A friend once told U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, “You’re the kid who came to the party and pee’d in the lemonade.” William Jenner spoke indelicately, but not inaccurately about his senatorial colleague. For McCarthy was arguably the most notorious American demagogue of the twentieth century.
Appealing to the baser emotions of people in order to advance their own private interests is a demagogue’s first order of business. The tactic is especially dangerous in democracies, which depend on elections to exist.
Several formidable American demagogues flourished in the twentieth century, among them two 1930s rabble rousers: Huey Long, the crooked, virtual dictator of Louisiana, and Father Charles Coughlin, the flamboyant anti-Roosevelt radio priest of Detroit. Three decades later, George Wallace, the “Segregation forever” governor of Alabama captured 13.5 percent of the presidential vote in 1968.
Gifted as they were, all were topped in national influence by Joe McCarthy, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946. By the time he burst onto national prominence, the tensions and anxieties of the Cold War already existed. Fear deepened when the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949 and Communist forces won the long civil war in China. A year later the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea, triggering the Korean War.
At home, a purge of Communist spies and Soviet informants such as Alger Hiss, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had taken place. Thousands suspected of Communist sympathies were dismissed or resigned their federal jobs. But for many, such as McCarthy, that was not enough. In a speech before a women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia, in early 1950, McCarthy said he held in his hand a list of 205 “Communist and Communist sympathizers who are helping to shape our foreign policy.” He had no such list. The charge was a sensation, however; in short order, most Americans came to know the name of the undistinguished senator.
Having obtained control of a Senate investigating subcommittee, his self-appointed task was to expose Communists still operating in government. Within a year and a half he subpoenaed more than five hundred persons, making outrageous charges without supporting evidence. It was a technique McCarthy had honed earlier when accusing five-star general George C. Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan, of being at the epicenter of a world Communist conspiracy. But for all of his later claims of having uncovered “a conspiracy on a scale so immense
as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man,” he found no one to convict.
During his “investigations,” he verbally abused people and spoke of secret networks opposing him, all the while creating fear in the nation. In his recently published book on the senator, “Demagogue,” Larry Tye writes that McCarthy regularly “rambled and blustered” – and “lied all the time.” He had no ethical compass.
McCarthy had plenty of enablers such as the Hearst newspaper chain, prominent radio commentators such as Fulton Lewis, Jr., and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Meanwhile, few found courage to stop him: not Senate Republicans, and not even President Eisenhower, who disliked the Wisconsin senator, but knew that the Communist witch hunter enjoyed the support of half the country. Pollster George Gallup memorably wrote: “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they would probably still go along with him.”
After four years of garnering national headlines, McCarthy finally overreached. When in the spring of 1954 he turned his investigations to Army security, the Army fought back. After eight weeks of televised hearings, during which the senator scowled, badgered and insulted witnesses, Joseph Welch, the Army’s exasperated counsel, turned the tide by famously asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir”? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” The audience erupted in loud applause.
The senator’s reputation plummeted, and in December the U.S. Senate voted to condemn McCarthy for engaging in conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.” With his career effectively over, he died an ill man two and a half years later.
The impact of McCarthyism during the Red Scare was significant. Lives and careers were ruined, with more than 10,000 industrial and federal workers losing their jobs. Many more resigned out of fear. There were blacklists and required loyalty oaths. In foreign policy, negotiations with the Soviet Union and China were barely possible as attacks by anti-Communist journalists and aroused citizens at times prevented policymakers from pursuing America’s best interests.
In retrospect, two big things stare at us from the era of Senator Joe McCarthy. We learned what Europeans already knew: the more often lies are repeated, with passion, the easier it becomes for people to accept them as truth.
And, McCarthy is proof that demagogues will not stop;
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.