November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
The Demagogue’s Downfall
On December 2, by a majority of 67 to 22, the U.S. Senate voted to condemn Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, for conduct “contrary to senatorial ethics.” The act brought to a close a national drama lasting nearly five years, during which McCarthy had made reckless and far-reaching accusations of Communist influence in just about every area of American life.
In 1950, when McCarthy suddenly came to prominence, most Americans were deeply worried by Communism, a fear reinforced almost daily by world events. Earlier exposures of Communist agents in and out of the government made McCarthy’s allegations sound plausible, and although his numbers and details kept changing, the senator was a master at dredging up fresh outrages. Some of the people McCarthy accused were genuinely guilty, but eventually his highhandedness, his carelessness with facts, his habit of making charges based on little or no evidence, and the crudeness and monotony of his tactics turned many of his early supporters against him.
The final straw came with the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954. McCarthy had made accusations of the usual sort against some Army officers who had defied him or his chief counsel, Roy Cohn. In a series of nationally televised hearings, the Army’s lawyer, Joseph N. Welch, expertly demolished McCarthy and Cohn’s case. By the end of the hearings a majority of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of McCarthy.
Still, the decision to condemn him was far from easy. The wording of the resolution had to be watered down considerably to get it past McCarthy’s hard core of supporters and the lame-duck Republican majority. Senators were still squeamish about looking soft on Communism, so they condemned McCarthy only for his disrespect of other senators who were investigating him, not for his anti-Communist activities. Yet even this mild slap on the wrist was a turning point.
McCarthy affected to shrug off the vote. After all, he had taken severe criticism in the past and managed to stay popular with his strong and simple message. Just as important as the condemnation, however, was the outcome of the November elections, which had given the Democrats control of the Senate. This meant McCarthy would no longer be chairman of his Communist-hunting subcommittee and thus would have no authority to call hearings or issue subpoenas. Deprived of this platform, McCarthy began drinking even more heavily than usual, and on May 2, 1957, he died of liver failure at the age of 48.