Sixty-one years ago tonight Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave the speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia that ushered in the ugly era of McCarthyism.
McCarthy was beginning his fourth year in the Senate when he traveled to Wheeling. His tenure to that point had been decidedly undistinguished; the Senate press corps had voted him "the worst U.S. senator" in office. The Wheeling speech may have validated that assessment, but it made McCarthy a national figure overnight.
The charge that McCarthy made to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling on February 9, 1950 was simple and straightforward:
I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were 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.
But McCarthy waffled when it came to numbers. The next day on the Senate floor he scaled back his charge:
Last night I discussed Communists in the State Department. I stated that I had the names of fifty-seven card-carrying members of the Communist Party . . . . Now, I want to tell the Secretary this: If he wants to call me tonight at the Utah Hotel, I will be glad to give him the names of those fifty-seven card-carrying members.
Ten days after that, he offered up a third number:
[T]here is a serious question whether I should disclose names to the Senate. I frankly feel, in view of the number of cases—there are eighty-one cases—that it would be a mistake to disclose the names on the floor. I should be willing, happy, and eager to go before any committee and give the names and all the information available.
Although McCarthy’s numbers varied, his charges struck a chord with Americans who were prepared to believe the worst. Communism looked to be on the march at the start of 1950—just months before the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb and Mao Zedong had seized power in China. Just as important, the allegations made two years earlier that Alger Hiss had spied for the Soviets while working in the State Department made McCarthy’s allegations plausible.
Some political figures recognized early on that McCarthy was ruining the lives of innocent Americans with baseless charges. On June 1, 1950, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to give her Declaration of Conscience speech. Its most famous line was: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
McCarthy never forgave Smith, dubbing her “Moscow Maggie.” But any chance that Smith’s speech would derail McCarthy evaporated less than a month later when North Korean troops invaded South Korea. Many Republicans began endorsing McCarthy’s charges of treason and disloyalty and making new ones of their own.
McCarthy’s national popularity discouraged most other politicians from attacking him. John Kennedy, who served with McCarthy in the Senate, told the historian Arthur M. Schelsinger that he avoided criticizing McCarthy because, "Hell, half my voters in Massachusetts look on McCarthy as a hero.” Dwight D. Eisenhower similarly pulled his punches. During the 1952 presidential campaign, he struck a passage defending his long-time mentor, George C. Marshall, from a speech he was giving in Green Bay, fearing that he would offend McCarthy and his followers. Even once in office, Eisenhower declined to challenge McCarthy’s claims, saying he did not want to “get down in the gutter with that guy.”
McCarthy finally got his comeuppance in the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, which examined charges that he had pressed the U.S. Army to give special treatment to one of his former aides. The hearings were televised, and the Wisconsin senator did not come off well. The most famous moment came after McCarthy questioned the loyalty of a colleague of Joseph Welch, the army’s chief lawyer. Welch’s outraged response was a made-for-TV moment: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
McCarthy was no longer untouchable. In late 1954, the Senate voted to condemn his behavior. Three years later he was dead of hepatitis. Wisconsin voters went to the polls in a special election and elected William Proxmire, who had campaigned by calling McCarthy "a disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate and to America.”