The Rise and Fall of McCarthyism:
An explanation of how the Media created
and then destroyed Joseph McCarthy.
The U.S. Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy, was born in Grand
Chute, Wisconsin, Nov.14, 1908, and died May 2, 1957, (Grolier, 1996) was best known for his attacks on alleged Communist subversion most notably within the administrations of the Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The activities of McCarthy and his followers gave birth to the term McCarthyism. This term is used in reference to "sensational and highly publicized personal attacks, usually based on unsubstantiated charges, as a means of discrediting people thought to be subversive."(Grolier, 1996)
McCarthy, before February of 1950, was by no means a distinguished legislator. He held the attention of the United States by arguing that the State Department was "riddled with card-carrying members of the Communist Party."(Rovere,1959,p.128) McCarthy was shrewd in his manipulation of the media, and well recognized for his skills in Public Relations. He used these abilities to take advantage of the growing public frustration with the eastern Communist movement, and moved from one charge to another. McCarthy barraged his opposition with accusations and evaded demands for tangible proof as he developed a loyal following. With the support of many Republicans, he accused the administrations of Roosevelt and Truman with "twenty years of treason."(Grolier, 1996)
After his reelection in 1952, McCarthy directed similar accusations at the Eisenhower administration from a new post as head of the Senate's Government Operations Committee and it's permanent investigations subcommittee. Eventually he was discredited by the lack of substance in his claims of Communist penetration in the U.S. army, through the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. On December 2,1954 the Senate voted to condemn him for "conduct contrary to Senatorial traditions." The final vote was 67-22. From this point forward any influence of Joe McCarthy was known to be small and insignificant. McCarthy was politically dead. (Ewald, 1984, p.381)
Joseph McCarthy was an insignificant figure before 1950, and
after 1954. That is not to say that the man and his actions are not remembered, but after 1954 his influence and his political career were finished. It is the goal of this work to prove that it was the press that created McCarthy, and that McCarthy took advantage of the press' adherence to the principal of objectivity to spread his undiluted charges of Communists in government.
Furthermore this essay will prove that McCarthy was killed by the hand from which he was created. That is, that the press was also responsible for the political death of Joseph McCarthy in 1954. The media took a united stand against him, in response to a public bashing of president/leader of the Republican party, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On February 9, 1950 at the Lincoln Day dinner of the Ohio County Women's Republican Club at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia, Joseph McCarthy manipulated the press by way of speech, and started the McCarthyism ball rolling. It "has been the subject of more speculation, argument, and investigation than almost anything he said in the next five years."(Bayley, 1981, p.17) Based on this incident and the incidents following the speech, this argument can be made; the press, through its own negligence, created the era of McCarthyism.
McCarthy later denied having said what he was quoted to have said in the speech. Apparently there was only one reporter present for the speech in Wheeling, so it's his word against McCarthy's. The statement quoted in the speech published in the Wheeling Intelligence in the story by Frank Desmond, read as follows,
While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State
Department who have been named as members of the Communist
party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of
205 that were known to the Secretary of the State as being members
of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and
shaping the policy of the State Department. (Bayley, 1981,p.17)
This story is held responsible for sparking the McCarthyism era.
The incidents following it, represent a journalistic period paralleled to the Christian views of the Spanish Inquisition; a time period of branded embarrassment and horror never to be forgotten.
Later McCarthy said the number he gave in his speech was not 205 but 57. The fact is that Desmond had a written copy of the speech before McCarthy gave it, but he could have changed the number to 57 when he actually presented the speech. Regardless, the number 57 would have been just as shocking as 205. The reporter's ethics and/or practices were questionable in handling this story. Why he did not ask to see the list of 205 Communists? If he did, history may have been different, for as McCarthy said himself "what he held in his hand was the Byrnes letter, not a list."(Bayley, 1981, p.24) If Desmond had reported that McCarthy was holding a letter, not a list, the newspapers would have handled the story much differently. A letter from one person to another, which suggests unfit employees, would have made much less news than the illusion of an actual list of names.
This lack of verification, was one of many press blunders that followed over the next few weeks. In general the press' poor practice would be carried out for the next five years. "I have here in my hand,..." was a phrase that "became more popular than a famous toothpaste slogan,"(Belfrage, 1973, p.117) which he used on an infinite number of occasions to refer to documents he would pull from his briefcase to support wild accusations. The legitimacy of the documents much like that of the accusations seemed never to have been verified by the reporters on sight. The Byrnes's letter that McCarthy pulled out on February 9, 1950 was one of these unchecked documents. The content of the letter gives us insight into McCarthy's ability to manipulate the facts, and cover his tracks just enough so that an unambitious, negligent reporter would help him spread his word.
The letter from which the number 205 is extracted is dated 26 July 1946, from Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to Representative Adolf Sabath of Illinois. The breakdown of the document is simple and horrifying in that McCarthy was allowed to make such an accusation without the press confirming its source. The letter basically said that 4 000 employees of the state had been transferred, and of those 3 000 had been subjected to preliminary examination, from which a recommendation against permanent employment had been made in 284 cases; 79 of these people had been refused government service. (Rovere, 1959,p.125)
Without any further information and ignorantly assuming nothing had changed from 1946, it was assumed by McCarthy that 205 of the 284 whose employment had not been recommended were actually employed, and that the reason that they were not recommended in the first place was because they were communists. (Bayley, 1981, p.20) The letter never mentioned that the 205 people were hired, or that any of them were Communists.
The lies were spoken by McCarthy, but they were published by the press. Without any confirmation Desmond printed the story as did many other newspapers around the United States. What McCarthy had said was not only untrue, but it was preposterous. Why didn't the journalists who gave him life ask themselves responsible questions? Rovere writes;
Why wouldn't he read some of the names on the list, if he had a list?
If he had a list where on earth would he have got it? Who would have
gave it to him? The FBI? The State Department? Why? Could he have
worked it up himself?....William Shannon of the New York Post once
asked, would he have chosen to make his shattering announcement
"before a group of Republican Ladies in a Triple-I League town?"
(Rovere, 1959, p.126)
All good journalists could, and should have asked themselves some of these questions before printing the story. By not doing this they can be held responsible for creating a stage on which a genuine madman could preform and mislead the American public.
"McCarthy's rise to national prominence coincided with the explosive growth of television in the United States."(Bayley, 1981, p.176) He knew about media, and also that he could use this new medium of television to promote his image, and his cause. Television was just as easily manipulated by McCarthy as the newspapers were, and McCarthy successfully launched himself into the living rooms of the American public. What McCarthy didn't realize, and what would eventually lead to his downfall, was that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that live television conferences cannot be edited or fixed. It was this form of media, and the ingrained truth of its pictures that would eventually lead to McCarthy's downfall.
Throughout the administration of Harry Truman, McCarthy attacked the president with allegations of being sympathetic to Communism. It may very well have been the atmosphere left by the claims that led Truman and the Democratic party to defeat in 1952, and the subsequent victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Republicans. McCarthy was elected head of the Senate's Government Operations Committee in 1952, but this was not enough for the ambitious Senator. He wanted to replace Eisenhower as the head of the Republican party, and he attempted to use the same tactics against Eisenhower that he used to dethrone Truman.
It was this political decision that set the stage for McCarthy's fall from grace.
McCarthy openly attacked Eisenhower in early 1954 with hopes of leading the Republican party. One of his most famous slogans against him was the "who promoted Peress?" campaign. Irving Peress was a former dentist who had been drafted and commissioned in October 1952 and promoted to major a year later under the automatic provisions law. (Bayley, 1981, p.187) A month after his promotion someone in the army found out that Peress had refused to answer questions about his political beliefs, and he was ordered to be discharged within 90 days. All of this happened during the Eisenhower administration, and nothing had been proven about the actual beliefs of Peress but McCarthy used this incident and others like it to accuse Eisenhower of being sympathetic to the Communist cause. (Ewald, 1984, p.189)
It was this Peress incident, however, that prompted Eisenhower to make, what the press anticipated to be, a statement to denounce McCarthy. Everyone was prepared for Eisenhower to bash McCarthy, including McCarthy himself. McCarthy was so sure of the content of Eisenhower's speech that he responded to it on television shortly after, without even knowing what Eisenhower actually said. McCarthy's response speech included claims that the Army had been protecting, covering up, and honorably discharging known Communists; he bashed Peress, and he bashed Eisenhower claiming that they were all protecting Communists. (Bayley, 1981, p.188-189) What McCarthy didn't know is what hurt him, apparently Eisenhower's statement had been altered, and when it was delivered it didn't even mention McCarthy.
James Reston described the actual statement of Eisenhower as a "note on the principals that should govern the relations between the legislature and the executive under the US Constitution." (Bayley, 1981, p.188) Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune said that;
the American people had seen a kick in the groin, and they
would not forget it. To Willard Edwards, this was the "day
that McCarthy died." (Ewald, 1984, p. 242)
McCarthy had lost some respect of the American public, and the respect of many journalist, reporters, and television stations. The television stations would indirectly be responsible for delivering one of the final blows to McCarthy.
Shortly after this incident, in a public speech the Republican party was described as "divided against itself, half McCarthy and half Eisenhower."(Ewald, 1984, p.246) McCarthy before this incident had always been given free air time from the networks (NBC and CBS) to respond to any type of comment spoken against him. This time however, NBC and CBS rejected his demands. Instead, as they were obligated to allow someone to reply, vice- president Nixon gave a response. McCarthy threatened to take the decision of the networks to the FCC, but other networks, newspapers and radio stations seemed to think that the law would favour the networks, and fully supported them in their decision. The movement of the press to stand up to Joseph McCarthy was as sudden and as devastating as a tidal wave.
The only free air time he was given came from the Mutual Broadcasting System, but not until four days after the speech against him. In this time period McCarthy had amounted two more formidable critics to answer. One was Senator Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican who rose in the Senate on March 9 to accuse McCarthy of "deserting the Republican party and to ridicule his hunt for Communists."(Bayley, 1981,p.192) The other critic was the one that beyond any doubt ruined McCarthy, ironically by way of the television media that had helped his five-year career so much. His name was Edward R. Murrow.
Television's most respected man Edward R. Murrow presented a McCarthy "documentary on his popular show "See it Now", which provided, through skillful film editing, a devastating critique of McCarthy and his methods."(Bayley, 1981,p.192) The show produced clips of McCarthy speaking his half-truths, and distortions and then followed them with Murrow's explanations of McCarthy's logic, and descriptions of how the facts were manipulated. At the end of the show Murrow did an editorial in which he said "that McCarthy's primary achievement had been to confuse the public about the internal and external threats of Communism."(Bayley, 1981,p.193)
McCarthy finally did make a reply on Murrow's program "See it Now" nearly a month later on April 6, 1954. He never really replied to Murrow. Rather, he attacked him with more wild accusations and this time the public was not listening. Through the collective stand that the press took against McCarthy concerning the NBC/CBS decision, Flanders denouncement of McCarthy, and finally Murrow's documentary; the media, which bore much of the responsibility for the creation of McCarthyism, had delivered the final jolt that knocked the air out of Joseph McCarthy's political career.
The nationally televised Army-McCarty trials were just the playing out of the inevitable. The nation got to see McCarthy at his worst, trying to justify some of the horrific accusations that he made against the United States Senate.
Eventually the Senate adopted a resolution to "condemn" McCarthy by a vote of 67-22. The only support for McCarthy was from parts of the nation where McCarthy's activities had been given the least coverage in newspaper, and from the only part of the country that did not have access to live television coverage of the damaging Army-McCarthy trials. (Bayley, 1981, p.212) The media's power of influence on his career is shown here again, however in this instance it ruined him.
In conclusion it is seen that the media was in fact responsible for the birth and the death of McCarthyism. The negligence of the reporters early in McCarthy's career (notably Frank Desmond, who covered McCarthy's speech at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling) gave life to a man who should have been instantly exposed as a fake. The ensuing five years of mayhem taught the press about fact checking, and the need to ask responsible questions before a story should be printed.
McCarthy's propaganda techniques had forced newspapers
and wire services to reexamine their practices and to make
greater use of interpretive reporting. (Bayley, 1981, p.176)
The facts and antics upon which McCarthy was allowed to base his wild accusations are no more embarrassing than the reporters who put them into print.
Furthermore, the media was also greatly responsible for the political lynching of Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy's unwarranted, mean public response to a mild statement by Eisenhower shifted sympathy away from his cause and his methods. It also led to a television network stand against him, supported by many forms of media. This television stand, together with the "See it now" documentary, and the nationally televised Army-McCarthy trials put an end to a disgraceful time period of media history. It was with these actions that the media and the generations of people that followed learned about the awesome power of the press, especially the newfound television medium.
The primary function of newspapers, television and any other source of media is to tell people what's happening. It is not the responsibility of the media to determine what the public should or shouldn't know, or to be concerned about the effects the truth might cause. Its duty is to report on the facts, and to be sure of the information that they are reporting.
McCarthyism is something that should never have left Wheeling West Virginia. Edward Murrow summed it up best in his famous television review of McCarthy's career; "Cassius was right: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.'" (Rovere, 1959, p.265)
Bayley, Edwin R.(1981)Joe McCarthy and the Press. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Belfrage, Cedric.(1973)The American Inquisition 1945-1965: A Profile of the McCarthy Era. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
Ewald, William Bragg.(1984)Who Killed Joe McCarthy?. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Manchester, William.(1976) "A Slight Case of McCarthyism." Controversy and other Essays in Journalism. Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.
Rovere, Richard H.(1959) Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
The 1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Danbury: Grolier 1996.