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Rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy detailed in PBS documentary

After a sudden, sharp rise, built on lies and demagoguery, from backbencher to one of the most prominent political figures in America, McCarthy’s fall was even more sudden.

Joseph McCarthy

The oft-told tale of the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy will be told again by PBS’ great “American Experience” series Monday night (8 p.m. CT on KTCA and other local PBS stations). But in the Age of Trump, it’s hard not to watch it for clues and harbingers.

After a sudden, sharp rise, built on lies and demagoguery, from backbencher to one of the most prominent political figures in America, McCarthy’s fall was even more sudden. Donald Trump, also a liar and a demagogue, has risen much higher, and has defied gravity for going-on four years and counting. His charms are lost on me, and I find myself somewhat baffled by his enduring appeal to a big enough minority of Americans to sustain his hold on power, not only over his base but over almost the entirety of the Republican establishment. That is something McCarthy never accomplished.

I don’t know what lines can be drawn from the case of one demagogue to the other. I don’t know how the Trump tale ends. So I’ll just encourage you to watch and refresh your memory of McCarthy’s rise and fall and draw your own parallels, and I won’t mention Trump again in this post — except to start the tale by noting that, like Trump, McCarthy started out as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party to advance his political career, but unlike Trump, McCarthy was self-made; he served in the military and fought in World War II.

The documentary relies on the expertise of many great historians, including Timothy Naftali, who says on camera: “There are moments in American history when the country is afraid, when there is a threat that seems hard to defeat, and it is in those moments that demagogues arise. … We don’t always show the best of ourselves when we’re afraid. McCarthy tested the system, and the institutions that should have stopped him, didn’t, for a while.”

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McCarthy was born poor, developed high ambitions early, got himself through college and law school and was elected a Wisconsin state judge, a job he quit to join the Air Force after Pearl Harbor. 

He later called himself “Tail-Gunner Joe,” which exaggerates his military career. He hurt his leg falling off a ladder, but spent the rest of his life claiming to have been wounded in battle. He came home, became a Republican, and ran for the Senate in 1946 as “Tail Gunner.” His issue then was not anti-Communism (he had shown no interest in that issue up to that point) but too much bureaucracy in Washington. He rode a national Republican wave to win.

To that point in his public life, he had shown no elevated interest in the Communist threat. Late in his first term, struggling to be noticed, with anti-Communism a rising issue in national politics, he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he claimed to hold in his hand a list of Communists working in the State Department. He didn’t show anyone the list. He never did. But he got noticed, as he never had before, so he kept it up.

He often claimed to have a list of Communists serving in the U.S. government. The historians agree that he had no list. He sometimes said he knew of 75 Communists, which he never proved. But, also, as historian Sam Tannenhaus says in the film, even if there were 75, the question of how big a threat they might have posed would “depend on who they were and what they were doing.” But in the hysteria of the moment, that wasn’t the focus.

And, although McCarthy’s more senior colleagues neither liked nor believed him, they mostly stood silent or associated themselves in less prominent ways with the red scare.

The famous exception was Sen.  Margaret Chase, Republican of Maine, the only woman in the Senate at the time (and the first woman ever elected to the Senate without having been appointed to it first.) From the Senate floor, Smith announced a “declaration of conscience” in which she warned against those who, in the heat of the moment, might forget some of the “basic principles of Americanism,” including the right of “independent thought.”

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The PBS film didn’t spend much time on Smith’s statement, but it was so great that I’ll quote a bit more of it and then link to the whole statement. Said Smith:

 Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism (which includes):

  • The right to criticize;
  • The right to hold unpopular beliefs;
  • The right to protest;
  • The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn’t? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.

The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascist’” by their opponents.

The full Smith statement is here.

The expansion of Communist control across Eastern Europe and then the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, which was a war against Communist aggression in which the U.S. took a leading role, and the high-profile prosecutions of scientists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (who were Communists) for leaking U.S. nuclear research to the Soviets all added to the wind of hysteria at McCarthy’s back. 

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On the other hand, McCarthy’s attack on one of his Senate critics (Millard Tydings), using fake evidence to portray Tydings as a Commie sympathizer, or even agent, also undermined him within the Senate.

According to the film, the movement among Republicans to draft General Dwight D. Eisenhower as their 1952 started with Republican moderates, who disliked McCarthy and believed Eisenhower would help pry the party from his grip.

It was clear that McCarthy’s credibility was disappearing, but he didn’t get the hint. When the Democrats nominated liberal Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson to run against Eisenhower, McCarthy publicly referred to Stevenson as “Alger … I mean Adlai.” (If you don’t get the reference, Alger Hiss, who had worked for both the State Department and the United Nations, was suspected of spying for the Soviets. He went to prison for three years for perjury related to the case. The underlying espionage allegation was never proven nor disproven, and Hiss was not tried on that charge because the statute of limitations had expired. But McCarthy laughed as he made the “Alger” reference in referring to Stevenson, making clear that the slip of the tongue was a purposeful effort to slime Stevenson as a commie symp.)

Edward R. Murrow, a legendary World War II radio reporter who became an early star of TV journalism, used his show to attack McCarthy and urge his audience not to “confuse dissent with disloyalty” to America.

By 1954, McCarthy’s standing had sunk so low that a motion to censure him passed by a Senate vote of 67-22, with all Democrats and half of Republicans voting aye. Historian Jelani Cobb says in the film: “McCarthy would tell a lie, and by the time you’d responded to it, he’d told three others.”

Later, referring to the censure vote, Cobb adds: “By 1954, it’s very difficult to pretend that McCarthy is anything other than what he is. … There’s a kind of recognition across party lines that McCarthy is a demagogue, and is bad for the country.”

McCarthy and McCarthyism were broken by the censure vote. The sitting president of his own party said, “McCarthyism is now McCarthywasm.”

McCarthy died in 1957, from complications of hepatitis and, here’s an amazing final fact, he was only 48.