“Twenty years of treason” was a prominent catchphrase employed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to vehemently denounce and criticize alleged communist sympathizers actively serving in various roles within the U.S. government.
Origin of “Twenty Years of Treason”
McCarthy was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946. In 1950, the Wisconsin native made headlines when he gave a speech claiming that there were 205 communists serving in the U.S. State Department.
Standing in front of the Republican headquarters in Wheeling, West Virginia, the senator said:
While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205.
McCarthy was not able to produce his list or substantiate his claim. However, the senator continued his crusade against communism.
He was a key figure in the “Red Scare” period, helping to spread anxiety about communists infiltrating the United States.
McCarthy claimed that as far back as the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the Democrats had tied their star to the Soviet Union and the communist party. That’s where his catchphrase, twenty years of treason, came from.
In 1953 and 1954, McCarthy led a series of Senate hearings to try and discover communist activities within the government and the media. Those hearings were covered on live television. They eventually helped to discredit McCarthy with the public, since the senator was seen as going too far, especially in his attacks on members of the armed services.
McCarthy’s image also suffered after the journalist Edward R. Murrow ran a television report on the man and his methods.
The piece, titled “A report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” aired on March 9, 1954 as part of the popular series See It Now and was almost entirely made up of video clips from McCarthy’s own speeches.
The clips included attacks on the American Civil Liberties Union, which McCarthy said was a front for the communist party. The episode also showed Senator McCarthy verbally attacking respected men, including General Zwicker, and accusing the Democratic party of “twenty years of treason.”
At the end of the program, Murrow summed up McCarthy’s career as follows:
His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason… We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
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.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.