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The Lessons of Senator Joseph McCarthy

I retired from military service after 27 years in the Army and Air Force. Outside of the military, I have held an eclectic mix of positions.

Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI)

Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI)

Will We Ever Learn?: The Lessons of Senator Joseph McCarthy

Mark Monroe

This piece was first written and published in the summer of 2010 after reading the book, The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, by Haynes Johnson. As the title suggests it was a study between the similarities between the events of the McCarthy era and the post 9/11 world of the United States. It was an interesting read, because it explained the backdrop that existed that allowed Senator McCarthy’s rise to national notoriety. There are many lessons that we can learn from the events that enabled a Junior Senator to abuse the powers of his office between 1950 and 1954. The recent political climate has prompted me to revisit the subject to show that bad habits, long forgotten can make their way back to the political forefront. To help put this article into perspective, a little history lesson is needed.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was the Junior Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. His recognition as a national figure did not begin until he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women’s Club. At that gathering he made the claim, "The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." (Griffith, page 49) Later the number was down graded to 57 names. At the time of his speech there was no list; Senator McCarthy was using the specter of Communism and people’s fear to manipulate public opinion of the Republican Party. It was a tacit the Senator was familiar with because he used it to gain his seat in the Senate.

Fear is a powerful emotion that can move populations into action; however, once it is unleashed it is very difficult, if not impossible to control. A part of my graduate thesis, The Metaphysics of Discrimination, focused on the role fear plays in the manipulation of a population.


“John Dewey, who arguably was one of the most prolific and widely read Americans of his time, wrote volumes[1] on almost every aspect of the human condition. His works took into consideration facts about human behavior and life that were often overlooked by many other contemporary thinkers. The quote that follows was selected because it begins to build an understanding of the dangers associated with hate and anger. It shows how a person working from a position motivated by hatred and anger will be blind to their own shortcoming:

It puts hate in place of attempts at understanding; hate once aroused can be directed by skillful manipulation against other objects than those which first aroused it. It also leads us to think that we are immune from the disease to which others have given way so long as the evil things we see in totalitarianism are not known to be developing among us. The belief that only such things operate to harm democracy keeps us from being on our guard against the causes that may be at work undermining the values we normally prize. It even leads us to ignore beams in our eyes such as our own racial prejudices.(Dewey page 35)

Dewey’s warning applies to the population as a whole, but it is mainly designed to provide a warning to the dominant class to understand the reasoning and motives behind their actions. Using hatred as a justification will make a person unable to understand and blind them to the consequences of their actions. His quote can also be used to show the danger associated with acts of violent resistance in the name of justice by an oppressed group that are motivated by anger and hatred. Anger and hatred can blind them so much so that they become what they hate, the oppressor. The psychological change occurs when the oppressed pick up the behavioral patterns of the oppressor. If given the opportunity to gain power over the oppressor, the oppressed will treat others as they were treated.” (Monroe Page 110)

[1] Some would say too much

Senator Margret Chase Smith (R-ME)

Senator Margret Chase Smith (R-ME)

The Challenge

In 1950 the general emotion of the country was of fear. We feared the expansion of Communism in the world and the nuclear threat they posed. This fear was not just promoted by the Republican Party and Senator McCarthy. On March 12, 1947, President Truman (D) helped set the stage that Senator McCarthy would perform. In an address to Congress, “He (the President) was putting ‘the world on notice that it would be our policy to support freedom wherever it was threatened.’ The threat was Communism.” (Johnson: Page 118) It was this fear the Senator McCarthy was able to exploit. His tactics were misdirection, manipulation of facts and out right fabrications of information that played into the manifestation of a specter. If anyone would challenge him or call into question his information he would simply accuse them of being a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. Because he said it loud enough and repeatedly over a period of time, people started to believe him without any proofs. His methods had proven to be effective in silencing his opponents for a time. One of the few Senators that dared to challenge him early on did so on June 1, 1950. Senator Margaret Chase Smith[2] (R-ME), also a first term Senator, addressed the Senate because she did not agree with the methods of Senator McCarthy was using to gain power. She introduced what was called a "Declaration of Conscience."

“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism --

The right to criticize;

The right to hold unpopular beliefs;

The right to protest;

The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know some one who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn't? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in” (Declaration of Conscience)

At the time of her speech, the Democrats controlled Congress, but, due in part to the rhetoric that was being presented as fact, there was about to be a changing of the guard. The Republican Party was posed to take over. Senator Smith had a strong warning for the Republican Party about the way they were about to take control. She was looking forward to the change, “But I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny -- Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.” (Declaration of Conscience) The tacit that Senator McCarthy and others used. Her concern was the strategy being employed to again support, would in the end hurt this country.

[2] Senator Smith was the first female to be elected to both the U.S. House and Senate. She served in the Senate from 1949 to 1973.


The method he was using is called demagogy, which means, “the art and practice of gaining power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people. Also demagoguery.” (The Free Dictionary) Using the fear of Communism, and people lack of knowledge about Communism, Senator McCarthy was able to create an illusion of trouble or danger where there was none. Evan today there are some that to resurrect the ghost of Senator McCarthy as a national hero, who fought the good and righteous fight. To support their claims they are using the same tactics as Senator McCarthy, focusing on people fears and prejudices to gain power. Former Secretary of Education under the Reagan Administration, Ronald Kessler, has some telling observations about this effort.

“A dangerous movement has been growing among conservative writers to vindicate the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his campaign to expose Soviet spies in the U.S. government.

The FBI agents who were actually chasing those spies have told me that McCarthy hurt their efforts because he trumped up charges, unfairly besmirched honorable Americans, and gave hunting spies a bad name…..

The problem was that the people McCarthy tarnished as Communists or Communist sympathizers were not the real spies. Often, the information McCarthy used came from FBI files, which were full of rumor and third-hand accounts.” (Kessler)

The evidence against Senator McCarthy is fairly over whelming. So why does it seem as if we have not learned or we have forgotten the lessons that he taught us? There is a movement to glamorize Joe McCarthy. One example is Ann Coulter’s 2003 book, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, demonstrates, “The primary victim of outrageous persecution during the McCarthy era was McCarthy. Liberal hid their traitorous conduct by making McCarthy the issue. They did to McCarthy everything they falsely accused him of doing to them.” (Coulter: Page 104) In addition the number of internet blogs and sites dedicated to rewriting the history surrounding the 50’s is staggering. One site claims, “Senator McCarthy was a great man who put the safety of his nation and fellow citizens above his own personal stature.” (Kulawik) These efforts are also supporting the ambush and retaliatory style of politics that Senator McCarthy was found of using. Retaliation, at times has it place, but it is a dangerous emotion to operate off of as this blog which is highlighting a letter from George Washington to the President of the Second Continental Congress.

“Retaliation is certainly just and sometimes necessary, even when attended with the severest penalties. But when the evils which may result from it exceed those intended to be redressed, prudence and policy require that it should be avoided.” (Hoff)

The point that President Washington was making is simple. Anytime the motivation for your actions is retaliation you have to be careful that the fallout from the retaliation is not worse then the original act against you. This where Senator McCarthy often went too far, his actions against his political opponents were often more detrimental to the nation, then original act against him. When threats or attempts to ruin a person’s repetition do not work, he was not opposed to physical violence. As the deposition of columnist Drew Pearson describes. “In his deposition, Pearson related: "McCarthy greeted me with a sort of mock effusiveness . . . He said, 'I'm really going to take you apart on the Senate floor tomorrow . . . I'm really going to tear you to pieces . . .' He kept badgering me." Finally, said Pearson, he asked McCarthy: "Joe, how is your income-tax case coming along? When are they going to put you in jail?" "He jumped up, put his thumb and index finger behind my nerves in the back of my cranium right here, and gouged me as hard as he could and said, 'You come out. We will settle this.'" Later, related Pearson: "I was about to pay the hat-check boy, when McCarthy came up . . . pinned my arms down, swung me around, and proceeded to kick me in the groin with his knee . . . He said, 'Keep your hands out of your pockets; no firearms, no guns . . .' He said, 'Take that back about my income taxes.' I tried to get away from him . . . McCarthy broke loose and swung on me with the flat of his hand.” (Time) Today most politicians would not resort to physical attacks of their opponents; however, they are not beneath launching verbal ambushes.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN)

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN)

The Latest Manifestation of McCarthy

The action in 2012 of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have all the trappings of Senator McCarthy strategy, instead of Communists filling the ranks of the Government she has decided it is Muslims, through the organization Muslim Brotherhood, that are trying to take over the government. In a June 13, 2012 letter to the Inspector General of several Federal agencies she along with 4 other Republicans[3] said, “As you may know, information has recently come to light that raises serious questions about the impact on the federal government’s national security polices and activities that appear to be a result of influence operations conducted by individuals and organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.” (Bachmann: letter to the Honorable I. Charles McCullough III) She was asking each agency to conduct extensive investigation to determine to what extent the Brotherhood has infiltrated the senior ranks of the government. As Senator McCarthy did 62 years earlier, she pointed to a State Department employee as a possible security risk.

When she was challenged by Congressman Keith Ellison (D MN) to produce some evidence in support of her allegations, she responded with a 16 page letter. “For us to raise issues about a highly-based U.S. Government official with known immediate family connections to foreign extremist organization is not a question of singling out Ms. Abedin. In fact, these questions are raised by the U.S. Government of anyone seeking a security clearance.”

“Given the reasonable assumption that Ms. Abedin has a high-level security clearance, as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence I am particularly interested in exactly how, given what we know from the international media about Ms. Abedin’s documented family connections with the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, she was able to avoid being disqualified for a security clearance.”(Bachmann: letter to Congressman Keith Ellison) In the letter the Congresswoman claims the reason Ms. Abedin should be investigated is the facts show that her mother, father, and brother all have ties to Muslim Brotherhood. Congresswoman Bachmann is implying that since Ms. Abedin’s has ties, then it is reasonable to assume that Ms. Abedin has those same relationships.

However, the “facts” that Congresswoman Bachmann was relying on are based on misdirection, misrepresentation and fabrication. Ms. Abedin’s late father, Syed Abedin, founded the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Institute has no known ties to any terrorist organization. As Anderson Cooper points out, “According to that article, Professor Abedin's institute had the support of another man named Dr. Umar Abdallah Nassif who is a former general secretary of another group called the Muslim World League. Bachmann says that according to the Pew Forum the Muslim World League has a history of, quote, "being closely aligned and partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood." (Cooper) Her logic would be like saying that because my father was active in the local Methodist church and a friend from the local Lutheran Church, who supported some of the activities of the Methodist Church, was a member of the Klan[4] that relationship is proof enough to shows that my father and his Church were active members of the Klan and I must be, at the very least, supportive or sympathetic of the Klan agenda. In addition to the loose logic nowhere in any of the documents that Congresswoman Bachmann has provided, did she supply any proof concerning Ms. Abedin’s mother or brother.

[3] Reps. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Thomas Rooney (R-FL) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA)

[4] The reference is to the Klu Klux Klan

Senator John McCain (R-AZ)

Senator John McCain (R-AZ)

The New Challenge McCarthyism

One of the reasons Senator McCarthy was able to gain so much power, was the lack of challenges by other members of Congress. That silence on the part of other elected officials was spun as they were showing the support for his actions. In this case Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was very quick to respond to the allegations. Of the accusations he said, “I know Huma to be an intelligent, upstanding, hard-working, and loyal servant of our country and our government, who has devoted countless days of her life to advancing the ideals of the nation she loves and looking after its most precious interests.” (McCain) Then he starts to address the proofs that were supplied, saying that her famiy members had relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood. “Never mind that one of those individuals, Huma’s father, passed away two decades ago. The letter and the report offer not one instance of an action, a decision, or a public position that Huma has taken while at the State Department that would lend credence to the charge that she is promoting anti-American activities within our government.” (Bachmann: Statement Regarding the Inspectors General Letters)

Towards the end of his statement Senator McCain reveals his concern about the action Congresswoman Bachmann has taken. He felt that it did nothing to strengthen the nation. “Ultimately, what is at stake in this matter is larger even than the reputation of one person. This is about who we are as a nation, and who we aspire to be….When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.” (Bachmann: Statement Regarding the Inspectors General Letters) While Senator McCain’s words are direct, so were the words of Senator Smith at the actions of Senator McCarthy. Unless other political leaders are willing to stand with him, the paranoia will continue to grow.

In response to Senator McCain’s rebuttal, Congresswoman Bachmann posted on her web site, “This is just the latest example of the dangerous national security decisions made by the Obama administration. I will not be silent as this administration appeases our enemies instead of telling the truth about the threats our country faces.” (Bachmann, Michele. Statement Regarding the Inspectors General Letters) The tactics that Congresswoman Bachmann is using are the same as Senator McCarthy. She is presenting baseless accusations to exploit a fear that has been instilled in the public’s mind set. When challenged she is claiming to be the lone heroine that is willing to stand up against the President, even though it was not the President who was challenging her position.

To answer my original question, why have we not learned from the lessons of the McCarthy era? A part of the answer is the fact that first hand knowledge of the events is missing from the equation. When the actions of Senator McCarthy were taking place (1950-1954), the current power brokers were either not alive or too young to understand the impact of his actions. Combine that with an educational system that could not effectively convey the magnitude of the chaos that he created. Senator McCarthy is an inspiration and an excellent example for those who lust for power at any expense. The need for power tends to blind people of the past experiences and allows them to manipulate the historical facts to fit the reality that they are trying to create.

History has also shown us that Senator McCarthy’s tactics lead to short term success for Republicans in the American political scheme. In the 83rd Congress the Republican Party won the majority of seats. In the Senate the Republicans had a 1 seat advantage (48) to the Democrats 47, there was 1 Independent Senator. While in the House of Representatives the Republicans held 221 seats, and the Democrats held 213 with 1 Independent. 1953 the Republicans were able to win the White House with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republicans were in charge due in part to the hysteria that Senator McCarthy created. Yet by the induction of the 84th Congress the balance of power shifted back to Democrats, again due in part to the hysteria that Senator McCarthy had created.

In the end what stopped Senator McCarthy, was Senator McCarthy. America had a chance to see him in action with the televised McCarthy/Army hearings. Senator McCarthy’s popularity started to decrease in 1954, due in part to his accusations that the Army Signal corps at Fort Monmouth was infiltrated with communists. The hearings, which were broadcast live by ABC showed him in his true light to the audience. At the end of hearing Joseph Nye Welch, led counsel for the Army said, “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (Transcript Army-McCarthy Hearings) At the start of 1954, according to a Gallop poll 50% of Americans were in favor of Senator McCarthy, while only 29% viewed him unfavorably. In November of 1954 his favorability rating dropped to 35% and unfavorable rate climbed to 46%. After Senator McCarthy was officially reprimanded in 1954, he never regained any of the power he had welded the pervious 3 years. He died in BethesdaNavalHospital on May 2, 1957, at the age of 48. He was still in office, but he was no longer a national figure and was mainly shunned by members of both political parties.

So what is the point of this article and what lessons do I believe that we should have learned? The purpose of this piece is simply to educate people on our history. This is not an attempt to demonize Senator McCarthy, or Congresswoman Bachmann, they were acting within a system that allowed and encouraged them to abuse their privilege, although they did choose their course of action. In the end, even Senator McCarthy political supporters left him. The lesson I hope that is learned is simple, instead of taking what the politicians and political pundits say at face value. Do the research, check the facts and be willing to discuss them. Our country was born and has flourished because of debates, the challenges which allow us to constantly reexamine our social system. The tactics of Senator McCarthy and other was designed to limit or eliminate people from the discourse. In the end, the true test of a democracy is not in how well we get along, but how we act when we disagree with each other. I would like to end this piece with one more quotes from Senator McCain. “Our reputations, our character, are the only things we leave behind when we depart this earth, and unjust attacks that malign the good name of a decent and honorable person is not only wrong; it is contrary to everything we hold dear as Americans.” (McCain)

Photo Sources

Senator Joseph McCarthy: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/censure_cases/133Joseph_McCarthy.htm (accessed July 19, 2012)

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann: http://bachmann.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rep_michele_bachmann_official_photo.jpg. (accessed July 18, 2012)

Senator Margret Chase Smith: http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Painting_32_00041.htm. (accessed July 19, 2012)

Senator John McCain: http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=AboutSenatorMcCain.Biography. (accessed July 19, 2012)


Bachmann, Michele. Statement Regarding the Inspectors General Letters. http://bachmann.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=303509. July 18, 2012 (Accessed July 18, 2012)

Bachmann, Michele. June 13, 2012 letter to the Honorable I. Charles McCullough III, Inspector General, Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Bachmann, Michele.July 17, 2012 letter to Congressman Keith Ellison

Coulter, Ann. Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War Terrorism. Three Rivers Press, New York. 2003

Cooper, Anderson. Transcripts from ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES. Muslim Brotherhood Infiltration?; Fighting the Bain Drain; Interview with Rep. Keith Ellison. http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1207/17/acd.01.html. Aired July 17, 2012 - 20:00 ET (Accessed July 19, 2012)

Declaration of Conscience. http://www.mcslibrary.org/program/library/declaration.htm accessed July 17, 2010

Dewey, John . Freedom and Culture. New York: Paragon Book, 1979.

Griffith, Robert (1970). The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. University of Massachusetts Press.

Hoff, Sam. GW on Getting Even. http://georgewashington.worldhistoryblogs.com/2010/07/12/gw-on-getting-even/ Monday, July 12, 2010. Accessed July 23, 2010

Johnson, Haynes. The Age of Anxiety: McCarthy to Terrorism. Harcourt Inc. 2005. page118

Kessler, Ronald. The Real Story on Joe McCarthy. NewsMax.com. Monday, 07 Apr 2008 10:45 PM.
http://www.newsmax.com/RonaldKessler/mccarthy-conservatives/2008/04/07/id/323380. Accessed July 20, 2010

Kulawik, Chris. In Defense of McCarthy. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1379283/posts. Thursday, April 07, 2005 1:18:10 PM Accessed July 21, 2010

McCain , John. Press Release. STATEMENT BY SENATOR JOHN McCAIN ON THE MATTER OF RECENT ATTACKS MADE ON HUMA ABEDIN. http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressOffice.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=9acf4627-0fad-89d1-d5d3-dda642179bca. July 18, 2012. (accessed July 19, 2012)

Monroe, Mark. The Metaphysics of Discrimination. Ann Arbor, Michigan.2001.

Time. THE CONGRESS: Busy Man. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,859340,00.html. Monday
October 8, 1951. Accessed July 30, 2010

Transcript Army-McCarthy Hearings, 1954. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6444/. (accessed July 19, 2012)

Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demagogy. Accessed July 30, 2010

© 2012 Mark Monroe


Mark Monroe (author) from Dover De on July 29, 2012:

Shea duane

thank you for taking the time to read my hub


shea duane from new jersey on July 29, 2012:

Very intersting hub. I agree with you and with Sen. McCain: "This is about who we are as a nation, and who we aspire to be." No matter how many Americans make errors or put power over people, the ideals of the Constitution should be our guide. When people, especially elected persons, trash the Constitution, we need to speak up regardless of party.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on July 28, 2012:

Mark -- Incredibly thorough and well researched hub. Excellent work, as always. :) Theresa

Have you considered breaking your long hubs into two or three sections. I believe you would get more readers that way. And your work is very good, it deserves a larger readership. Just a suggestion. :) Sharing.

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