Joe is probably the most vilified politician in U.S. history, although a good argument could be made for Richard Nixon to hold that distinction. Negative reports have even been written Joe’s military service despite the fact he resigned from being a judge to enlist in the Marines in World War II. He would later campaign for office as “Tail gunner Joe,” and would limp around complaining of the shrapnel in his leg. His detractors say that he never flew in a combat mission, and that the stiff leg was from an accident during a shipboard ceremony while traveling to the South Pacific. He was elected to the Senate in 1946 and spent several unremarkable years there. He was said to be a popular D.C. party guest, but unpopular with other senators because of his quick temper and the ease with which he became voraciously critical.
Joe became the center of public attention after he gave a speech to a Wheeling West Virginia women’s club in 1950 where he said he held in his hand a list of communists in the U.S. State Department. That speech eventually attracted attention across the country, and politicians who would be embarrassed by what he said began to vilify McCarthy.
I’ve read several books about Joe, and most of them describe him as a despicable, drunken bully. “Blackmailed by History, the Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy” by M. Stanton Evans, which I reviewed in three parts on this web site, presents the other side of the story, and it is the book I will use for most of the references in this posting.
Probably the strangest accusation against Joe is that he had something to do with the Hollywood Blacklist. It is true that many Hollywood personalities suffered as the result of investigations following the “Red Scare.”The House Un-American Activities (HUAC) chaired by Democrat Martin Dies beginning in 1938 was looking for Nazi and Communist influences in government. Richard Nixon was on the committee in the later 1940s when several Hollywood personalities were “blacklisted.” Many references to “McCarthyism” will mention the McCarthy and the HUAC-imposed blacklists in the same passage, even though Senator McCarthy had nothing to do with actions of that House committee. As what I consider a fascinating aside, Congressman Samuel Dickstein had vied with Dies to be the chairman of HUAC, but was relegated to be the vice-chairman. Dickstein is the only U.S. Congressman proven by Venona and NKVD archives to be a paid Soviet agent. The Soviets apparently had little if any respect for Dickstein, since they gave him the code name “Crook.”
A charge in the eventual indictments of McCarthy was that he lied about the number of people on the list he was holding when he gave the Wheeling speech. McCarthy would say he mentioned 57 as the number, but his detractors claimed he said 205. Eva Ingersoll, a political activist from Wheeling would testify in front of Congress that Joe had said there were 205 people being investigated and 57 were “card-carrying Communists.” An editorial in the Wheeling Intelligencer the day after the speech mentions “over fifty” suspects of Communist affiliation. The headline of a Denver Post article reads, “57 Reds Help Shaping U.S. Policy: McCarthy.” Historical references about Joe continue to contend that he lied about the numbers regardless of the information confirming McCarthy’s statements. (There is no recording or written documentation of the speech.) I find it fascinating that the number Joe McCarthy had used in a speech is what the focus of investigation became. That was apparently more important than the accusation there were several people suspected of being communists shaping U.S. foreign policy. The Venona Project was declassified in the mid-1990s and would confirm there were hundreds of communist sympathizers and spies in the U.S. government and military.
The movie Goodbye and Good Luck is about the Edward R. Murrow news reports that damaged McCarty’s image. One scene was a young woman suspected of being a communist who is being interrogated by McCarthy in a hearing. She mentions that there are three people including her who have a similar name in the phone book, and the media jumped on the story saying that McCarthy had accused the wrong person. History has shown that the woman, whose job was to decode classified messages, was a communist. The most famous episode shown by the movie was lawyer Joseph Welch asking McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency” after McCarthy mentioned a young lawyer who had been on Welch’s staff and had belonged to a “far left” organization. Welch himself had revealed the affiliation to the New York Times six weeks before the hearings, and perhaps that is how McCarthy learned of it. However the theatrical rants by Welch accusing McCarthy of having no shame in “ruining a young-man’s life” in front of the cameras with tears rolling down his face is what the movie shows and what most people remember when McCarthy is mentioned.
I’ve done a two part review of the book “No Sense of Decency by Robert that presents the negative side of Joe McCarthy and the book is both well-documented and presented. Reading that book and the Evan’s book “Blackmailed by History” reminds me of the comment that “history is interpretive.” I believe that Joe McCarthy was a political opportunist, that he bullied people, and that he made a huge political error when he accused General George Marshall of making decisions to give advantage to the Soviets and Chinese Communists. The decisions are easy to criticize, but there are few people who distrust the loyalty of Marshall.
Joe McCarthy’s accusations resulted in few if any communists being uncovered during his life. However, several of the people he accused were confirmed to have communist affiliations or were confirmed to be Soviet spies by the Venona project and/or by the archives opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The biggest mistake Joe made was that he severely underestimated the magnitude of Soviet espionage penetration of the U.S. government and military in the years during and after World War II. It isn’t difficult to see the negative impact from the failures of U.S. policy that resulted. The Soviets were able to steal all the Manhattan Project plans needed to make and detonate an atomic bomb. The U.S. military did halt their advance into Germany to allow the Soviets to take Berlin. The Soviets did dominate Eastern Europe after the war. The Chinese Communists did take over China and expelled the Nationalists to Formosa. There was a long and costly Cold War. Too bad Joe didn’t do a better job of warning us.