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Hibernian Chronicle McCarthy targets U.S. ‘communists’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Fifty-one years ago this week, on Feb. 9, 1950, Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade. Speaking in Wheeling, West Va., he announced that he held in his hand a list of 205 known communist spies working in the U.S. government. Little known outside his home state of Wisconsin until this moment, his name now became a household word.

McCarthy had won election to the U. S. Senate in 1946, defeating the famous incumbent Robert LaFollette. After three unimpressive years in office, he decided that anticommunism would be his ticket to reelection and greater power. As one journalist later wrote, he was "a political speculator who found his oil gusher in Communism."

To understand how so obscure and personally unlikable a man could so suddenly burst on the national scene, it’s essential to recall the early days of the Cold War. A large majority of Americans in 1950 believed that communism was an inherently aggressive ideology and that its chief proponent, the Soviet Union, sought world domination.

Events in recent years seemed to support this view. In 1948 Stalin cut off Allied access to West Berlin, prompting President Truman to launch a bold, 15-month airlift operation to maintain the noncommunist outpost in East Germany. In 1949 a stunned American public learned that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb, eradicating our nuclear monopoly. Worse still, Americans believed (correctly, as it turned out) that a Soviet spy network had been active in gathering American and British nuclear secrets.

Before the nation had time to digest this news, another Cold War shocker hit: China, the world’s most populous nation and a key U.S. ally, had been overthrown by Mao’s communist revolutionaries. Aided by subversives, the Red Menace, it seemed, was on the march.

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It was in this tense context that McCarthy aired his accusation that the U.S. government was riddled with spies.

"I have in my hand," he said, "a list of 205 [spies] that were 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."

His words hit a raw nerve of Cold War fear and cast him suddenly into the national spotlight as the nation’s foremost anticommunist.

And just as the events of 1948-1949 lent credence to his claims, so too did subsequent ones. In June 1950, for example, Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg were arrested on charges of espionage. One month later, communist North Korea invaded South Korea, touching off the first military confrontation of the Cold War. McCarthy produced little evidence to support his claims, but headlines in the nation’s newspapers suggested he was right.

McCarthy fended off criticism and calls for evidence by making still louder and grander accusations. He charged that Truman’s administration was full of Soviet dupes and that war hero Gen. George C. Marshall had aided "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man."

Backed by a huge national following and unchallenged by a Democratic party loathe to be branded "soft" on communism, McCarthy grew more powerful by the month. Through committee hearings, investigations, and countless speeches, he moved through American society like a tornado. Guilt by accusation was often the order of the day. Thousands of federal government employees were dismissed as security risks. Countless others in state and local government, labor unions, colleges and universities, and the private sector were likewise dismissed as disloyal or subversive.

McCarthy’s demise finally came in 1954 in a hearing that pitted the Wisconsin senator against the U.S. Army. Carried on national TV, the hearings showed McCarthy at his worst — a bombastic, unscrupulous, and cruel man willing to say or do anything to advance his career. The final blow came when Joseph Welch, counsel for the Army, asked, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

In the end McCarthy’s fall was as spectacular as his rise. The Senate voted to "condemn" his actions 67-22 and he quickly faded from prominence. His drinking grew heavier and his health quickly waned. He died on April 28, 1957 from complications due to alcoholism. He was only 48.

McCarthy remains one of the most reviled figures in American history. Anyone who studies his life — even the staunch and principled anticommunist — is bound to come away appalled by him.

Yet McCarthy is too important a figure to be merely dismissed as an opportunistic demon. He didn’t materialize out of thin air — he was the product of an intensely anxious era. His rise to power should serve to remind us how easy it is, in times of great fear, to place too much faith in the dark words of a demagogue who promises salvation if only given the chance.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Feb. 7, 1991: The IRA launches a mortar attack on No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of British Prime Minister John Major. No one is hurt, but damage to the building’s façade is considerable.

Feb. 10, 1844: Daniel O’Connell, leader of the movement to repeal the Act of Union, is found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to a year in jail.

Feb. 12, 1818: Chilean revolutionary Bernardo O’Higgins declares Chile an independent nation.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

Feb. 9, 1923: Nationalist and writer Brendan Behan born in Dublin.

Feb. 12, 1958: Actress Andie MacDowell born in Gaffney, S.C.

Feb. 13, 1920: Opera soprano Eileen Farrell, born in Willimantic, Conn.

Readers can reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.

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