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by William H. Benson

July 29, 1999

     A dog which decides to bite its own hindquarters runs in a circle until it finally drops exhausted, even though you would think it knows better.  History contains examples of this strange behavior–the Spanish Inquistion, the Salem witch trials, Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution, and 45 years ago America endured the Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy.

     To grab headlines, to intimidate both the weak and the powerful, and to deliberately stir up trouble, no one did it better than McCarthy.  The Cold War atmosphere was one of suspicion and of frustration.  In 1949 China fell to the Communists.  The Korean War ended in a stalemate.  Karl Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg delivered the Atomic Bomb’s secret to the Soviet Union.  Communism held Eastern Europe in a tight grip.  A preposterus conspiracy theory that the federal government was rife with spies and about to take over the world terrified the citizens.

     Into this fear-filled environment strode Joseph McCarthy.  One of his favorite tactics was to wave a document, announcing “I have in my hand” a list, usually furnished confidentially by some patriot in the government, “whose name I shall never reveal,” containing the name to ten, fifty, or two hundred “card-carrying Communists in the Department of State.”  However, audiences were never given a chance to look at the list.

     He accused by name hundreds of government and college employees, businessmen, and even ministers of being communists or soft on communism, and their characters were tainted.  Samuel Eliot Morrison, the historian, wrote, “Actually, not one of the hundreds of ‘subversives’ accused by McCarthy as being in the state department was found guilty after investigation or trial.”

     McCarthy was cruel.  He was greedy.  He relished the power and the hurt his accusations produced.  People jumped.  He did nothing for his state.  He was one of the most colossal liars in our nation’s history, for he did not believe the things he was saying.  Un-truths and half-truths spread like wildfire about him.  According to Morrison, nobody who did not live through the early 1950’s will ever believe what a storm and a fury McCarthyism unleashed.

     Truman fought back when accused of hiring communists.  Young politicians like JFK hedged.  But President Eisenhower wavered saying, “I won’t get in the gutter with that guy!”  Truman later criticized Ike when he wrote, “I think the ugliest and dumbest thing that Eisenhower did . . . was the cowardly way he ducked the whole question of McCarthyism even when good, decent people around him were being hurt more and more by that awful and horrible man.”

     Finally, McCarthy accused the Army of communist infiltration, and the Army fought back.  The Senate hearings in April, May, and June of 1954 were televised, and McCarthy came across as an ignorant bully.  At one point he even accused the Army’s legal team of hiring communists.  The Army’s attorney asked, “Senator, have you no decency?”  Public support for McCarthy’s purge and his spectacular demagoguery melted away.

     On July 30, 1954 the Senate introduced a resolution against Senator McCarthy for conduct unbecoming a Senator, and in December the Senate voted to condemn the Wisconsin Senator.  With his power stripped from him and thoroughly discredited, his witch hunt ended.


      But what about all those he had ruined–what of their lives and careers?  I am sure they never forgot McCarthy’s stinging accusation, for emotion is the glue that causes memory to stick.  As for McCarthy, three years after the Army hearings in 1957 at the age of 48, like a tragic Shakespearean character, he dropped dead.  The dog released its bite on its own haunches and it dropped exhausted by the wasted effort.