During a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican-Wisconsin) claims that he has a list with the names of over 200 members of the Department of State that are “known communists.” The speech vaulted McCarthy to national prominence and sparked a nationwide hysteria about subversives in the American government.
Speaking before the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator McCarthy waved before his audience a piece of paper. According to the only published newspaper account of the speech, McCarthy said that, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” In the next few weeks, the number fluctuated wildly, with McCarthy stating at various times that there were 57, or 81, or 10 communists in the Department of State. In fact, McCarthy never produced any solid evidence that there was even one communist in the State Department.
Despite McCarthy’s inconsistency, his refusal to provide any of the names of the “known communists,” and his inability to produce any coherent or reasonable evidence, his charges struck a chord with the American people. The months leading up to his February speech had been trying ones for America’s Cold War policies. China had fallen to a communist revolution. The Soviets had detonated an atomic device. McCarthy’s wild charges provided a ready explanation for these foreign policy disasters: communist subversives were working within the very bowels of the American government.
To be sure, McCarthy was not the first to incite anxiety about subversive communists. Congress had already investigated Hollywood for its supposed communist influences, and former State Department employee Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury in January 1950 for testimony dealing with accusations that he spied for the Soviet Union during the 1930s. But McCarthy went a step further, claiming that the U.S. government, and the Department of State in particular, knew that communists were working in their midst.
“McCarthyism,” as the hunt for communists in the United States came to be known during the 1950s, did untold damage to many people’s lives and careers, had a muzzling effect on domestic debate on Cold War issues, and managed to scare millions of Americans. McCarthy, however, located no communists and his personal power collapsed in 1954 when he accused the Army of coddling known communists. Televised hearings of his investigation into the U.S. Army let the American people see his bullying tactics and lack of credibility in full view for the first time, and he quickly lost support. The U.S. Senate censured him shortly thereafter and he died in 1957.