On this day in 1950 US senator Joseph McCarthy accused more than 200 staff of the State Department of being members of the Communist Party. The Senator, who died just seven years after his claim and was a vehement anti-Communist Republican, spawned the legacy of McCarthyism, defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the practice of accusing someone of being a Communist and therefore avoiding or not trusting them”, though the term is also widely used to refer to individuals who make vague and unsubstantiated claims.
Senator McCarthy, who had gained massive national attention and a small but loyal following after claiming homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to work in “sensitive government positions” due to the risk of Soviet blackmail, was a Republican, soldier and judge. He had joined the US armed forces, like many of his peers, in 1942 in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour a year earlier. However, some suspect that he had an ulterior motive. Knowing that his college education would keep him from front line fighting, McCarthy joined the Marines in the hopes that this would help advance his political career after failing to get the district attorney position in Wisconsin in 1936. Furthermore, McCarthy’s real anger lay not with the imperial Japanese but instead with the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union.
On February 9th 1950 he gave a Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women’s Club of West Virginia in which he claimed; “The State Department is infested with communists. 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 working and shaping policy in the State Department”. This sent shockwaves throughout American society and catapulted the Senator to the fore of American politics at a time where Western relations with Communism were perhaps at their worst. 1950 was just a year after the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon and the same year that the Chinese Communist forces of Mao had successfully defeated the Nationalists, driving them off the mainland. Moreover, the confession of German scientist Klaus Fuchs to being a Soviet spy delivering details of the Manhattan Project to Moscow made McCarthy’s claims highly plausible in the eyes of many Americans.
Despite the sensationalist nature of McCarthy’s claims and his effective nature as an orator, he struggled to maintain this support. He toured the States with Republican Presidential hopeful General Eisenhower who was seen to take a much tougher line with communists thus rendering McCarthy’s fearful tone ineffective and ultimately contributing to his diminished support. Moreover, once elected the President became increasingly critical of McCarthy who continued to try and push his traditionalist position.
In 1954, Senator McCarthy would head the ill-fated Army-McCarthy hearings, which would ultimately culminate in the end of McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’ with McCarthy’s approval rating dropping to 51% unfavourable, shocking for the time. This sort of political witch hunt was unprecedented before or since and lead to a real questioning of US traditional political positions, with so-called revisionism gaining traction in the early 1960’s to challenge the political traditionalists like McCarthy.