Joseph Raymond McCarthy, was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, Nov.14, 1908, and died an alcoholic on May 2, 1957. McCarthy was best known for his attacks on alleged Communism especially in the Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower administrations. The extreme accusations by McCarthy and his followers lead to the phrase McCarthyism. This phrase is used in reference to the ‘sensational and highly publicized personal attacks, usually based on unsubstantiated charges, as a means of discrediting people thought to be subversive.'(Grolier, 1996)
Before February of 1950 Joseph McCarthy was not a good legislator. He gained the attention of the United States by stating that the State Department was ‘riddled with card-carrying members of the Communist Party.'(Rovere, 1959, p.128) McCarthy was very clever in the way he worked the media and was skilled in the art of public speaking. He used these abilities to latch on to the publics fears with communism in the eastern world. McCarthy bombarded the opposition with accusations and avoided giving proof; with these tactics McCarthy was able to gain many followers, especially Republicans. With the support of many Republicans, McCarthy accused the administrations of Roosevelt and Truman with ‘twenty years of treason.'(Grolier, 1996)
McCarthy was reelected in 1952 and immediately began directing accusations toward the Eisenhower administration from a new post as head of the Senate’s Government Operations Committee and its permanent investigations subcommittee. McCarthy was eventually discredited by lack of evidence in his claims of Communist in the U.S. army, through the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. On December 2, 1954 the Senate voted to condemn him for ‘conduct contrary to Senatorial traditions.’ The final vote was 67-22. After this any influence of Joseph McCarthy was insignificant. McCarthy was politically dead. (Ewald, 1984, p.381)
It is my intention to show that it was the media who was responsible for McCarthyism and the turmoil it caused as well as the eventual destruction of Joseph McCarthys political career in 1954.
McCarthy began his manipulation of the press by way of a speech given at the Lincoln Day dinner of the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, West
Virginia on February 9, 1950. McCarthy later denied having said what he was quoted to have said in the speech. Apparently there was only one reporter present for the speech in Wheeling, so it’s his word against McCarthy’s. The statement quoted in the speech published in the Wheeling Intelligence in the story by Frank Desmond, read as follows,
While I cannot take the time to name all of 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 that were known to the Secretary of the State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department. (Bayley, 1981, p.17)
This story is what is responsible for starting McCarthyism. Later McCarthy said the number he gave in his speech was not 205 but 57. The fact is that Desmond had a written copy of the speech before McCarthy gave it, but he could have changed the number to 57 when he actually presented the speech. Regardless, the number 57 would have been just as shocking as 205. There are many ways that the media could have handled this speech, one being asking to see the list. If he had, things may have been different, for as McCarthy said himself ‘what he held in his hand was the Byrnes letter, not a list.'(Bayley, 1981, p.24) If Desmond had reported that McCarthy was holding a letter, not a list, the newspapers would have handled the story much differently. A letter from one person to another, which suggests unfit employees, would have made much less news than the illusion of an actual list of names.
The lack of proof was one of many ways the press mishandled information over the next few weeks. In general the press’ poor practice would be carried out for the next five years. ‘I have here in my hand…’ was a phrase that ‘became more popular than a famous toothpaste slogan,'(Belfrage, 1973, p.117) McCarthy used this phrase countless times to refer to documents he would pull from his briefcase to support his accusations. The legitimacy of the accusations was never debated or questioned by reporters. The Byrnes’s letter that McCarthy pulled out on February 9, 1950 was one of these unchecked documents. The content of the letter gives us insight into McCarthy’s ability to manipulate the facts, and allow the media to spread his word.
McCarthy took his famous number of 205 from a letter from Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to Representative Adolf Sabath of Illinois. It is very strange and unheard of in this day and age that McCarthy was allowed to make such an accusation without the press confirming its source. The letter basically said that 4,000 employees of the state had been transferred, and of those 3,000 had been subjected to preliminary examination, from which a recommendation against permanent employment had been made in 284 cases; 79 of these people had been refused government service. (Rovere, 1959, p.125)
Without any further information McCarthy assumed that 205 of the 284 whose employment had not been recommended were actually employed, and that the reason that they were not recommended in the first place was because they were communists. (Bayley, 1981, p.20) The letter never mentioned that the 205 people were hired, or that any of them were Communists.
No journalist ever asked any questions before printing the story. By not doing this they can be held responsible for creating a stage for a madman to mislead the American public.
‘McCarthy’s rise to national prominence coincided with the explosive growth of television in the United States.'(Bayley, 1981, p.176) He knew about media and he knew he could use this new medium of television to promote his image, and his cause. Television was just as easily manipulated by McCarthy as the newspapers were, and McCarthy successfully put himself into the living rooms of the American public. What McCarthy didn’t realize, and what would eventually lead to his downfall, was that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that live television conferences cannot be edited or fixed. It was this form of media that would lead to McCarthy’s downfall.
Throughout the administration of Harry Truman, McCarthy accused the president of being sympathetic to Communism. It may very well have been the atmosphere left by the claims that led Truman and the Democratic Party to defeat in 1952, and the subsequent victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Republicans. McCarthy was elected head of the Senate’s Government Operations Committee in 1952, but this was not enough for the ambitious Senator. He wanted to replace Eisenhower as the head of the Republican Party, and he attempted to use the same tactics against Eisenhower that he used to dethrone Truman. It was this political decision that set the stage for McCarthy’s fall from grace.
McCarthy openly attacked Eisenhower in early 1954 with hopes of leading the Republican Party. One of his most famous slogans against him was the ‘who promoted Peress?’ campaign. Irving Peress was a former dentist who had been drafted and commissioned in October 1952 and promoted to major a year later under the automatic provisions law. (Bayley, 1981, p.187) A month after his promotion someone in the army found out that Peress had refused to answer questions about his political beliefs, and he was ordered to be discharged within 90 days. All of this happened during the Eisenhower administration, and nothing had been proven about the actual beliefs of Peress but McCarthy used this incident and others like it to accuse Eisenhower of being sympathetic to the Communist cause. (Ewald, 1984, p.189)
It was this Peress incident, however, that prompted Eisenhower to make a statement to denounce McCarthy. Everyone was prepared for Eisenhower to bash McCarthy, including McCarthy himself. McCarthy was so sure of the content of Eisenhower’s speech that he responded to it on television shortly after, without even knowing what Eisenhower actually said. McCarthy’s response speech included claims that the Army had been protecting, covering up, and honorably discharging known Communists; he bashed Peress, and he bashed Eisenhower claiming that they were all protecting Communists. (Bayley, 1981, p.188-189) What McCarthy didn’t know is what hurt him, apparently Eisenhower’s statement had been altered, and when it was delivered it didn’t even mention McCarthy.
James Reston described the actual statement of Eisenhower as a ‘note on the principals that should govern the relations between the legislature and the executive under the US Constitution.’ (Bayley, 1981, p.188) Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune said that, the American people had seen a kick in the groin, and they would not forget it. To Willard Edwards, this was the ‘day that McCarthy died.’ (Ewald, 1984, p. 242) McCarthy had lost the respect of the American public, and the respect of many journalist, reporters, and television stations. The television stations would indirectly be responsible for delivering one of the final blows to McCarthy.
Shortly after this incident, in a public speech the Republican Party was described as ‘divided against itself, half McCarthy and half Eisenhower.'(Ewald, 1984, p.246) McCarthy before this incident had always been given free air time from the networks (NBC and CBS) to respond to any type of comment spoken against him. This time however, NBC and CBS rejected his demands. Instead, as they were obligated to allow someone to reply, vice- president Nixon gave a response. McCarthy threatened to take the decision of the networks to the FCC, but other networks, newspapers and radio stations seemed to think that the law would favor the networks, and fully supported them in their decision. The movement of the press to stand up to Joseph McCarthy was sudden and as devastating.
The only free air time he was given came from the Mutual Broadcasting System, but not until four days after the speech against him. In this time period McCarthy had amounted two more formidable critics to answer. One was Senator Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican who rose in the Senate on March 9 to accuse McCarthy of ‘deserting the Republican Party and to ridicule his hunt for Communists.'(Bayley, 1981, p.192) The other was the one that ruined McCarthy, ironically by way of the television media that had helped his five-year career so much. His name was Edward R. Murrow.
Television’s most respected man Edward R. Murrow presented a McCarthy ‘documentary on his popular show ‘See it Now’, which provided, through skillful film editing, a devastating critique of McCarthy and his methods.'(Bayley, 1981, p.192) The show produced clips of McCarthy speaking his half-truths, and distortions and then followed them with Murrow’s explanations of McCarthy’s logic, and descriptions of how the facts were manipulated. At the end of the show Murrow did an editorial in which he said ‘that McCarthy’s primary achievement had been to confuse the public about the internal and external threats of Communism.'(Bayley, 1981, p.193)
McCarthy finally did make a reply on Murrow’s program ‘See it Now’ nearly a month later on April 6, 1954. He never really replied to Murrow. Rather, he attacked him with more wild accusations and this time the public was not listening. Through the collective stand that the press took against McCarthy concerning the NBC/CBS decision, Flanders denouncement of McCarthy, and finally Murrow’s documentary; the media, which was responsible for the creation and the spreading of McCarthyism, had delivered the final nail in the coffin.
The nationally televised Army-McCarty trials were just the playing out of the inevitable. The nation got to see McCarthy at his worst, trying to justify some of the horrific accusations that he made against the United States Senate.
Eventually the Senate adopted a resolution to ‘condemn’ McCarthy by a vote of 67-22. The only support for McCarthy was from parts of the nation where McCarthy’s activities had been given the least coverage in newspaper, and from the only part of the country that did not have access to live television coverage of the damaging Army-McCarthy trials. (Bayley, 1981, p.212) The media’s power of influence on his career is shown here again; however in this instance it ruined him.
In conclusion it is obvious that the media was responsible for the birth and the death of McCarthyism. The negligence of the reporters early in McCarthy’s career (notably Frank Desmond, who covered McCarthy’s speech at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling) gave life to a man who should have been exposed as a fake. The next five years of chaos taught the press about fact checking, and the need to ask responsible questions before a story should be printed
Bayley, Edwin R. (1981) Joe McCarthy and the Press. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Belfrage, Cedric. (1973)The American Inquisition 1945-1965: A Profile of the McCarthy Era. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
Ewald, William Bragg.(1984)Who Killed Joe McCarthy?. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Manchester, William. (1976) ‘A Slight Case of McCarthyism.’ Controversy and other Essays in Journalism. Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.
Rovere, Richard H. (1959) Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Danbury: Grolier 1996.