Skip to main content

1950 Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

Moscow’s Best Friend

On February 9, in Wheeling, West Virginia, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin delivered a Lincoln Day address to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club. In the wake of several recent spy scandals, and with just-announced plans for a hydrogen bomb ratcheting up public fears, McCarthy bitterly denounced the Democrats’ conduct of the Cold War, which had been compromised, he said, by Soviet sympathizers in the government. The high point of the speech came when he brandished a sheet of paper and said it contained the names of 205 Communists in the State Department.

In a typical McCarthy tactic, his allegations straddled the line between wild exaggeration and outright fabrication. The figure he quoted was based on a letter that Secretary of State James Byrnes had written back in July 1946. Byrnes’s letter said that investigators had screened 3,000 job applicants and employees of wartime agencies transferred to the State Department, gotten adverse recommendations against 285 of them, and terminated 79. By subtraction McCarthy came up with a total of 206 potentially disloyal employees, which somehow became 205 when he delivered his Wheeling speech. His three-and-a-half-year-old figure included many who had later left the department or been cleared; in fact, less than a third of the group he cited were still employed at the State Department. And notwithstanding his theatrical flourish, he did not have a list of their names but merely a set of totals.

Over the next few days McCarthy revised his count, now claiming to have evidence of 57 “card-carrying Communists” in the State Department. The figure of 57 came from a different document, a list of potential State Department security risks drawn up in 1948 by a congressional investigator. McCarthy refused to reveal their names—ostensibly to protect their rights but actually because he had no names, just case numbers. As he had done with the group of 205, he made no distinction between accusation and proof or between Communist sympathizers and enrolled party members. Nor did he take care to learn that 35 of the 57 had been cleared since the report was compiled.

At first McCarthy’s claims received only moderate attention. One survey of 129 newspapers has found that only 18 mentioned the Wheeling speech on February 10. Twelve of those 18 were in Wisconsin. For another week the story limped along uncertainly. Then, on February 20, in a marathon Senate session, McCarthy read 81 numbered case histories of purported Communist sympathizers. Once again he had no names, and none of his cases involved actual members of the Communist party, card-carrying or otherwise. Nonetheless, his performance threw Congress and the nation into an uproar and instantly made him the nation’s leading Red-baiter.

Over the next four years, McCarthy grew ever more powerful and arrogant. He ruined many lives before he was done, but worst of all, his overreaching made people associate even careful, legitimate anti-Communism with the taint of lunacy. In this way, he bore out President Harry S. Truman’s assessment of his clumsy witch-hunt as “the greatest asset that the Kremlin has.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.