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How McCarthyism Worked


The Rise of Joseph McCarthy
On May 5, 2003, associate U.S. Senate historian Dr. Donald Richie speaks at a media conference on the release of McCarthy era records.
On May 5, 2003, associate U.S. Senate historian Dr. Donald Richie speaks at a media conference on the release of McCarthy era records.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Born in Wisconsin in 1908, Joseph Raymond McCarthy attended Marquette University and became an attorney in 1935, smack in the middle of the Great Depression. He became the youngest circuit court judge in Wisconsin history when he defeated an incumbent in 1939. During World War II, he joined the Marines, where he was promoted to captain. After two years, though, he left because of a broken bone in his foot that was suffered during a hazing ritual. In 1944 he ran for U.S. Senate, parlaying his military service into the patriotic persona of "Tail Gunner Joe." He didn't win that time, but did take the ticket in 1946 when he became Wisconsin's junior senator.

McCarthy burst onto the national scene several years later. In 1950, during a highly controversial speech at a Lincoln's Birthday luncheon, he waved around a list of 205 names of supposed active communists holding jobs in the State Department.

McCarthy was a relative unknown, but once he lit the fire under America's fear of communism, there seemed to be no stopping it. There had already been some cases of communist spies selling and giving secrets to the Soviet Union about the American government and nuclear program. McCarthy claimed that liberal officials knew of other threats to national security but were taking a soft approach toward identifying them.

Two things happened almost immediately after McCarthy's speech:

  • Americans became frantic to identify and remove communists from positions of power. Many believe this hysteria to have been generated not completely by McCarthy, but rather by the events that preceded his speech. Communists, led by Mao Zedong, had gained control of China two months earlier. The Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb in 1949. And leaders of the Communist Party of the United States had recently been convicted of conspiring to violently overthrow the U.S. government. McCarthy's speech was the icing on the cake.
  • Politicians of all parties began to attack McCarthy's claims.

McCarthy then embarked on what is often described as a "witch hunt" to root out and prosecute communists and sympathizers -- using controversial techniques and often making accusations with scant evidence.


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