Morton: The rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy

On this day (Dec. 2) in 1954, the headline of the lead front-page article in The New York Times read “The Final Vote Condemns M’Carthy, 67-22, for Abusing Senate and Committee.”

“M’Carthy” was, of course, was the controversial, red-baiting Republican Wisconsin Sen. Joseph Raymond McCarthy. Born Nov. 14, 1908, on a dairy farm near Appleton, Wis., into the devout Catholic family of Timothy and Bridget Tierney McCarthy, Joe McCarthy dropped out of school in 1922 (age 14) to help his parents manage their farm only to resume his formal education when he was 20.

Through diligence, McCarthy graduated in one year. In 1930, the restless, ambitious McCarthy entered Marquette University, where he gained a reputation as a playboy and card shark. He graduated in 1935 with a degree in law. Admitted to the bar in 1935, Joe commenced the practice of law and a political career. First unsuccessfully as a Democrat, but later successfully as a Republican, McCarty was elected a circuit judge in 1937 (age 29), becoming the youngest judge in Wisconsin history.

In 1942, McCarthy was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, hoping that combat experience would enhance his budding political career. He served in the Pacific as an intelligence officer for a dive bomber squadron. In 1945, McCarthy returned to civilian life to resume his political career. In his 1946 Republican senatorial primary campaign against three-term senator Robert M. LaFollette Jr., McCarthy often resorted to smear tactics, which helped him to win not only the primary, but also the general election with 61.2 percent of the vote against Democratic opponent Howard McMurray’s (37.3 percent).

It was during this campaign that McCarthy, who was essentially a noncombat officer, often exaggerated his military exploits, assuming the appellation of Tail-Gunner Joe for his alleged combat experience as a tail-gunner.

During his first four years as a U.S. senator, McCarthy was essentially a back-bencher. 

However, on Feb. 9, 1950, at a Lincoln Day address in Wheeling, W. Va., the relatively unknown Midwestern senator gained popularity and fame (notoriety?) by claiming, in a widely reported speech, that there was “communist influence” in the Truman administration. He said he had in his hand a list of 205 (later changed to 57) known Communists working in the State Department who were shaping U.S. Cold War policy, and, therefore, were largely responsible for such U.S. defeats as the Communist 1949 take-over of China and “allowing” the Soviets to develop an atomic bomb.

By 1953, as Chairman of the Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, McCarthy launched into a campaign (which had earlier been dubbed “McCarthyism” by Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block in a famous March 29, 1950, cartoon), accusing political opponents, or in fact anyone who would not embrace his anti-communist “crusade,” of being Communists or Communist sympathizers.

By 1952, McCarthy had reached the zenith of his political power and influence and was easily re-elected to the Senate. During this period, he called former Secretary of State George C. Marshall a traitor and said President Truman should be impeached. After Ike’s election to the presidency in 1952, McCarthy even attacked Eisenhower for his support of Gen. Marshall, which prompted Ike to reportedly have remarked that he would not “get down in the gutter with that guy.”

Finally McCarthy’s mudslinging and demagoguery led to his downfall. After a series of Army-McCarthy hearings, which were nationally televised, McCarthy’s boorish, crude, and vulgar behavior on national TV led to his censure for behavior that “was contrary to senatorial traditions” by the U.S. Senate.

After the Senate’s censure, McCarthy’s last three years were lonely ones. He died on May 2, 1957, at age 48 of acute hepatitis and alcoholism at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.