Wednesday, June 6, 2018
June 6, 2018: McCarthyism Contexts: McCarthy’s Lies and Rise
[On June 9th, 1954 laywer Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for McCarthyism, leading up to a weekend post on that moment and historical turning points!]
On three telling falsehoods that foreshadowed McCarthy’s nasty public role.
1) The Judge’s Age: In 1939, when McCarthy was only 30 years old and a practicing lawyer, he ran for the position of Wisconsin’s 10th District circuit judge. His opponent, the incumbent Edgar V. Werner, had been a judge for 24 years, and was known as an ineffective and at times incompetent figure. Yet rather than simply rely on such details, McCarthy blatantly lied, claiming that the 66 year old Werner was 73 in order to play up his elderly status. McCarthy won the election, not only becoming the youngest circuit judge in Wisconsin history and taking a next step toward his 1946 successful campaign for the Senate, but also perhaps learning the value of overtly and shamelessly lying about an opponent’s identity. He would put that lesson to use once again in the 1946 Republican primary campaign, using multiple lies about incumbent Robert La Folette Jr. to help him to victory.
2) Wartime Lies: In between his judicial and Senate victories, McCarthy served in Marines during WWII. As a judge he was exempt from military service, so his volunteering to serve was certainly an honorable action. But when it came to how he later represented that military service, McCarthy behaved with far less honor. He apparently took part in twelve aerial combat missions with a dive bomber squadron, but when he applied for a Distinguished Flying Cross and other awards, exaggerated that number to thirty-two missions. He also repeatedly highlighted a commendation letter supposedly signed by both his commanding officer and Admiral Chester Nimitz, but the commander subsequently noted that McCarthy had written the letter himself and forged the commander’s signature; Nimitz did sign it but without any knowledge of those falsehoods. These lies to falsely inflate his own importance could be paralleled to his fictitious attacks on others, as the two types would work together to make McCarthy into an impressive critic of the patriotism of his fellow Americans.
3) The Wheeling Speech: McCarthy won that 1946 Senate campaign, and it was four years later that he truly began to make the case that the U.S. government was overrun with communists and other dissidents. He did so during a February 9th, 1950 Lincoln Day speech to the Wheeling, West Virginia Republican Women’s Club. The speech was not recorded, so some details will always remain ambiguous, but multiple witnesses reported that McCarthy argued, “The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” Over the next eleven days he would cite two completely different numbers of names on this list—57 in a February 11th telegram to President Truman, and 81 in a February 20th speech on the Senate floor. These shifts don’t simply reflect one more distant relation between McCarthy and basic facts—they had profound implications for each and every potential official and employee named, Americans whose lives and careers could be destroyed by being on this list. It is unfortunately no surprise that McCarthyism was launched with such a blatant disregard for facts and truth.
Next context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?