Joseph Raymond McCarthy, a relatively obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, announces during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he has in his hand a list of 205 communists who have infiltrated the U.S. State Department. The unsubstantiated declaration, which was little more than a publicity stunt, suddenly thrust Senator McCarthy into the national spotlight.
Asked to reveal the names on the list, the reckless and opportunistic senator named officials he determined guilty by association, such as Owen Lattimore, an expert on Chinese culture and affairs who had advised the State Department. McCarthy described Lattimore as the “top Russian spy” in America.
These and other equally shocking accusations prompted the Senate to form a special committee, headed by Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, to investigate the matter. The committee found little to substantiate McCarthy’s charges, but McCarthy nevertheless touched a nerve in the American public, and during the next two years he made increasingly sensational charges, even attacking President Harry S. Truman’s respected former secretary of state, George C. Marshall.
In 1953, a newly Republican Congress appointed McCarthy chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of Governmental Operations, and “McCarthyism” reached a fever pitch. In widely publicized hearings, McCarthy bullied defendants under cross-examination with unlawful and damaging accusations, destroying the reputations of hundreds of innocent citizens and officials.
In the early months of 1954, McCarthy, who had already lost the support of much of his party because of his bullying tactics, finally overreached himself when he took on the U.S. Army. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed for an investigation of McCarthy’s conduct, and the televised hearings exposed the senator as a reckless and excessive tyrant who never produced proper documentation for any of his charges. In December, the Senate voted to condemn him for misconduct. By the time of his death from alcoholism in 1957, the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy in Congress was negligible.