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The term McCarthyism is an eponym now widely used as an epithet in American politics. It bears the name of a Republican Senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, who triggered widespread controversy in the United States by alleging in the 1950s that a number of individuals holding important posts in the national government were Communists. While McCarthy made this charge when a Democrat, Harry S. Truman, was president, he continued to press his claim even after a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, took over the White House in 1952.
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It was during Eisenhower’s early years as president that McCarthy’s charges of Communists in government resonated most strongly across the country. Allegations of this sort were by no means a novel phenomenon in American politics. Beginning in the 1930s a variety of legislative committees, especially the House Un-American Aﬀairs Committee (HUAC), conducted investigations aimed at exposing the presence of Communists in the ranks of public employees at all levels of government in the United States, as well as in other sectors of American life such as the entertainment industry.
Why, then, should McCarthy’s assaults on Communists in government have attracted so much public attention in the 1950s? The answer lies partly in the fact that McCarthy focused his anti-Communist assault upon citadels of power in the American political system, especially the White House and the State and Defense Department. As a result, his charges were a source of immediate fascination for the media, for whom stories about the president and other high executives enjoy a very high level of priority.
So, it is not surprising that McCarthy’s pronounce- ments quickly became front-page material in American newspapers. Equally valuable to McCarthy was the fact that his arrival on the political scene coincided with the emergence of television as the primary medium through which the nation’s political dialog was to be conducted. Each step in the unfolding drama of conﬂict between McCarthy and high oﬃcials of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations was thus taken in full view of a national political audience, as a growing number of Americans began to rely on television as the principal source from which they received their information on public aﬀairs.
But if the ascent of McCarthy’s career owed a substantial debt to television, this new medium of communication also contributed a great deal to his eventual undoing. In 1954 the Senate decided to hold nationally television hearings on the Senator’s allegation that Communists had inﬁltrated the Defense Department. When it did, McCarthy proved unable to provide convincing evidence that this had in fact happened. From that point on his inﬂuence began to wane. Not long afterwards he was censured by his colleagues in the Senate, and he died three years later at the age of 57.
But at the height of his career the power that McCarthy exerted in American politics was indeed extraordinary, dividing the country and attracting both devout support and ﬁerce hostility from widely diﬀerent sectors of the public. During his early days in oﬃce President Eisenhower went to great lengths to avoid giving the Senator any oﬀense, and at the peak of his career McCarthy received a degree of deference from his Congressional colleagues that few legislators in modern times have been accorded. No article of faith was stronger in the legislature at that time than the belief that it would be risking political suicide to oppose McCarthy in public.
As McCarthy’s power eventually receded, his decline triggered a variety of eﬀorts to explain how or why a single Senator had been able to exert such enormous inﬂuence on the American body politic during a comparatively brief career on the national political scene. Much of this attention was centered on the political setting in which McCarthy’s charges erupted, and on features of that period which gave his accusations a credibility they would never otherwise have enjoyed.
1. The Contemporary Political Setting
The decade of the 1950s was a period of widespread frustration and uncertainty in American politics. The country had emerged triumphant just a few short years earlier from World War II, the most destructive war of the century. Scarcely had the United States ﬁnished celebrating this victory, however, when it found itself entangled in a wide-ranging conﬂict with the Soviet Union, the nation that had been its most powerful ally in the struggle just concluded. Moreover, ultimate success in the war had only been achieved through the use of atomic weapons against Japan, one of the country’s major adversaries. While successful in forcing Japan to surrender, this ﬁrst use of atomic weaponry opened up the possibility of a major war in the future that would have horrifying eﬀects upon the entire world.
Such fears of calamities looming on the horizon were quickly overshadowed by a development of more immediate concern. In 1950 the Communist regime installed by the Soviets in North Korea launched an invasion aimed at toppling the pro-Western regime in South Korea, a country the United Nations immediately acted to defend with a coalition of military organizations in which the United States played a leading role. Moreover, just when the United Nations forces were on the verge of victory in this conﬂict, Chinese forces entered the fray on the side of the North Koreans, and the two contending forces soon found themselves locked into a military stalemate.
At the same time a similar impasse was emerging within American domestic politics. Neither of the two major political parties was able to gain a commanding political position as the decade unfolded. In the most remarkable upset of modern presidential politics, the Democrats had won their ﬁfth straight presidential election in 1948, when President Harry S. Truman was returned to oﬃce. Except in foreign aﬀairs, however, this victory did not prove to be an empowering event for Truman. A coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats remained the governing force in Congress on domestic policy issues, as had been true since 1938. It was in this political setting of weak White House leadership in the domestic arena, bitter partisanship in Congress, and the prospect of unending crisis abroad that Senator McCarthy was able to vault into a commanding position in American politics.
2. McCarthyism in Retrospect
A half-century since his departure from the American political scene it is not easy to believe that Senator McCarthy was once the formidable force that he appeared to be in his own day. The rest of the twentieth century following his fall from power showed little in the way of lasting eﬀects from the climate of repression that McCarthyism seemed to symbolize or the pressure toward political conformity that his activities appeared to generate. On the contrary, American politics in the decades following the 1950s was for the most part far removed in spirit from the conservative ethos of the McCarthy era. At the height of McCarthy’s power in the 1950s, it would be hard to imagine either the Senator or his critics anticipating the broadranging set of movements for change that would erupt in the remainder of the twentieth century or the radical steps these new forces would take to achieve their goals.
Witness, for example, the civil rights revolution launched in the United States under the leadership of Martin Luther King in the 1960s, which led to farreaching changes in the status of Afro-Americans in the United States, a movement that was to be the precursor of protest activities in the pursuit of other political causes in the years ahead. Opponents of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s used tactics of civil disobedience that would have been unthinkable in the McCarthy era, creating a political climate in the United States in which resistance to oﬃcial authority became commonplace. These tactics soon became part of the political arsenal of groups working on behalf of a variety of other causes, including women’s rights and environmental protection.
What the political and social history of the United States since the 1950s does indeed suggest is that, destructive as McCarthy’s activities were for the lives and careers of many individuals whose loyalty to the United States was called into question, he did not inﬂict any permanent damage on the willingness of Americans to defy authority. Fears that this might happen were voiced widely when the Senator was at the height of his power. Actually, the reverse may actually have occurred. Far from foreshadowing the shape of things to come, McCarthyism may have provoked such a negative reaction to its own excesses that it had the eﬀect of stimulating voices of dissent in American society.
One thing that McCarthyism did produce in its immediate aftermath was a body of searching critiques by scholars who sought to explain why the United States had experienced so much domestic travail over the possibility of domestic subversion at a time when it appeared to have far less to fear from such a development than any of the other modern democracies, most of which had Communist parties competing within their domestic political system to worry about. One historian, Hofstadter (1964) saw McCarthy as a contemporary manifestation of a continuing feature of American political life, the periodic convulsion of fear that the country faced a dire threat from a domestic group with foreign connections, such as Masons or Catholics. Hofstadter described this as ‘the paranoid style in American politics.’
Others, however, questioned whether McCarthyism ever had the strength or the staying power suﬃcient for it to become a signiﬁcant and continuing force in the American political system, posing a serious threat to democratic institutions in the United States. At the peak of McCarthy’s power in the mid-1950s, the task of rooting out alleged subversives from the executive branch had already been bureaucratized, with the establishment of an executive security apparatus increasingly jealous of its own prerogatives in carrying out this task. McCarthy himself seemed to have little ambition or talent for converting his impromptu crusade into anything resembling a more permanent operation. His choice of Roy Cohn and David Schine as his chief aides revealed this incapacity. These aides managed to convert his crusade into a comic event, as they toured Europe seeking to expose the presence of subversive books or librarians lurking in American agencies overseas.
Perhaps the simplest and most persuasive explanation of McCarthy’s sudden rise and precipitous fall in American politics has been oﬀered by Polsby (1960, 1974), with support from other leading political scientists, including Seymour Lipset (Lipset and Raab (1970) and Michael Rogin (1967). Polsby argues that the sudden ascent of McCarthy in the 1950s in American political life rested not so much on the public support his charges received, but on the willingness of his Congressional colleagues, largely though not entirely Republicans, to either support or refrain from criticizing his activities. The event that sealed his doom was the outcome of the 1952 election, when, for the ﬁrst time since 1928, the Republicans won the presidency. In the wake of this development, McCarthy’s continuing attacks on the White House and the executive branch soon became dysfunctional for his partisan supporters, and as his utility for these longstanding allies eroded, so too did their support.
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