The U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Senator Joseph R. McCarthy for conduct unbecoming of a senator. The condemnation, which was equivalent to a censure, related to McCarthy’s controversial investigation of suspected communists in the U.S. government, military and civilian society.
What is known as “McCarthyism” began on February 9, 1950, when McCarthy, a relatively obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, announced during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he had in his possession a list of 205 communists who had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. The unsubstantiated declaration, which was little more than a publicity stunt, thrust Senator McCarthy into the national spotlight. Asked to reveal the names on the list, the opportunistic senator named just one official who he determined guilty by association: 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 Committee on Government Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations, 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 officials and citizens.
In the early months of 1954, McCarthy, who had already lost the support of much of his party because of his controversial tactics, finally overreached himself when he accused several U.S. Army officers of communist subversion. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed for an investigation of McCarthy’s charges, and the televised hearings exposed the senator as a reckless and excessive tyrant who never produced proper documentation for any of his claims.
A climax of the hearings came on June 9, when Joseph N. Welch, special attorney for the army, responded to a McCarthy attack on a member of his law firm by facing the senator and tearfully declaring, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?” The crowded hearing room burst into spontaneous applause.
On December 2, after a heated debate, the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.” By the time of his death from alcoholism in 1957, the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy in Congress was negligible.