Senator Joseph McCarthy charges that communists have infiltrated the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the atomic weapons industry. Although McCarthy’s accusations created a momentary controversy, they were quickly dismissed as mere sensationalism from a man whose career was rapidly slipping away.
Senator McCarthy first made a name for himself in 1950 when he charged that over 200 “known communists” were in the Department of State. During the next few years, he alleged that communists were in nearly every branch of the U.S. government. His reckless accusations helped to create what came to be known as the Red Scare, a time when Americans feared that communists were infiltrating all aspects of American government and life. Despite the fact that McCarthy never managed to unearth a single communist, his ability to whip up public hysteria and smear opponents as communist sympathizers made him front-page news for several years. By 1954, however, his power was slipping. His earlier charges had been leveled at the Democratic administration of President Harry S. Truman, and Republicans had embraced McCarthy as a useful weapon. When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped into the presidency in 1953, however, McCarthy’s wild accusations became a nuisance and source of embarrassment to the Republican Party.
Sensing that his base of power was eroding, in 1954 McCarthy embarked on a spectacularly unsuccessful effort to recapture public support by opening investigations into alleged communist infiltration of the U.S. Army. By early June 1954, the McCarthy-Army hearings had been going on for nearly a month. This was the first opportunity for the American public to get a firsthand view of McCarthy, as the hearings were televised. His bullying style and hysterical behavior quickly turned off the audience. In a desperate attempt to regain momentum, McCarthy charged that communists had also infiltrated the CIA and atomic weapons industry. No one took the charges seriously, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and President Eisenhower brusquely dismissed McCarthy’s accusations as reckless and without basis.
Just a few weeks later, McCarthy was thoroughly disgraced when the lawyer for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, gave him a devastatingly effective tongue-lashing, which ended with Welch asking the senator whether he had any sense of “decency” at all. The McCarthy-Army hearings collapsed soon thereafter, and the U.S. Senate voted to censure McCarthy. He died, still holding office, in 1957.