On May 2nd 1957, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, succumbed to illness exacerbated by alcoholism, and died at age 48. McCarthy had been a key figure in the anticommunist hysteria popularly known as the “Red Scare” that engulfed the United States in the years following World War II.
McCarthy was born on November 12th 1908 on a farm in the town of Grand Chute, Wisconsin, near Appleton, the fifth of seven children. In 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, McCarthy was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps, despite the fact that his judicial office exempted him from compulsory service.
His education qualified him for an automatic commission as an officer, and he became a second lieutenant after completing basic training. He served as an intelligence briefing officer for a dive bomber squadron in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. McCarthy reportedly chose the Marines with the hope that being a veteran of this branch of the military would serve him best in his future political career.
He returned home in 1944 to start his career in politics. In that year, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Undaunted, in 1946 McCarthy challenged the popular Senator Robert LaFollette in the Republican primary. Utilising the aggressive attacking style that would later make him famous, McCarthy upset the over-confident LaFollette and won the general election to become the junior senator from Wisconsin.
McCarthy’s early career in the Senate was unremarkable, to say the least. In 1950, desperate for an issue he could use to bolster his chances for re-election, McCarthy took some of his advisors’ suggestion and turned to the issue of communists in the United States. Although he knew few details about the subject, McCarthy quickly embraced the issue.
In February 1950 he stunned an audience with the declaration that there were over 200 “known communists” in the Department of State. Over the next four years, McCarthy became the most famous (and feared) “Red-hunter” in the United States. Combining a flair for the dramatic with a penchant for wild and reckless charges, McCarthy was soon ruining careers, cowing opponents into silence, and titillating the American public with his accusations of communism. In all of the hysteria, however, few noticed that McCarthy never uncovered a single communist, in or out of the U.S. government.
The term McCarthyism was coined in 1950, in reference to McCarthy’s practices, and was soon applied to similar anti-communist activities. Today the term is used more generally in reference to demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character and/or patriotism of political opponents.
In 1954, with his political fortunes beginning to ebb, McCarthy seriously overreached himself when he charged that the U.S. Army was “soft on communists.” In the famous televised Army-McCarthy hearings of that year, the American public got a first-hand view of McCarthy’s bullying and recklessness. The hearings destroyed McCarthy’s credibility and, though he continued to hold office, effectively ended his power in the Senate. During the next few years, the senator turned increasingly to alcohol to relieve his frustrations. In 1957, he was hospitalised, suffering from numerous ailments all exacerbated by cirrhosis of the liver. Senator Joseph McCarthy died in Bethesda, Maryland, and was buried in his home state of Wisconsin.