He was an ambitious young man. And judging by his accomplishements at Marquette University in Milwaukee where he was elected president of his law school class, he was intelligent. He earned his law degree in 1935, and at the age of 30 became a circuit judge in Wisconsin’s Tenth Judicial Circuit. WWII interrupted his career and in July 1942 he joined the Marines as a first lieutenant .
He was also an ehtically challenged opportunist. In the midst of the war years he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, and ran for a seat iin the U.S. Senate. He lost that election but in 1946 his second run was successful. Joseph McCarthy was the youngest member of the Senate.
The two primary pillars of his campaign were his legal career, and his military service. In several interviews he talked about combat experiences and his wounds. These would be the ghost of Christmas future. McCarthy was not a wounded combat veteran.
During his first term in office McCarthy toiled in relative obscurity. But McCarthy was a man that craved the spotlight. In 1950, during his second term in office, McCarthy had a moment of devious inspiration. It changed his career, and America.
In 1950 the Republican Party offered elected officials to Lincoln’s birthday event organizers. McCarthy was assigned to speak at the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club, in Wheeling, West Virginia.
McCarthy had scrawled some notes for a couple of speeches and gathered a few press clippings, but he had no speech prepared. The buzz of conversation at the gathering before his speech sparked an idea. People were anxious and concerned about the rise of the Soviet Union, and the threat of communisim. And so soon after taking the stage, he waved a piece of paper with a flourish, and in the best imitation of a fire and brimstone preacher, claimed that he had a list on which were the names of two hundred and five Communists that were working in the State Department. It was a bluff, there wasn’t a list.
But he he had tapped into a national anxiety. The Associated Press covered McCarthy’s speech, and a spark became a wildfire that he was glad to fan. Intoxicated by the coverage he had received, he gave into his ego and in Reno, Nevada gave a similar speech. But this time he claimed that the paper he was waving had even more names.
He had grabbed the spotlight and wasn’t about to let it go. Eager to grab a share of the limelight, to garner votes, or to sell newspapers, journalists, elected officials, and patriotic Americans jumped on McCarthy’s bandwagon. The hunt for communists was underway.
The Korean War and growing concerns about communist activity in China and Eastern Europe provided fertile soil for McCarthy’s crusade.He wrapped himself in the flag, and vocally cast himself as a patriot. Like a schoolyard bully McCarthy called detractors that pointed out that he was unable to prove his claims, and that he was using the powers of government to trample civil liberties, derogatory names. He claimed they were on a witch hunt.
Before a nationally televised, 36-day hearing in 1954 that clearly showed the American people that McCarthy was a ruthless demagogue, his crusade damaged and destroyed countless careers, friendships, and marriages. It was a dark time in American history, but this too is our national story.
History is not to be sensored, and it is not to be used to establish victimhood or justify prejudices. If we have wisdom, it is to be used as a lesson. If we have knowledge, history illustrates a nations progress, and how far we have to go if we are to fulfill the lofty ideals enshrined in founding documents.