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Joseph Raymond McCarthy

McCarthy, Joseph Raymond, 1908–57, U.S. senator from Wisconsin (1947–57), b. near Appleton, Wis. He practiced law in Wisconsin and became (1940) a circuit judge. He served with the U.S. marines in the Pacific in World War II, achieving the rank of captain. In 1946, McCarthy defeated Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., for the Republican senatorial nomination and then overwhelmed his Democratic opponent in the election. His career in the Senate was undistinguished and obscure until Feb., 1950, when he won national attention with a speech at Wheeling, W.Va., in which he charged that the State Dept. had been infiltrated by Communists. Although a Senate investigating committee under Millard Tydings exonerated the State Dept. and branded the charges a fraud and a hoax, McCarthy repeated his claims in a series of radio and television appearances. Challenged to produce his evidence, he refused and instead made new accusations. When the Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1953, McCarthy, who had been reelected in 1952, became chairman of the Senate permanent investigations subcommittee (Government Operations Committee), a post in which he wielded great power; he used his position to exploit the public's fear of Communism.

Through widely publicized hearings, the use of unidentified informers, and reckless accusation, McCarthy doggedly pursued those whom he classified as Communists and subversives. Careers were ruined on the flimsiest evidence, and his methods came under increasing attack by the press and his colleagues. In Apr., 1954, McCarthy accused Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens and his aides of attempting to conceal evidence of espionage activities that McCarthy and his staff had allegedly uncovered at Fort Monmouth, N.J. The army, in turn, accused McCarthy, his chief counsel, and a staff member of seeking by improper means to obtain preferential treatment for a former consultant to the subcommittee, then a private in the army. After widely publicized hearings McCarthy and his aides were cleared (Aug., 1954) of the army's charges. However, in December the Senate, acting on a motion of censure against him, voted to "condemn" McCarthy for contempt of a Senate elections subcommittee that had investigated his conduct and financial affairs in 1952, for abuse of certain senators, and for insults to the Senate itself during the censure proceedings. After this rebuke, and with the Democrats again in control of Congress after the 1954 elections, McCarthy's influence in the Senate and on the national scene steadily diminished until his death. McCarthy's indiscriminate attacks gave rise to the term "McCarthyism," which denotes similar assaults characterized by sensationalist tactics and unsubstantiated accusations.

See biographies T. C. Reeves (1982, repr. 1997) and D. Oshinsky (1983); studies by R. H. Rovere (1960, repr. 1973), M. P. Rogin (1967), A. J. Matusow (1970), R. Griffith (1970), F. J. Cook (1971), R. Feuerlicht (1972), R. Goldston (1973), D Oshinsky (1973), T. C. Reeves (1982, repr. 1989), M. Landis (1987), E. W. Schrecker (1988), and A. Herman (1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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