Joseph McCarthy and U.S. Foreign Policy



A consideration of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s role in shaping the direction of American foreign policy during the early years of the Cold War.

The United States emerged from the ruins of World War II as the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Instead of following the isolationist path it had taken in the 1920s, the United States in 1945 sought to exploit its unique position by attempting to construct a world order compatible with enlightened American ideals and receptive to flows of American capital. This Pax Americana did not last very long, though: in 1947 President Truman moved to protect Greece and Turkey from Communist subversion, and the Marshall Plan extended American economic aid to European countries vulnerable to such subversion. By mid-century Americans must have realized that the post-war world was becoming more dangerous, especially considering the “loss” of Eastern Europe and China to Communism and the very real military power of the Soviet Union. The internationalist nature of Communist ideology certainly could not have enhanced America’s sense of security.

Thus, on the eve of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rise to power, the U.S. had become engaged in a cold war to “contain” international Communism and was looking for an explanation for its failure to maintain world order. In a speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, the obscure junior Senator from Wisconsin provided a frightening but plausible answer: the American State Department was staffed with subversives, traitors, and spies. It was no accident that his explanation seemed to be so compatible with the mood of the time, because it was carefully chosen to be so. “The Senator desperately needed a campaign issue. And with a sure instinct for the popular mood, he chose one that became a successful political rallying cry, a potent weapon in the struggle for power — the issue of ‘Communists in government’.” [1]

McCarthyism was not solely created by its namesake; rather, it was something like a latent force within the American mind that was tapped very effectively by a man with demagogic talents. McCarthy did not shape the events of his time to the degree that they helped shape him. There is no doubt that he contributed to the fear that gripped America in the early 1950’s through his singular talents and personality, but he could not have had the impact he did without the aid of the Cold War, the media, and the American party system, at a time when the Republican Party was trying to make an electoral comeback. “‘McCarthy’ and ‘McCarthyism’ did not spring alone and unaided from the fertile imagination of the junior Senator from Wisconsin. They were instead the symptoms of a malfunctioning of the entire political system.” [2]

A natural corollary to this view of McCarthy as more shaped than shaping is that as an individual he had little, if any, independent effect on American foreign policy during or after his brief reign of terror. It is debatable, at best, that “he had an enormous impact on foreign policy at a time when that policy bore heavily on the course of world history, and American diplomacy might bear a different aspect today if McCarthy had never lived.” [3] 

McCarthy was the grandson of immigrants who arrived in this country in the mid-nineteenth century. His parents were simple folk, who sought to make a good life for themselves and their family in rural Wisconsin. He worked hard on the family farm and was generally described by those who knew him as aggressive, daring and extremely popular. He applied these qualities not only to his recreation but to his schoolwork as well. He completed his high school’s curriculum in one year and then went on to Marquette University. [4]

McCarthy was a successful student at Marquette, where he excelled at public speaking and earned a law degree. Just as in high school, he seemed to want to fulfill his responsibilities in record time, and then move onto the next stage of his life. Although he seemed very ambitious, he displayed a tendency to opt for immediate and tangible results. He also betrayed a capacity for bluffing, short-cutting and outright dishonesty. [5]

Thus, at the end of his Marquette career and the beginning of his legal one, he had “only hazy and simplistic historical and philosophical perspectives” while “his interest in and commitment to political thought ran no deeper than the prejudices of [his parents]…personal magnetism was his strongest asset.” [6] In short, Joe McCarthy seemed to have all the qualities of a successful politician in the mass communications age of post-war America. All he had to do was wait for people and events to present him with an opportunity or an issue, and he would exploit it with the dishonesty and lack of restraint that characterized his entire life.

Such an opportunity presented itself when the LaFollette family and the Progressives began to lose their stranglehold on Wisconsin politics and the Republican Party moved in to fill the vacuum. Sensing the strength of the GOP, McCarthy left the Democratic Party and became a Republican prior to his successful candidacy for circuit judge, and in 1946 he captured the Senate seat of Robert La Follette Jr. [7]

Besides running a weak campaign and being the member of a moribund party, La Follette had come under fire from leftists in Wisconsin because of his outspoken anti-Communism. Instead of attacking the Democrat, McCarthy tried to suggest that La Follette was actually a tool of the Communists. On election day, thousands of labor union members in traditional La Follette strongholds decided to vote in the Democratic primary. In the general election against Professor Howard McMurray of the University of Wisconsin, McCarthy would manipulate the natural distrust of intellectuals felt by rural voters by saying that he was just a “farm boy, not a professor.” [8] As Robert Griffith says of him: “He never for an instant denounced ideas; he denounced people!” [9] 

Joe’s venture into national politics paralleled in many ways his experiences on the state level because in Washington, as in Wisconsin, there was the ever present issue of Communism and the dynamics of the party system. He would be motivated by the same goals and employ the same tactics as he had earlier, but on a much larger scale. “From the very beginning Joe was determined to be a major figure in the nation’s capital…and he was determined to shed his obscurity in record time.” [10]

Like La Follette, President Truman found himself besieged from both the left and the right. He also was a tough anti-Communist, committed to the idea of containment, but he and his administration were criticized for being too “soft” on Communism, especially in regard to their Far Eastern policy. Dean Acheson and the State Department bore the brunt of the attack, and they were portrayed as a clique of New Deal liberals who were sabotaging government policy. “At the heart of McCarthy’s power was his mastery of the myths, stereotypes, and slogans created by the Republican attack on America’s ‘failure’ in China,” [11] but “for the most part, he only repeated and rehashed the old charges and accusations…his speeches were loaded with almost every cliché and slogan developed by Republican orators since 1945.” [12] The Korean War and the Alger Hiss case were among the many developments at the beginning of the 1950s that seemed to confirm the ineffectiveness of Truman’s policies and legitimate McCarthy’s attacks. “The Cold War created the context and Truman’s rhetoric and political leadership, the vacuum that made the charges and appeals of McCarthyism not merely viable but persuasive to a great many Americans.” [13]

The point is that the Communist problem and the Communist issue existed in the United States long before McCarthy arrived in Washington, and Americans had a long history of engaging in the type of witch-hunting behavior that he would give his name to. A. Mitchell Palmer had many of the key characteristics of a “McCarthyite,” while the two progressive giants of the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, both came down hard on dissent. Harry Truman was probably as philosophically conservative as any Republican; his Presidency saw the institution of federal loyalty programs and the birth of containment.

But the internationalist Truman Administration made mistakes and the Republicans predictably launched an “internalist” attack, led by McCarthy, contending that America’s problems were due to weakness and subversion in her own government. Of course, this explanation must have been very appealing to someone who refused to believe that America was being honestly challenged by an atheistic regime barely thirty years old. In addition to the fear generated by the Cold War, the imperatives of party politics also helped to create the conditions in which the junior Senator could exert an inordinate amount of influence, or at least give the impression that he was so doing.

Since the pivotal election of 1932, the Republicans had been in the minority, but the end of the war, Truman’s difficulties and a strong showing in the 1950 elections had bolstered their hopes for solid political control. With the coming of the Presidential election year of 1952, their best strategy was to let the Senator from Wisconsin continue his assault on the Democratic administration. In other words, “they were willing to use the malevolent innocence of McCarthy for their own political gain.” [14]

Senate Democrats also did their share in creating the McCarthy phenomenon, by not condemning him, especially after the Tydings Committee in June 1950 denounced him for making false accusations and for perpetrating “a fraud and a hoax.” The most vocal opposition came from members of the Truman Administration; in the Senate, only twelve Democrats spoke out against McCarthy. One reason for the reluctance was that Dean Acheson was not very well liked in the Senate, especially by Southern conservatives in the Democratic Party. [15] The more important reason, though, was fear of tampering with a very explosive issue, which could mean electoral disaster. Democrats preferred to ignore the Wisconsin Senator, hoping that he would just fade away. [16]

Because of his political ambitions, unrestrained personality, and love of the limelight, McCarthy had come to identify himself so thoroughly with the Communist issue that an attack on him would at least seem to be a sign of weakness on that issue. If one was a Republican, this would mean depriving oneself of a very effective campaign tool. If one happened to be a Democrat, it could bring suspicion and almost certain defeat at the polls. This is what apparently happened to McCarthy’s most visible Democratic opponent, Millard Tydings, who went down to defeat in 1950, along with many other Democrats. McCarthy’s independent effect on the elections is considered elusive — local politics and general disaffection with Truman played large roles — but he was perceived at the time to be the singular cause of Democratic misfortune, due in no small part to the enormous publicity he was receiving.

After the GOP capture of the Presidency and the Congress in 1952, it would seem that McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade was complete, and he would get down to some serious legislative work. Rather, from his chairs on the Committee on Government Operations and the more important Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he renewed the attack on “Communists in government,” targeting larger, more challenging game. In late 1953 he even went after the Eisenhower Administration itself by delivering a sharply critical televised speech that was described as “a declaration of war against the President.” [17] 

Although Eisenhower tried to remain personally uninvolved, he and the Republican Party knew that they would soon have to confront the McCarthy menace. Their worst fears were confirmed when on March 11, 1954, the United States Army accused McCarthy of seeking preferential treatment for one of his “chief consultants,” G. David Schine, after McCarthy had sought to gain access to their confidential loyalty files. McCarthy then responded by charging that the army was “coddling Communists.” During the hearings that followed, he was as vituperative as ever and he purposefully interrupted the proceedings with frequent points of “order.” By June, both the army and McCarthy moved to end the hopeless melodrama. [18]

But McCarthy did not escape the hearings unscathed. First, he had a definite fall from public favor, especially in his home state, because of the televised hearings. Second, many moderate Republican Senators began to feel that he was actually becoming an electoral liability for the party. Third, a resolution was initiated that would ultimately lead to his censure. And finally, the members of the “McCarthy subcommittee,” aided by Republican defections, rebelled against its chairman and refused to acquiesce to any of his further demands.[19]

Many Republicans weren’t immediately aware of the monster they were helping to create, but by 1954, most of them probably realized that McCarthy was not in the least bit concerned with the unity or health of their party. Instead, he had “recklessly exaggerated fairly standard and usually carefully calculated rightwing political rhetoric.” [20] On December 2, 1954, twenty-two Republicans joined with the Senate Democrats in condemning him. The Senator who initiated the resolution and the chairman of the committee who recommended censure were both Republicans. President Eisenhower also broke his silence on the issue and publicly denounced him. Henceforth he would be ignored by his Senate colleagues and rendered impotent within the Senate chamber. He would not survive the psychological blow.

The fact is that McCarthy could have and should have been confronted much earlier than 1954, but because of Democratic fear and Republican lack of will, he was allowed to run rampant in the Senate. His potential for power was enormous because he had come to identify himself so thoroughly with such a popular issue. As always, though, he wanted too much, too soon. Instead of accumulating power slowly over time, he tried to conquer Washington and the “Eastern Establishment” with one sensational thrust. His power “was not a question of direct and effective influence over the internal processes of the Senate; this was never great. What was the issue was his role as a compelling personal symbol of Republican anticommunism.” [21]

McCarthy’s power rested on what Robert Griffith calls a “balance.” He was balanced between the two parties and between two branches of government: the Republicans wanted him as a weapon against the Democrats; Congress wanted him as a weapon against the Executive; and Majority Leader Robert Taft, who battled Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1951, wanted him as a weapon against the Chief Executive. He couldn’t be ignored, but when everyone saw that the Wisconsin Senator was working for no one but himself, he had to be discarded.

It is important to note that when the Senate voted to censure McCarthy, it was indicting his behavior, not his ideas. He was censured for violating Senate tradition and procedure, not civil liberties. Even while the Senate was condemning McCarthy, it was also busy passing the Communist Control Act of 1954, and a host of other anti-subversive bills “broad enough to endanger the civil liberties of all Americans.” [22] In recommending censure, the Watkins Committee was careful to separate the person of Joseph McCarthy from the anti-Communist consensus with which he had protected himself for so long. They agreed that he had brought the Senate into disrepute, but the Senate “would not, and given the circumstances probably could not, address itself to the nervous assumptions of the post-war decade.” [23]

So, while it is true that at the height of the “Second Red Scare,” McCarthy was often able to get his way within the Senate chamber, “his contemporaries exaggerated his personal grip on the American political pulse, for he was as much the product of events as their shaper. Though McCarthy was a formidable figure, it was the broader contingencies of partisan politics and the exigencies of world developments which ignited the flame of prominence in 1950 and, shifting in 1954, snuffed it.” [24]

It is difficult to accept the notion of McCarthy as some sort of prime mover. He did manage to have certain “leftist” books removed from the State Department’s overseas information libraries and, in 1952, he contended that he had managed to strike a deal with some Greek ship owners to stop trading with Communist China and North Korea. Along with other conservative Republicans, he also tried — unsuccessfully — to block the appointment of Charles Bohlen as ambassador to the Soviet Union, because they believed Bohlen had played a part in the “Yalta Betrayal.” But McCarthy’s role in foreign affairs must be seen as extremely minimal, and as not altering the fundamental assumptions or patterns of behavior that had characterized American foreign policy since the Truman Doctrine was declared.

When he attacked President Eisenhower, even the “bitter-enders” tried to disengage themselves from him. When he recklessly threatened the very basis of American power — the army — he was checked. When he made a mockery of Senate procedures and abused his very fragile Senatorial position, he was emasculated by that institution. The limits of his power become even more clear in light of the post-New Deal growth of executive government at the expense of a Congress hampered by careerism, decentralization, and lack of coherence. A careerist like McCarthy should have forced the Senate to recognize and remedy its inability to assert its will as a collective body, and this might have avoided dire consequences in Southeast Asia a decade later.

However, there is no denying the fact that he did strike a responsive chord in the American psyche. The Cold War created the feelings of tension and uncertainty that he would exploit, mostly because he had no ideas of his own on which to base and legitimate political power. He was a symptom, not the cause, of what one might call America’s post-war predicament: a country psychologically ill prepared to deal with the complexity and brutality of its new found position of power in the world. “Had he never made that speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, had his name never become a household word, what people came to call ‘McCarthyism’ would nevertheless have characterized American politics at the mid-century.” [25]


[1] Reinhard Luthin in The Meaning of McCarthyism, Earl Latham ed. (D.C. Heath and Company, Boston, 1965), p. 4

[2] Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (University of Kentucky Press,Lexington, 1970), p. 116

[3] Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (Harcourt, Brace, and World, New York, 1959), p. 5

[4] Thomas Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (Stein and Day, New York, 1982), pp. 1-10

[5] Ibid, pp. 11-17

[6] Ibid, p. 18

[7] Luthin, p. 2

[8] Ibid, p. 3

[9] Griffith, p. 132

[10] Reeves, p. 110

[11] Griffith, p. 142 

[12] Ibid, p. 133

[13] Athan Theoharis, Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism (Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1971), p. ix

[14] Reeves, p. 426

[15] Griffith, p. 105

[16] Ibid, p. 106

[17] Ibid, p. 220

[18] Ibid, p. 263

[19] Ibid, pp. 263-269

[20] Reeves, p. 229

[21] Griffith, p. 198

[22] Ibid, pp. 291-292

[23] Ibid, p. 298

[24] Richard Fried, Men Against McCarthy (Columbia University Press, New York, 1976), p.315

[25] Robert Griffith in A History of Our Time: Readings on Post-War America, William Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff eds, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1983), p. 57 


Cook, Fred, The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy. Random House, New York, 1971.

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