A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

The Internal Communist
Menace (1950)

Joseph R. McCarthy

While the debate about the deeper causes of the Second Red Scare continues— whether it was a mass movement rooted in the status resentments of lowermiddle-class and working-class Americans or whether it was the result of the actions (and inactions) of both conservative and liberal political elites and interest groups—few historians doubt that Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy did more than any other individual to turn the fear of internal communism into a national hysteria. His name still stirs violent emotions in those who lived through that turbulent period. The words McCarthyism and McCarthyite have become a part of our language.

McCarthy had floundered through four years in the Senate and was desperately searching for a winning reelection issue when he appeared before the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. Following the lead of other Republican politicians, and adding his own hyperbole, McCarthy blamed American reverses in the world not on the Soviet Union but on Democratic traitors. He claimed to have a list of 205 communist spies in Truman’s State Department. When later challenged to produce the evidence for his charges, McCarthy changed his accusation to “bad risks” and lowered the number to fifty-seven. The excerpt below is from the revised speech that McCarthy introduced into the Congressional Record on February 20, 1950.

In fact, McCarthy had no list at all. But that did not matter. In an atmosphere charged by the Truman administration’s own campaign against subversion, by the communist victory in China and the successful explosion of an A-bomb by the Soviet Union, by the Hiss-Chambers confrontations, and very soon by the arrest of the Rosenbergs as atomic spies and the outbreak of war in Korea, Joe McCarthy had an issue that dominated news headlines and the Republican party had a potent weapon to pummel Democrats.

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