Category: Archive

The rise and fall of ‘Tail Gunner Joe’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

Fifty years ago, on Election Day 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy "triumphed," it was said, winning several states and districts for the Republican Party, to the embarrassment of the Truman White House.

In the previous months, the junior senator from Wisconsin, through sheer force of will, prodigious energy and raw magnetism, had transformed himself into a national figure. He had stumbled upon his own twist to the issue of domestic subversion — Communists in government. Prominent advisors in the State Department were Communists, he alleged, or sympathetic to their cause. This was why, he argued, linking it to a favorite theme of Robert Taft’s conservative wing of the Republican Party, that the Democrats lost China to the Communists.

McCarthy couldn’t be ignored. He was appointed chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953. Increasingly, however, the Republican Party, with Eisenhower in the White House, regarded him as an irritant. His decision to investigate the armed forces was the last straw. And the Wisconsin senator, who had a genius for grabbing front-page headlines, was finally undone by TV’s coverage of the McCarthy-Army hearings.

Alcohol abuse played a major role in the misjudgments that led to McCarthy’s censure by his Senate colleagues in December 1954 and was largely responsible for the decline in his health. He died on May 2, 1957, at the age of 48.

The case against McCarthy was framed early on, long before his fall. In 1952, a group of 135 Methodist pastors from his native state pledged to oppose his "irresponsible accusations, assertions of guilt by association and reckless demagoguery." In the decades after his death, Americans continued to speak of him in these terms. Even the major biography by Thomas Reeves in 1982, with its rounded and often sympathetic portrait of the man, was unremittingly critical of his politics.

Follow us on social media

Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo


For some, though, the end of the Cold War has changed everything. Moscow files showing that the Soviets had aggressive intentions, and confirming apparently that western Communist leaders were willing pawns, has vindicated the witch-hunters, they say. The New York Times reported in October 1998 that "a number of American scholars would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism."

One of these, Arthur Herman, argues in a recent biography that McCarthy was "more right than wrong." "The Red Scare of the 1950s was necessary and justifiable," Herman said in an interview.

Some on the left agree with the conservative Herman on at least one point. "He wasn’t a monster," said Ellen Schrecker whose book "Many are the Crimes" is a standard work on McCarthyism. McCarthy was but one strand in McCarthyism, which in Schrecker’s view was essentially a Federally sponsored assault on the left at its weakest point and a campaign without parallel in a constitutional democracy. "It began with Truman," said Walter Bernstein, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who was blacklisted for a decade.

Indeed, the most famous political trials of the time preceded McCarthy’s rise to prominence. In 1947, for instance, the Hollywood Ten, eight of them Communist Party members, were indicted and eventually served prison terms. In 1949, Eugene Dennis and nine other Communist Party leaders were charged, under the terms of the Smith Act, with advocating the overthrow of the government. For civil libertarians, Dennis v. Smith was an outrageous show trial as the party’s constitution and political line disavowed violent revolution. All 10 leaders served jail terms.

The issue touched the state of McCarthy’s Wisconsin early on. In 1947, Milwaukee union leader and Communist Party member Harold Christoffel was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer charges that he called a strike at the Aliss-Chalmers defense plant in 1940 on the orders of Dennis. The implication was that, occurring at the time of the Soviet-Nazi pact, the action was subversive in intent. Christoffel’s accuser was Louis Budenz, an ex-Communist whom many scholars regard as at best an unreliable witness.

"There was a massive strike wave at the time, thousands and thousands of strikes," Schrecker said. "Only three of the these were at defense plants led by Communists. It had nothing to do with the war and everything to do with the relationship between unions and management." In 1947 there was industrial discontent again at the Wisconsin plant and, Schrecker added, Aliss-Chalmers wanted to strike a blow against the union. It succeeded with the help of the HUAC. At that hearing a young Irish-American congressman said: "I suggest that this committee indict Mr. Christoffel and Mr. Buse [another union leader] for perjury."

Christoffel spent three years in prison. The congressman, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, went on to become president.

Joseph Kennedy Sr. was an early patron of Joseph McCarthy and Robert Kennedy worked on the senator’s staff for the first half of 1953. And even though McCarthy was detested by organized labor, core Democratic voters and liberals, the Kennedys never publicly criticized the Midwestern senator.

Arthur Herman emphasizes McCarthy’s Irishness more than any previous biographer and argues that his prominence helped pave the way for JFK. "He mobilizes, I think, a consciousness on the part of Catholics of being part of the political mainstream, and that pays off for Kennedy," he said.

Herman explained the thinking of a section of the Catholic voters in the early 1950s. "They’re going to support him because he’s a Catholic, he’s an Irish Catholic but he’s also an American, he’s touching on American type of issues here and they say: ‘We have our place, our niche in this political system,’ " he said.

There weren’t many settlers in the farmlands of Eastern Wisconsin, although the area was heavily Catholic. Joe McCarthy’s mother, Bridget Tierney, however, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Even his one non-Irish grandparent, Barvarian-born Margaret Stoffel, had an Irish accent, it was said, picked up from her husband, Stephen McCarthy, who’d emigrated from County Tipperary in 1848. Stephen McCarthy, having saved money working as a farm laborer in upstate New York, migrated to farm his own land in the Midwest. Biographers report that Joe McCarthy himself, who was born in 1908, spoke with a "brogue" until he went to law school.

After breaking out on his own to become a chicken farmer, McCarthy returned to graduate high school at the age of 21. He was elected a judge at age 30. Joining the Marines during World War II, he had a solid if not particularly heroic war record, out of which he created the "Tail Gunner Joe" myth. Success on the stock market funded his first Senate run while he was overseas in 1944. He was elected to the Senate in 1946, an unlikely Republican, coming as he did from a Catholic farming family that supported the New Deal.

Although McCarthy was an observant Catholic who never missed Sunday Mass, he rarely referred to his religion. But it was always lurking in the background. In his book "McCarthy and McCarthyism in Wisconsin," Michael O’Brien writes: "McCarthy’s opponents felt uncomfortably vulnerable to the charge of religious bigotry because Catholics seemed to make up the hard core of McCarthy’s support." But the figures, he adds, don’t bear this out: "A national opinion poll in January 1954 showed that Catholics favored McCarthy by only nine percentage points more than Protestants (58 to 49)."

Nonetheless the impression was that this was a crusade that Catholics could identify with. His opponents within the church were usually intellectuals around small-circulation journals like Commonweal and the Jesuit-run America. Nor did critics like Bernard Shiel, the auxiliary bishop of Chicago, have a high profile. Cardinal Spellman of New York, an enthusiastic McCarthyite, seemed to speak for the church.

Catholic loyalty

The anti-Communist crusade was a perfect opportunity for Catholics, once outsiders, to show their loyalty. The boast that not a single Communist was an Irish Catholic was heard on occasion during the period.

In fact, though, the leading official of the Communist Party during the McCarthy period was an Irish American; in early adulthood Francis Waldron became Eugene Dennis. The pseudonym was part revolutionary affectation, part Communist concern with security. "The party became more and more secretive out of necessity," Bernstein said.

Even in countries with small communist movements, party membership was a symbol openly displayed by some labor leaders even if the rank and file didn’t support their politics. In the U.S., however, people like Mike Quill, the County Kerry-born transport workers leader in New York City, often denied their membership.

"Socialism was always persecuted," Bernstein said. He pointed to the repression and violence used against organized labor and the left throughout American history. "Eugene Debs [the early 20th century Socialist] ran his presidential campaign from jail," said Bernstein, now 80, whose 1976 film "The Front," starring Woody Allen, was based on his experiences in the 1950s and who has written a memoir of the period, "Inside Out."

However, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, learned the lessons of the post-World War I Red Scare, with its controversial deportations and vigilante violence. Thereafter, he narrowed his focus on the small CPUSA, a lifelong obsession.

The party reached its peak in influence during the New Deal era in the 1930s when it advocated alliances with the Democratic Party. It attracted people like Bernstein, who’d been radicalized by the Spanish Civil War as a student. He joined the party in 1946 after serving with the armed forces in Yugoslavia.

"The Communists seemed the noblest and the bravest, and they had some idea of what made the world tick," he said. Writers like Schrecker reject as a simplistic black and white picture the view of McCarthy biographer Herman, who said: "They surrendered over their loyalties and their values to the control of the central committee in Moscow."

Party members were recruited to espionage rings, broken up by 1945 historians agree, but not every Communist or front member was a potential saboteur, spy or subversive, in Schrecker’s view. And a Harald Christoffel or a Mike Quill could not direct their members at will to walk off the job in an emergency situation. "It’s insane," she said. "They were left-wing union leaders first, and Communists second."

In countries occupied by the Red Army, the Communists took and held power, but throughout the western world no party seriously considered such an option. In practice, small and large Communist parties from the 1930s onward supported national constitutions, and, unlike the right, the western left, out of which the communist parties grew, has never tried to impose a dictatorship on a democratic country. "Nobody ever thought revolution for a minute," Bernstein said. He added that the CPUSA’s obsession with the defense of the Soviet Union made them much less radical that they might have been.

In 1950, Bernstein was listed in "Red Channels," a document that exposed Communists and alleged sympathizers in the entertainment industry. His career was in ruins.

"My mother came to me. She had a prepared speech. She said that America was a dog-eat-dog society. You had to look out for yourself. Ideals were fine up to a point and all that kind of thing. I said, ‘Mama, I can be unlisted tomorrow.’ She said, ‘Great.’ And I added, ‘All I have to do is name names.’ And then my mother said: ‘How can you do that? You can’t do that!’" Bernstein recalled. "Now my mother wasn’t an educated woman and she wasn’t political, but for her there were certain things you didn’t do."


Betrayal is inextricably linked with McCarthyism in American culture. In his 1998 novel, "I Married a Communist," Philip Roth has a 90-year-old character say, "To me it seems likely that more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America after the war — say, between ’46 and ’56 — than in any other period in our history."

The Communists were described in the media as "poisonous germs," "snakes," "rats," "termites," and "slime." It was into this atmosphere, and with America going to war once more, that McCarthy made his pitch.

One editorial supporting him stated: "Sen. Joe McCarthy fights like a real American. He fights like a truck driver, who faces wind and snow and slippery roads night after night." He was, others said, the "fighting Marine" actually doing something about Communism. O’Brien explains the thinking at the time: "Communists were like rats in the American household. Sometimes you could catch them with strong cheese. At other times, McCarthy found necessary, ‘you have to hit them over the head with a shovel.’"

To an unimportant former Communist who took the Fifth Amendment, McCarthy said: "Let me ask you this question: Julius Rosenberg was convicted of espionage and he has been executed. From your answers here, apparently you were engaged in and still are engaged in the same type of espionage. Do you feel that you should be walking the streets of this country free, or that you should have the same fate as the Rosenbergs?"

However, people in Washington were a lot more uneasy when McCarthy suggested that respected figures were dupes, willing or otherwise, of an immense Communist conspiracy. Having once regarded him as useful, Eisenhower and the Republicans cut him loose. It was Sen. Lyndon Johnson, though, who organized the 67-22 vote against him, and that marked the end.

Without McCarthy and those like him, Herman said, Soviet espionage would have had a much freer hand. However, contrary to the trend pinpointed by the Times, Herman’s biography hasn’t been received enthusiastically on the right. "There’s something in the book to offend everyone," he said. Bringing McCarthy back into the picture complicates the issue for the right. The entire McCarthy episode is "an unpleasant memory for American conservatives," he said.

The period is an even more unpleasant memory for people like Walter Bernstein. "It was a shameful time," he said. "I think a big part of it was to break the left wing of the union movement and they succeeded."

Bernstein, who has worked as a consultant to young scriptwriters in Ireland, remains an unrepentant leftist, regretting only his devotion to the Soviet Union. "We didn’t want to face it," he said of the American Communist view of Soviet reality. He left the party in 1956, the year of Khruschev’s speech acknowledging Stalin’s crimes and the Hungarian uprising.

Schrecker writes in her book that their erstwhile liberal-left allies regarded the Communists as "secretive, authoritarian, opportunistic and insulting." This made it easier for many to be swept along in the anti-Communist crusade during the Cold War and to acquiesce in the legislative abrogation of basic Constitutional guarantees

It was in this atmosphere that hundreds of teachers were fired from New York City schools, for example, and 63 faculty members of the University of California resigned in protest at the requirement of a loyalty oath. O’Brien writes: "States bordering Wisconsin [though not Wisconsin itself] were enveloped in this wave of general hysteria."

It’s evident now that while few of the witch hunt’s targets broke any laws, Hoover’s FBI did repeatedly.

"It’s much easier to point to McCarthy, who was a clearly an alcoholic and bouncing off the walls and say this is an aberration," Schrecker said. "But McCarthy had little to do with it [McCarthyism]."

If McCarthy is a convenient icon of hate for liberals and an inconvenient memory for conservatives, for some voters he’s still, in Herman’s view, the man who wanted to do something about Communism. "They think he was right from beginning to end and they’ve never really given up on him. He was their knight in shining armor," he said.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese