How McCarthyism Worked

Communism in the United States

A rally of McCarthy supporters
A rally of McCarthy supporters
Hank Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The irony of the whole McCarthy scandal is that, despite his highhandedness, lack of evidence and general recklessness, there definitely was a communist presence in the United States at the time, as illustrated by the Rosenbergs and others. In fact, a number of the people McCarthy interrogated were later identified as communists and even Soviet agents. The evidence he had so desperately sought became available in 1995 with the release of the Venona intercepts. These secret Soviet intelligence messages had been decoded in the 1940s but didn't become public knowledge until 1995. According to journalist Charles Peters, the Venona intercepts identified multiple communists, including:

  • Two atomic spies
  • A captain in the U.S. Navy
  • One person who had enough clout to hold a private meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill
  • One who held a top office in today's equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency ­[source: ­Peters]

Ten senior-level government officials suspected by McCarthy were also later shown to have Communist Party ties. The Venona intercepts, coupled with Kremlin archive data, proved that "rather than being blameless martyrs, all were indeed communists, Soviet agents or assets of the KGB, just as McCarthy had suggested" [source: Evans].

McCarthy also questioned Michael and Ann Sidorovich, couriers for convicted communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Venona intercepts show that both were full-time agents for the KGB.

Friends and Enemies

McCarthy's supporters included:

  • Much of the American public. According to Conservapedia, McCarthy's popularity peaked in early 1954, when a Gallup Poll reported that 50 percent of the respondents had a generally favorable opinion of him. He also took fourth place on a list of most admired men.
  • The American Legion
  • Minute Women of the U.S.A.
  • American Public Relations Forum
  • Christian organizations

Detractors included such heavy hitters as:

  • President Harry Truman, who reportedly ignored warnings by the FBI that Harry Dexter White had communist ties. Truman promoted him to a top-level position at the International Monetary Fund. White was later revealed to be a Soviet agent.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Politicians of all parties
  • Edward R. Murrow, host of "See It Now." Its March 9, 1954, episode portrayed McCarthy in an extremely unflattering light — some consider it to be the beginning of the end of McCarthy.
  • The Communist Party (surprise)

But it wasn't long before McCarthy's detractors started to outweigh his supporters, and the stage was set for his eventual downfall.