Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957)
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957)

Joseph R. McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, November 14, 1908, on his Irish Catholic parents' dairy farm. A restless student, he dropped out of high school at sixteen to start his own poultry farm on land he had rented from a friend. After a brutal winter killed all his flock, he returned to school in 1929, focused and determined to graduate with his class, which required completing four years of course work in half that time. In 1930, he enrolled in Marquette University and developed a reputation as a card shark and heavyweight boxer. After earning a law degree in 1935 (financed by gambling winnings and wages from odd jobs), he returned home to open his practice and begin a career in politics.

When McCarthy lost his first campaign as the Democratic nominee for district attorney, he decided to seek a nonpartisan position. He soon sought a circuit judgeship and challenged a twenty-year incumbent who dismissed McCarthy as a long shot, an unelectable rookie. McCarthy campaigned with a vengeance and over the course of the election deliberately inflated his opponent's age and salary. His tactics worked and, in 1937, the twenty-nine year old McCarthy became the youngest judge in Wisconsin history.

Five years later, even though his service on the bench excluded him for military service, McCarthy joined the Marines, hoping that his combat experience would enhance his political stature. As an intelligence officer stationed in the Pacific, he spent the war debriefing pilots after they returned from bombing raids over Japan. Yet, when he returned to campaign at home, he transformed himself into "tail-gunner Joe," the battle-scarred veteran who survived hazardous missions over Japanese-held territory and, in the process, "fired more bullets than any marine in history" during his fourteen (a figure he later changed to seventeen and then thirty-two) engagements with the enemy. To prove his courage, he asked to receive (and was awarded) the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Capitalizing on his war record, McCarthy narrowly defeated the overconfident Senator Robert La Follette in the 1946 Republican senatorial primary and assailed his Democratic opponent, Howard McMurray, as a man so desperate for election that he would accept communist support. The baseless charge worked. McCarthy trounced McMurray and, in 1947, became the junior U.S. senator from Wisconsin. He quickly alienated his colleagues (especially after he tried to court the German-American vote by criticizing the prosecution of Nazis accused of slaughtering American troops during the Battle of the Bulge) and he soon feared that he could not be re-elected without a major issue to improve his political standing. Consequently, on February 7, 1950, he told a group of Republican women assembled in Wheeling, West Virginia, that there was serious "communist influence" in the Truman administration, declaring, " I have here in my hand a list of 205 . . . names that were known to the Secretary of State and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department." Even though no such list existed, McCarthy's accusations gripped the media and he soon became a national figure, promoted on the covers of national news magazines.

Alleged communist infiltration of government agencies became McCarthy's political calling card. By the 1952 election, he had called Sinologist Owen Lattimore America's "top Russian spy," labeled Secretary of State George C. Marshall "a traitor," nicknamed Secretary of State Dean Acheson the "Red Dean of Fashion," attacked President Truman as a drunkard and "a son of a bitch [who] should be impeached," and repeatedly referred to Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson as "Alger . . . I mean Adlai." His tactics worked and, when reelected, McCarthy gained the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, a position he used, according to biographer David Oshinksy, "to undermine government morale, damage numerous reputations, and make America look sinister in the eyes of the world." In 1953, McCarthy announced that he would investigate alleged communist infiltration of the U.S. Army and savaged the Army for "coddling Communists."

Disturbed by McCarthy's staccato accusations and worried that he had unjustly damaged the reputation of innocent civilians (as well as the image of the Senate), his senatorial colleagues coalesced to investigate both McCarthy and his allegations. Agreeing with Eisenhower that televised hearings would expose the real McCarthy in a way that print coverage could not, Republican leaders decided to let the cameras inside the chambers to televise the thirty-six day hearings. Forty million viewers watched the Army-McCarthy hearings and the national mood began to turn against the senator when, on June 9, 1954, the audience in the Senate Caucus room applauded army counsel Louis Welch's outburst ("Have you no sense of decency, sir?") after the senator tried to attack Welch's young assistant. Six months later, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy.

McCarthy ended his career, lonely and out of the political limelight. He died at the Bethesda Naval Hospital May 2, 1957, from complications due to alcoholism and hepatitis.


See also McCarthyism.


Sources: American National Biography Online. Internet on-line. Available From http://www.anb.org; David Oshinksy, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: The Free Press, 1983), passim.

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. http://adh.sc.edu.

For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/.

Copyright © 2006. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. All rights reserved.