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Born at Grand Chute, Wisconsin, Joseph Raymond McCarthy graduated from Marquette University in 1935, and practised law in Wisconsin, becoming a circuit judge in 1939. He served in the US marines between 1942 and 1945.
McCarthy became a senator for his native Wisconsin in 1947, and in February 1950 caused a sensation by claiming to hold a list of about 200 Communist Party members working in the State Department. This was in part inspired by the Alger Hiss case.
In 1953 McCarthy was appointed Chairman of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee and launched ‘the McCarthy Hearings’.
He continued a witch-hunting campaign against, among others, members of the Harry Truman administration. McCarthy’s unsubstantiated claim started a wave of anti-communist hysteria, wild accusations, and blacklists, which continued until he was discredited.
When he turned his attention to the Army in 1954, and it was shown that he and his aides had been falsifying evidence, President Eisenhower denounced his tactics.
The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised and – for the first time – the American viewing public got a good look at McCarthy, and most didn’t like what they saw – shrill, nasal, bullying, sweaty and forever encased in his own dark five-o’clock shadow, and given to statements heavily laden with innuendo and hyperbole.
By contrast, Army lawyer Joseph Welch came across as eloquent, even-tempered and clear-headed (in fact Welch went on to a career in minor television acting roles and as
a host of TV series).
McCarthy was censured in February 1954 by President Eisenhower for his bullying tactics.
On 2 December 1954, the US Senate voted 67-22 to condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy for ‘conduct unbecoming of a Senator’ and for abuse of Select Committee privileges.
McCarthy continued senatorial duties for another two and a half years, but his career had been largely ruined. His colleagues in the Senate avoided him and his speeches on the Senate floor were delivered to a near-empty chamber or were received with conspicuous displays of inattention.
By this time, however, many people in public life and the arts had been unofficially blacklisted as suspected communists or fellow travellers (communist sympathisers).
McCarthyism came to represent the practice of using innuendo and unsubstantiated accusations against political adversaries.
The political climate of the witch-hunts of the right-wing senator also paved the way for the Internal Security Act which was passed in 1950 by Congress (over the president’s veto). It restricted the civil rights of communists in the USA and barred anyone who had ever been a member of a ”totalitarian party” from entering the country.
The Internal Security Act consisted of two parts: the Subversive Activities Control Act (Part I), and the Emergency Detention Act (Part II). Part I classified communist organisations, created the Subversive Activities Control Board to identify such organisations, dealt with conspiracy and the transmission of secrets to foreign agents, broadened espionage and sabotage laws, and required the registration of foreign agents.
Part II stipulated that the president might proclaim an internal security emergency in the event of the invasion of the USA, or any of its possessions, declaration of war by Congress, or insurrection within the USA in aid of a foreign enemy; it also provided for the detention of persons suspected of conspiracy for espionage or sabotage.
McCarthy died in Bethesda Naval Hospital on 2 May 1957, at the age of 48.
The official cause of his death was listed as acute hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. It was hinted in the press that he died of alcoholism, an estimation that is accepted by contemporary biographers.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that the section of the Internal Security Act requiring members of the Communist Party to register with the Department of Justice was unconstitutional because it violated the individual’s protection under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
Other parts of the act have also been subjected to serious legal and congressional amendment.