America's Red Scare: Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy Used Fear and Intimidation to Hunt Communists and Subvert Civil Liberties

Joseph McCarthy was one of the most controversial politicians in American history. He served as a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, from when he was first elected in 1947 until his death in 1957. He is known for declaring that communist spies and sympathizers had penetrated the U.S. federal government and for launching anti-communist investigations that polarized the country.

The events that took place after World War II convinced many Americans that the “Red menace” was real. For example, in 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. In the same year, communists declared victory in the Chinese Civil War. And in 1950, Soviet-backed forces in North Korea invaded their pro-Western neighbors in the South starting the bitter Korean War. The United States quickly joined the fight on the side of the South Koreans.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the prospect of communist subversion at home and in other places around the world caused concern for many in the U.S. The fear of communism corroded the political culture, creating a lack of trust among Americans. Joe McCarthy was seen by many Americans as a savior during this “Red Scare''. He spent most of his time trying to expose communists and other left-wing loyalists within the U.S. government. Few people dared to speak out against McCarthy because his accusations were so intimidating. For those who did criticize McCarthy, the consequences were often dire. He would dramatically denounce them and accuse that person of being a communist. Jobs were lost and reputations were ruined.

The Republican-led House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were so determined to extirpate communist subversion at home that they launched a campaign to find and expose communists. Among the committee’s primary targets were left wingers in Hollywood. Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1950 requiring all “subversives” in the United States to submit to government surveillance.

All of these circumstances combined to create an atmosphere of fear and dread and McCarthy took advantage. The political atmosphere at the time was ideal for an outspoken anticommunist and demagogue such as Joseph McCarthy.

In February 1950, McCarthy delivered a speech that catapulted him into national prominence. He said, while waving a piece of paper in the air, that he had a list of known communist party members who were working to affect policy at the U.S. State Department. In the following month, when the Senate subcommittee launched an investigation, however, they found no proof of any of the activity McCarthy described. While many were dismayed that McCarthy would throw around such false allegations, few spoke up. This, as it turned out, was the beginning of his downfall.

Later on, McCarthy was put in charge of the Committee on Government Operations, which allowed him to launch his own investigations. He wasted no time. McCarthy started an expensive investigation which alleged that communist infiltration was happening within the government. McCarthy aggressively interrogated witnesses, but there was rarely any proof that the people he accused were actually communists. But the investigation unfortunately caused 2,000 government employees to lose their jobs.

One of the first people to openly challenge McCarthy was renowned journalist, Edward R. Murrow. It took great courage, but Murrow’s exposés about McCarthyism played an important role in the senator’s downfall. On March 9, 1954, millions of Americans watched as Murrow used his national news program "See It Now" to attack McCarthy and his methods. This dramatic episode in American history was captured in a 2005 film directed by George Clooney: Good Night, and Good Luck.

Things started to go downhill for McCarthy in April of 1954. He was still determined to expose communists, but he had switched his attention to the armed services. He believed that there was infiltration in the armed services and was determined to prove it. When people heard of this accusation, many of his supporters lost faith. Some were willing to overlook the mistakes from his campaign against government employees. But attacking the integrity of the Army proved to many supporters that he was reckless and would never change. A substantial number of people withdrew their support.

That didn’t seem to bother McCarthy. He continued with his campaign. Later on in the same year, he decided to broadcast the Army-McCarthy hearings on national television. Many Americans found the hearings outrageous and inappropriate. They felt like he was abusing his power in going after the military. After the hearings were over, McCarthy lost all of his remaining allies and the Senate voted to condemn him for his actions.

Joseph McCarthy did not cope well with his exclusion from his party. He had developed a bad relationship with alcohol, leading to an addiction that would cause his death in 1957.

McCarthy today is remembered for his role in fomenting anti-communist sentiments in the United States at a time when the Cold War was just ramping up. McCarthy’s investigations to expose communists caused fear and divided a country. But eventually, when public opinion finally turned against him, Joseph McCarthy and his use of unproven allegations were rejected.

[Sources: History.com; Wisconsin State Historical Society; Wisconsinhistory.org]

Great article Sandy! This was very well written and gave a useful summary of an important period in US history. I can't wait to read your next one! – MorganFitchburg (2021-10-20 10:03)
This was a fascinating article and very well written. McCarthyism was a scary time in American history. – Shoko MiyagiUW-Madison (2021-10-20 11:55)
What an interesting piece, Sandy. I've heard a little about McCarthy but never had the chance to fully understand his influence during that time. Thanks for teaching me! – Josepha Da CostaLa Follette High School (2021-10-30 09:35)
This was an amazing article! I have honestly never heard about McCarthy, so thank you for writing about this. – Yoanna HoskinsLa Follette High School (2021-10-30 10:23)
Great work Sandy! I did not know how scary and how big of an influence he was on American History John McCarthy was Thank you for telling me about him. – Desteny AlvarezMonona Grove High School (2021-10-30 10:32)
Nice work, Sandy! What a fascinating read. – LeilaniMadison College (2021-10-30 12:29)
Thank you for giving us such a deep look into McCarthyism, Sandy. Your work is fantastic! – Kadjata BahMadison East High School (2021-10-30 12:47)
Great work Sandy! Really well done and thanks for helping me keep learning. – Noah SMadison (2021-11-10 11:36)
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