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Joseph McCarthy

U.S. Senator known for "exposing Communists"

Joseph McCarthy

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born on a farm near Appleton, Wisconin, on November 14, 1908, the fifth of nine children. He dropped out of school at the age of fourteen, but resumed his education at the high school in Manawa, Wisconsin, at age nineteen, and graduated with a law degree from Marquette University in 1935. He practiced law in Waupaca and then Shawano, Wisconsin, until being elected Judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Wisconsin in 1939; he assumed the bench in 1940.

McCarthy left the bench in 1942 in order to enlist in the U.S. Marines, and subsequently served as a gunner-observer in the Pacific Theater. He campaigned for the Republican Senate nomination in Wisconsin while still on active duty in 1944, but was defeated by incumbent Alexander Wiley. In 1945 he won re-election to his Circuit Court position, and he resigned his commission in April of that year.

In 1946 McCarthy made another bid for the Republican Senate nomination, this time against Robert La Follette, Jr., son of former Wisconsin Governor and Senator Robert La Follette, Sr. During the campaign McCarthy derided La Follette's lack of military service during the war and charged that he had profited from several investments as a result of the war. Although both charges were grossly exagerated (La Follette was in his mid-40's when the war began and his war-time profits were roughly equal to those earned by McCarthy's investments), they swayed just enough voters to give McCarthy the nomination; he went on to win the general election, and took his seat in the U.S. Senate on January 3, 1947.

McCarthy's first three years in the Senate passed with little notice. He was popular in Washington social circles, but was all but shunned by his fellow Senators. He began getting national notice with a speech before the Ohio County Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, in which he claimed to have a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party who were “working and shaping policy” in the State Department. The next month, a Senate subcommittee launched an investigation and found no proof of any subversive activity. Despite McCarthy being unable to provide any proof that anyone on his supposed list was a Communist, his charge that the government was in danger of Communist infiltration inflamed enough Wisconsin voters to get him re-elected in 1952.

After being sworn in for his second term, in 1953, McCarthy was put in charge of the Committee on Government Operations, which allowed him to launch even more expansive investigations of the alleged communist infiltration of the federal government. In hearing after hearing, he aggressively interrogated witnesses, many of whom were openly threatened with reprisals if they failed to either admit to being a Communist or to name other persons who expressed sympathy toward Communism. Despite a lack of any proof of subversion, more than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy’s investigations. McCarthy also investigated suspected Communist influences in Hollywood and the media.

McCarthy's campaign against Communism in America initially earned him many admirers, but that admiration waned as the hearings failed to produce any credible evidence of Communist infiltration into the federal government. His star began to fall rapidly in 1954 as a result of a sensational, nationally televised, 36-day hearing on his charges of subversion by U.S. Army officers and civilian officials. McCarthy lost his committee chairmanship after the Republicans lost control of the Senate in the midterm elections in November 1954, and on December 2, 1954, a censure motion condemning his conduct was passed by a vote of 67 to 22.

McCarthy remained in the Senate after his censure, but was all but ignored by his colleagues. Known as a heavy drinker, he died of cirrhosis of the liver at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on May 2, 1957. Subdued funeral services were held in the Chamber of the United States Senate, and interment was at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was survived by his wife, Jean Fraser Kerr Minetti (whom he had married in 1953), and an infant daughter, Tierney Elizabeth, whom the couple had adopted just four months prior.

Senator McCarthy's coffin is carried from the Senate by a detachment of Marines after his funeral service
funeral of Joseph McCarthy

Senator and Mrs. McCarthy hold adopted daughter Tierney Elizabeth
Senator and Mrs. McCarthy with adopted daughter Tierney

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
The Cold War Museum
Encylopædia Britannica

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This page was last updated on June 11, 2018.