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McCarthyism takes its name from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led a campaign against supposed communists living in the United States. McCarthy dominated the so-called “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s, a period when many Americans were afraid that communists had infiltrated the country’s institutions.

The term “McCarthyism” has also come to mean a tendency to make widespread, unfounded allegations against people for political reasons.  

Joseph McCarthy was a World War II hero who was first elected to the US Senate in 1946. In 1950, the Wisconsin Senator made national headlines when he gave a speech at the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. McCarthy brandished a piece of paper on which, he said, held a list of 205 State Department employees who were communist sympathizers and were, as he said, “working and shaping policy” in the State Department.

McCarthy continued to make headlines as he spoke out against what he saw as the growing communist threat. After America entered the Korean War, McCarthy’s viewpoint became more widespread, and in 1953, he was made chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, which allowed him to investigate people, both inside and outside the Federal government, whom he believed to be communist sympathizers. McCarthy’s excesses became notorious. Decades later, Democrats in the Senate requested that the committee’s records from the McCarthy era be made public, in part so that people could learn from them. The request read, in part:

Senator McCarthy’s zeal to uncover subversion and espionage led to disturbing excesses. His browbeating tactics destroyed careers of people who were not involved in the infiltration of our government. His freewheeling style caused both the Senate and the Subcommittee to revise the rules governing future investigations, and prompted the courts to act to protect the Constitutional rights of witnesses at Congressional hearings. Senator McCarthy’s excesses culminated in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, following which the Senate voted overwhelmingly for his censure.

The Army-McCarthy hearings were probably the pinnacle of McCarthy’s power, but those same hearings also led to his downfall. In 1954, the senator announced that he wanted to root out communist sympathizers within the US Army, and he did this by organizing televised hearings. During the hearings, McCarthy accused the Army’s lawyer, a man named Joseph Welch, of one employing a man who had belonged to a communist group. Welch gave a resounding counter-attack, looking at McCarthy and asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The televised interaction played in Welch’s favor, sinking McCarthy in public opinion. McCarthy’s image was further damaged when the journalist Edward R. Murrow ran an investigative piece on McCarthy and his methods on the CBS show, “See It Now.” Murrow concluded the show with a brief editorial, a call to conscience which read, in part:

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

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