Periodically American society has been gripped by fear, and its responses have not done credit to its democratic nature. In this century the Red Scare following World War I (see Document 43) saw hundreds of innocent aliens rounded up, imprisoned and deported, for no reason other than fear of their allegedly radical ideas. The Cold War unleashed another Red Scare in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But where there had been no great alien menace in 1919, communism did exist and did pose a danger to western democracy in the post-World War II era.

The hunt for subversives started during the war itself, and was furthered by congressional committees that often abused their powers of investigation to harass people with whom they differed politically. Then in February 1950, an undistinguished, first-term Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, burst into national prominence when, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, he held up a piece of paper that he claimed was a list of 205 known communists currently working in the State Department. McCarthy never produced documentation for a single one of his charges, but for the next four years he exploited an issue that he realized had touched a nerve in the American public.

He and his aides, Roy Cohn and David Schine, made wild accusations, browbeat witnesses, destroyed reputations and threw mud at men like George Marshall, Adlai Stevenson, and others whom McCarthy charged were part of an effete "eastern establishment." For several years, McCarthy terrorized American public life, and even Dwight Eisenhower, who detested McCarthy, was afraid to stand up to him. Finally, however, the senator from Wisconsin over-reached himself.

In January 1954, in what were to be the first televised hearings in American history, McCarthy obliquely attacked President Eisenhower and directly assaulted Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens. Day after day the public watched McCarthy in action -- bullying, harassing, never producing any hard evidence, and his support among people who thought he was "right" on communism began to evaporate. Americans regained their senses, and the Red Scare finally began to wane. By the end of the year, the Senate decided that its own honor could no longer put up with McCarthy's abuse of his legislative powers, and it censured him in December by a vote of 65 to 22.

For further reading: Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (1959); Stanley Kutler, The American Inquisition (1982); Thomas C. Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (1982).


Resolved, That the Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy, failed to cooperate with the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration in clearing up matters referred to that subcommittee which concerned his conduct as a Senator and affected the honor of the Senate and, instead, repeatedly abused the subcommittee and its members who were trying to carry out assigned duties, thereby obstructing the constitutional processes of the Senate, and that this conduct of the Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy, is contrary to senatorial traditions and is hereby condemned.

Sec 2. The Senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy, in writing to the chairman of the Select Committee to Study Censure Charges (Mr. Watkins) after the Select Committee had issued its report and before the report was presented to the Senate charging three members of the Select Committee with "deliberate deception" and "fraud" for failure to disqualify themselves; in stating to the press on November 4, 1954, that the special Senate session that was to begin November 8, 1954, was a "lynch-party"; in repeatedly describing this special Senate session as a "lynch bee" in a nationwide television and radio show on November 7, 1954; in stating to the public press on November 13, 1954, that the chairman of the Select Committee (Mr. Watkins) was guilty of "the most unusual, most cowardly things I've ever heard of" and stating further: "I expected he would be afraid to answer the questions, but didn't think he'd be stupid enough to make a public statement"; and in characterizing the said committee as the "unwitting handmaiden," "involuntary agent" and "attorneys-in-fact" of the Communist Party and in charging that the said committee in writing its report "imitated Communist methods -- that it distorted, misrepresented, and omitted in its effort to manufacture a plausible rationalization" in support of its recommendations to the Senate, which characterizations and charges were contained in a statement released to the press and inserted in the Congressional Record of November 10, 1954, acted contrary to senatorial ethics and tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, to obstruct the constitutional processes of the Senate, and to impair its dignity; and such conduct is hereby condemned.

Source: 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Resolution 301 (2 December 1954).

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