How McCarthyism Worked

The Fall of McCarthy

McCarthy on the premiere broadcast of the TV show "Face the Nation," Nov. 7, 1954
McCarthy on the premiere broadcast of the TV show "Face the Nation," Nov. 7, 1954
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Television, the medium that makes or breaks so many, was ultimately McCarthy's downfall. McCarthy had been viciously interrogating suspects in public and private hearings for some time, but the American people witnessed his brutal methods firsthand when the Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast on live TV in 1954 (the doing of President Eisenhower, who wanted the public to see McCarthy's misdeeds).

The hearings began generically enough, with McCarthy making accusations against Army officers for not answering questions about their political beliefs. Lt. Col. Chester T. Brown, for one, outright refused to answer McCarthy's questions. In response, McCarthy said, "Any man in the uniform of his country who refused to give information to a committee of the Senate which represents the American people, that man is not fit to wear the uniform of his country" [source: CNN]. McCarthy then went one step further when he interviewed Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated veteran and hero in Normandy, calling him "a disgrace to the uniform he wore" [source: Kiehr].

McCarthy had finally gone too far. Joseph Welsh, the attorney for the U.S. Army, responded famously by saying, "I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" [source: Kiehr] The public quickly shifted its opinion of the man who had insulted members of the Armed Forces. President Eisenhower and the rest of the Senate agreed with Welsh. In 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy on 46 charges for abuse of legislative powers. He was eventually censured on only two of the charges because the Senate didn't want to project the image of being "soft" on communism. Instead, the censure resolution stated that he had abused his power as a senator. He remained in office but was left with virtually no power or clout.

McCarthy died on May 2, 1957, of acute hepatitis, which resulted from alcohol abuse. He was just 48 years old.