, a trigger-happy bobcat who joins the Jack Acid Society, the strip’s version of HUAC (doubtless the fervently anti-communist John Birch Society inspired the name).
- Played by Peter Boyle in the 1977 made for TV biopic Tail Gunner Joe.
- Parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000, with famous ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy accusing fellow puppets of un-American activities.
- Footage of McCarthy is also shown on the television in the movie Clue not only to help set the time period but set the stage for the plot (fear of communists/possible collusion with them motivating many of the blackmail victims and, supposedly, Mr. Boddy) — though in the end communism turned out to be a red herring.
- A rabid anti-communist Senator Gallo (a rooster) appears in Blacksad, secretly leading a project to ensure the American government is safe in the event of an all-out Russian nuclear attack. When Blacksad gets mixed up in this, he blackmails Gallo into releasing him, but ends up painted as having sold out others to save his skin.
- Pink Floyd's 1983 song "The Fletcher Memorial Home" mentions "the ghost of McCarthy" among the various politicians interred at the titular asylum.
- Comparisons between 1950s McCarthyism and the sociopolitical climate of America under Ronald Reagan is a key tenet of the 1987 R.E.M. song "Exhuming McCarthy", which includes a sample of Joseph Welch's famous "no sense of decency" tirade.
- The game SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists has as its Point of Divergence McCarthy becoming President of the United States, his single term leading to a lasting foundation of xenophobia, hate and repressive politics that ultimately leads to the homegrown fascist government known as the Regime in 1986.
- Fellow Travelers: McCarthy is a supporting character, and Tim Laughlin initially works for him.
- McCarthy never appears in person in Oppenheimer, but the witch hunt Robert Oppenheimer goes through is straight application of his policies, which Lewis Strauss weaponizes against the scientist upon feeling slighted.