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Who is Joseph McCarthy?

Dana Hinders
Updated May 23, 2024
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Joseph Raymond McCarthy, born 14 November 1908, rose from a rather unremarkable early political career to become one of the most prominent figures in the anti-communist scare following Cold War tensions of the 1950s. His actions led to what some historians now refer to as the Second Red Scare.

As a Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957, Joseph McCarthy made several statements that the federal government was filled with Soviet spies and communists. According to Senator McCarthy, communists had infiltrated the United States army, President Truman’s administration, and the State Department. Even though McCarthy had no evidence to substantiate his allegations, his claims resulted in several prominent officials losing their employment and suffering irreparable damage to their careers.

The term “McCarthyism” is often used to describe this tumultuous and fearful time in U.S. history, although the phrase doesn’t necessary refer to the actions of Joseph McCarthy alone. At the high of his popularity, Joseph McCarthy’s activities were supported by the American Legion, the Minute Women of the U.S.A., the American Public Relations Forum, and a number of prominent Christian fundamentalists. Senator McCarthy was also a close friend of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

However, support for Joseph McCarthy dropped quickly after the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in early 1954. Although he was cleared of pressuring the army to give favorable treatment to one of his former aides, the hearings made him appear reckless and dishonest to many voters. Shortly after, Edward R. Morrow’s documentary See it Now added to the backlash by publicly attacking Senator McCarthy’s methods as reprehensible smear tactics.

In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure Joseph McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22. This was a highly unusual form of discipline at the time, since the Senate had invoked a censure on only three previous occasions. After the censure, Joseph McCarthy continued with his political duties but was essentially ostracized by his Senate colleagues. Soon, his personal struggles with alcoholism and depression intensified. Senator McCarthy died of cirrhosis and acute hepatitis on 2 May 1957 at the age of 48.

Over the years, Joseph McCarthy’s political career has made its way into American pop culture. The 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate features Senator John Iselin, a character closely based on Joseph McCarthy, and archival footage of Senator McCarthy’s speeches appears in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck . In addition, R.E.M. recorded a song in 1987 called “Exhuming McCarthy.”

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Dana Hinders
By Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to her work as a freelance writer. After discovering her passion for freelance writing following the birth of her son, Dana has been a vital part of the PublicPeople team. She also showcases her versatility by creating sales copy and content for e-courses and blogs.
Discussion Comments
By Proxy414 — On Feb 18, 2011


I agree with you here. The world has undergone a scare due to the battle of these two giants. Nuclear proliferation and threat of a fallout which would affect every nation has come due to the fact that Russia and the US couldn't trust each other. This is how far war has taken us, and it is a horrible place of fear.

By BigBloom — On Feb 15, 2011


I think that there was a lot of unnecessary bloodshed due to the Cold War and the Red Scare. We fought many wars in many lands due to being afraid of Russian influence. I think that these countries would've been better off if we had left them alone.

By hangugeo112 — On Feb 15, 2011

I think that McCarthyism is a better solution than complete lack of safety precautions. It was better that we were overly afraid of Soviet infiltration than less afraid than we should've been. The Soviets were keen and adept at infiltrating spy networks and obtaining technologies and weapons, and even today we need to be wary of their spies.

By Leonidas226 — On Feb 14, 2011

People may view McCarthy in a negative light without realizing that it wasn't just because he was seemingly paranoid that they disliked him. During his era, it was still difficult for Irish politicians to get a say in America. This is why good connections, like with Joseph Kennedy, enabled up and coming Irish politicians to have a safety net. McCarthy was rather bold in his tactics, and suffered for it. So did JFK and Robert Kennedy, who essentially stole the heart of the nation away from the upper crust Anglo-Saxons.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to...
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