The United States of the 1950s was certainly a nation of contrasts. Flush from the victory of World War II, collectively, the nation enjoyed an economic, social and patriotic boom like none other in recent memory. Looming on the horizon, however, was the constant threat of Communism, and the US found itself mired in what would come to be known as the Cold War.
It was during the Cold War, by appealing to the national fear of Communism that Senator Joseph McCarthy enjoyed great popularity and ruined many careers and lives even though his accusations that his targets were Communists were often baseless. In this research, an investigation will be conducted into how demagogues like McCarthy are able to manipulate the public by creating fears to promote their own power and justify the unjustifiable, how such manipulation works and how such manipulation can be resisted.
Who Was Joseph McCarthy? Looking back on the “Red Scare’ days of 1950s America, the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy has become synonymous with the reckless pursuit of Communists and Communist sympathizers in the US at any cost and often, as will be seen, in reckless abandon of the truth. However, it seems that the name of McCarthy has been thrown about without much of an understanding of who McCarthy was and how he became the kind of man that he ultimately became.
Therefore, a closer look at this complex, and controversial figure in American history will now be undertaken. The circumstances of McCarthy’s birth and early life are quite unremarkable, having been born on a farm near Appleton, Wisconsin in 1908, beginning his education literally in a one-room schoolhouse, but eventually excelling enough to attend high school and graduate from college, both achievements being quite rare during that time period, especially in rural areas such as the one in which McCarthy had grown into early adulthood.
In 1939, after an unsuccessful political campaign for the same office 3 years earlier, McCarthy’s first elected office was the nonpartisan post of judge in the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Wisconsin, covering Langlade, Shawano, and Outagamie Counties. The outbreak of World War II saw McCarthy taking a leave of absence from the judicial bench to serve in the US Marine Corps. While he served admirably as an intelligence officer in the Pacific theater of battle, and he certainly saw combat, he was not wounded in action as he would later claim.
This falsehood, while seemingly a little white lie, is actually in this case a possible indication of the classic case of egomania, as McCarthy sought to make his achievements seem larger than in fact they actually were, even though there was no need for him to do so (Luthin, et al). In fact, McCarthy made an attempt while still on active military duty in 1944 to parlay his service to a Republican nomination to the Senate, challenging the incumbent Senator, but was defeated without much trouble on the part of his opponent.
By 1945, McCarthy resigned his military commission, World War II coming to a close. Despite being reelected to his judgeship, he immediately began laying the groundwork for a 1946 Senate campaign, seemingly to avenge the defeat he experienced in a similar campaign 2 years earlier. From the outset, McCarthy was not expected to defeat his Senatorial opponent, incumbent Robert M. La Follette, Jr. ho had served as senator for 21 years, but McCarthy had one distinct advantage, or more precisely, LaFollette had one distinct disadvantage. Although LaFollette was in fact a Republican at the time of the actual election, he had only been as such for a short period of time, having switched from the Progressive Party, which created disdain for him among the Republican establishment, which switched its support to McCarthy, making him at age 38 the youngest member of that new Senatorial session.
As a Senator, McCarthy was generally conservative, as evidenced from his voting record (Fried) although from the beginning, he refused to follow the Republican Party line just for the sake of doing so or in order to try to conform. In his first year as Senator, McCarthy gained recognition for his successful fight to reform housing legislation and to ease sugar rationing in a post-war nation. These issues lacked a certain degree of sizzle, and as such, did not give McCarthy the acclaim for which he had hoped.
All other political and social issues were overshadowed by the fight against Communism, but more precisely, the suspicion that Communists had infiltrated the US government and were to be found in all areas of prominence in the nation, not only government, but also in show business, religion, medicine and more. By 1950, McCarthy realized that the fight against Communism was the ticket to gaining acclaim in the Senate and to gain the attention of his constituents and the American public overall.
With this in mind, McCarthy challenged Communism head on in February, 1950, when speaking to a Republican women’s group in Wheeling, West Virginia. The most controversial and damning part of his speech came when McCarthy alleged that U. S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson knew of over 200 Communists in the State Department alone, and called for a full scale investigation to ultimately get to the bottom of this controversial and highly dangerous possibility. McCarthy’s allegations sparked a great deal of controversy, leading to the US Senate’s opening of an investigative committee on March 8, 1950.
McCarthy immediately took this cue, and hired investigators of his own, although in the end, his investigators failed to reveal even one Communist within the State Department as McCarthy originally alleged. By July, the committee issued a report; in that report, it was stated that there was no basis for the charges that McCarthy originally made (Biechman). Undaunted, McCarthy soldiered on in his Communist hunt, continuing to make baseless charges of Communism against many prominent Americans from different walks of life and professional endeavor.
Ironically, one of the most revealing Senate investigations of the time, in 1952, showed irregularities in McCarthy’s Federal income tax returns, although for whatever reason, charges were never filed against him. By 1953, McCarthy was able to gain control of the anti-Communism committee he had begun as a member of due to Republicans assuming control of the Senate by this time, alienating his Democratic foes on the committee and compelling most of them to quit the committee, increasing his power.
Perhaps the most aggressive, and arrogant charge made by McCarthy at this time was an allegation that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower harbored Communists within his administration. While Eisenhower did not engage McCarthy publicly on this issue, there is evidence to suggest that Eisenhower sought to undermine and stop McCarthy once and for all from a distance (Ferreira). In the fall of 1953, the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s reign of terror appears.
After a failed attempt to reveal Communists in the Army Signal Corps, which caused many supporters to turn against McCarthy. On March 9, 1954, the entire nation learned of the extent of McCarthy’s fanaticism because of a CBS television broadcast which revealed the hypocrisy and weakness of McCarthy’s witch hunt that produced few tangibly solid results but left in its wake many destroyed lives. On December 2, 1954, a full Senate passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for abuse of Senatorial power, and McCarthy began to fade into obscurity.
Always a heavy drinker anyhow, McCarthy’s recognition of his own failures accelerated his alcoholic binges, and he died of liver disease in 1957, signaling an end to one of the most damaging and controversial periods in American history (Cook). Senator Joseph McCarthy-The Demagogue Defined Senator Joseph McCarthy, in retrospect, is the epitome of what can happen when power goes unchecked and unchallenged, and also what can happen when allegation without substance is allowed to spread.
It was only when McCarthy foisted his falsehoods on his superiors that he was ultimately stopped. While McCarthy’s “Red Scare” as it has come to be known could, and has filled thousands of pages, this research will now focus on exactly what it is that motivates and creates people like McCarthy, and how McCarthy, in the form that he had became, was able to advance without being stopped as far as he was ultimately able to do.
It has been said that by his very nature, a demagogue is a hypocrite; appealing to the passions of the people and their base fears rather than with logic and the truth, the demagogue is able to win the support of some and the fear of others, but ultimately the control of all in one way or another due to cunning, guile and the ability to manipulate those who are obedient, fearful or gullible (Cook). In the classic sense, McCarthy was the textbook example of demagoguery from several different points of view.
At the center of highly effective demagoguery is the use of demonization, which is to say that someone who wishes to gather public support for or against a certain movement, person or group of people need only to create falsehoods that make the hatred or prejudice seem valid, truth aside. This was not a new technique- it in fact had been used for thousands of years dating back to the days of the classic Greek and Roman empires, and used in modern times by such autocrats as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to gain hatred for groups of people and thereby gain their own power base (Luthin).
For McCarthy, his early enemies of unfair trade practices for the farmers from his homeland, and the deprivations of those who found it difficult to gain decent housing were not formidable enough to give him the amount of power and recognition that he sought. Being an intelligent and ambitious politician, McCarthy soon found a significant enough enemy in Communism. This was an easy target- surely, the vast majority of Americans hated Communism, although for most of them, they had never met, nor would they ever meet a Communist.
However, the invisible enemy was powerful enough for people to vest their support in a seeming champion of freedom like Senator McCarthy (Fried). Yet another important facet of demagoguery that McCarthy used to great impact was that of half truth. He was able to get by on the fact that Communism did in fact exist, and the fact that it did affect the US, but the other half of the truth- revelation of Communists within the ranks of the American people, never quite materialized, but by that time, this was of little consequence for a man like McCarthy.
Having proven that McCarthy was the personification of a demagogue, these revelations beg the question of how McCarthy’s movement was able to grow as it did. How Did McCarthyism Grow as it Did? Earlier in this research, the term “witch hunt” was used in describing McCarthy’s pursuit of alleged Communists, usually on the slimmest of evidence. This term was not used without purpose, for what McCarthy was able to achieve was done in a similar way to that of those who hunted alleged witches in the New England town of Salem, Massachusetts centuries before.
In both cases, the fear of something invisible which held the potential to destroy everyone in its path was used by clever people with power to accelerate the fear of the public into full blown hysteria, with the power seekers representing themselves as the saviors of the people from the unseen enemy. Overall, McCarthy can therefore be fairly painted as an opportunist who capitalized on fear and half truths to gather power for his own benefit.
The Senator Meets The Prince Gaining a better understanding of McCarthy, and men like him, it is very likely that he also took a page from the playbook of perhaps one of the most egotistical and manipulative power brokers of all time- Machiavelli. By looking at his classic work, “The Prince”, we can draw some parallels between Machiavellian beliefs and McCarthyism as it has come to be known: Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot” (Machiavelli). This quote can be directly related to what McCarthy ultimately did; when he found little acclaim in the accommodation and service of Americans, he realized that he could gain much more by trying to assassinate the character of prominent people by branding them Communists.
However, the element of revenge in this quote should have been needed by McCarthy as well, for his enemies eventually brought about his downfall. Conclusion In the decades since the height of the Cold War and the apex of anti-Communism, the luxury of being able to view such events in retrospect has allowed for a more balanced view of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the enemy that he claimed was to be found around every corner and directly in the midst of the American people.
In fairness, McCarthy has been revealed to be the consummate politician- a man who used his own cunning, and the fear of others, to attempt to reach a pinnacle of power which ultimately led to his sad downfall and physical demise in the most literal sense. For those of us who study these factors today, there is a lesson to be learned, which can be best defined by paraphrasing an old adage- while power corrupts, absolute power absolutely corrupts.