Was Joeseph McCarthy as bad as he is made out to be?!?

We probably have all heard of the crazy character McCarthy a senator from WI in the early 50’s. My question is was he as bad as everyone one believes, or did his accusations have some fact backing them. I have heard the Venona Papers exonarate him, I am having trouble though finding these papers.


He was very bad…but perhaps not as bad as history has made him.

He lied, and, by this, caused a lot of people to lose their jobs. He did so in a cowardly fashion, from behind the shield of Congressional immunity.

On the other hand, the McCarthy era is said to be one in which people yelled at the top of their lungs that they were afraid to speak above a whisper.

And, in relatively short order, he was humiliated.

You can compare him, if you wish, to Ted Kennedy or to Jesse Helms, and find that, tho’ a stinkard, he was only a middlin’ stinkard.


McCarthy rarely used facts. He first became known by saying he had a list of known communists in the State Department, but never revealed who those people were, and the number of communists supposedly on the list varied each time he mentioned it.

There were certainly some communists in the State Department – Alger Hiss almost certainly was – but not any great number, and many of those were people who joined the party at one point and then quit.

Also, I don’t believe it was illegal to be a communist in any case (the laws banning it came a bit later, and were declared unconstitutional on obvious First Amendment grounds).

As far as McCarthy’s commitment, a few months before the speech, McCarthy lunched with several senators, saying he needed an issue for reelection. One suggested the St. Lawrence Seaway, but McCarthy decided that wasn’t a big enough issue. A second senator suggested anticommunism, and Joe seemed to like the idea (Richard Rovere, Tail Gunner Joe, a not entirely unsympathetic account).

Ultimately, McCarthy uncovered a handful of communists, but caused many more loyal Americans to lose their jobs simply because they fell under suspcion.

Check this thread over in GD: McCarthyism – Anyone hurt by it? (Help debunk Ann Coulter)

And this subsequent discussion: Just how serious was the threat of Communism in America?

As serious as the communist threat was in reality and as unjustified as McCarthy’s actions were, we should note that nobody went to jail and in the end the whole thing was relatively minor. Many people lost their jobs but the worst damage was the damage done to America and its institutions.

I believe ultimately history will judge what is happening today in America as much worse than McCarthyism. People have been jailed for years with no judicial recourse and the threat to human rights and individual freedoms is much greater than it ever was at the time of McCarthy.

As I recall, McCarthy really wasn’t the problem. He jumped on a bandwagon hoping it would propel him to higher office. The investigations were begun and most intense in the House Un-American Activities Committee, rather than in the Senate hearings. McCarthy served on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which was largely a soap-box in the anti-communist investigations. The more damaging actions took place in the House.

The following is a bot outside of GQ - but really I think that McCarthy is put out there as a whipping-boy to draw attention away from the fact that the serious hearings in HUAC were largely bi-partisan. By picking out McCarthy we can do one (or both) of the following: (1) Make this one man’s mis-guided and evil campaign or (2) Make this the actions of one political party, absolving the other of any blame.

The House Un-American Activities Commitee also helped launch the career of Richard Nixon, and if you think McCarthy was a “crazy character,” read up on Nixon.

Welcome to the Straight Dope, ddjam4.

Welcome to the SDMB, ddjam4. This is more a debatable question than one that can have a factual answer, so I’ll move it to the Great Debates forum.

moderator GQ

What are the Venona Papers?

My Dad and my Uncle roomed with Joe M one semester.

They didn’t like him either but that decision came later I think.

The Venona Papers (if I remember correctly) are intelligence documents that, when discovered, proved that Julius Rosenberg (among others) had been a spy for the Soviet Union.

While I’m not a fan of any of those 3, I’m finding this comparison a little puzzling.

They were all Democrats. Guess which party 'Chuck belongs to? :rolleyes:

Joe McCarthy was a Democrat? In what alternative universe?

Ol’ Jesse has a tendency toward wild accusation but I don’t see the connection to Ted Kennedy.

Joe McCarthy was a politician. Politicians, not to put too fine a point on it, take issues and run with them… to the voting booth. Many times they truly believe in the issue as well, but it takes a very fine person to back an issue on personal beliefs when it could guarantee them the loss of not just an election but their living as well. Was he any better or worse than politicians today?

I don’t think personally he was worse than some of those we have around now, but he was in a position and a time to vault a very damaging series of events into the center stage for his own perceived gain. Indirectly, historically, he inflicted quite a lot of pain upon people who were both innocent and guilty. Without a doubt, as someone else pointed out, there were Communists in the State Department, but Joe McCarthy didn’t really seem to care about the actual numbers as much as casting himself in the role of inquisitor burning out corruption with fire.

Do I think history judged him too harshly? Probably. I think a lot of people in later years felt extremely guilty for their actions during the period and sought ways to atone as well as scapegoat, casting McCarthy as the prime villain of events. If we wish to point fingers, McCarthy’s staff (most especially Roy Cohen) should be implicated as those who did most of the behind-the-scenes grilling instead of the Senator.

Just my two, sangria-addled, cents.

McCarthy earned every bit of scorn that has been heaped upon him. He did not start the Communist witch hunts, so it cannot be claimed that “some good” came of his shenanigans. (Few real Communists were outed and the vast majority of genuine security threats were uncovered by actual FBI intelligence work.) He was a late-comer who hopped on the witch hunt bandwagon long after it had rolled through town. He was also a liar and a bully. While the Venona Papers have demonstrated that there were some Soviet agents in the government, none of the agents exposed by the Venona Papers were people whom he brought to light. In addition, recently released transcripts of his closed door hearings demonstrate pretty conclusively that the only people he dragged out in front of the public hearings were people whom he had bullied into submission before hand. Everyone who had the strength to tell him to go suck an egg in the secret hearings was given a bye and never called to testify in public. He did the entire schtick as a publicity performance, not to help the country, and he did not care who he harmed in the process.

It was a terrible time in our country’s history. People were terrified. They didn’t call it “the Red Scare” without good reason. The House Committee on UnAmerican Activities had a lot to do with it, certainly. But the person who did the greatest damage was Joseph McCarthy.

There has been an attempt lately to whitewash his abuses. I suspect those attempts are largely led by people who don’t remember and have only read about it in history books.

Since when has it been considered a “minor problem” for people to lose their jobs? And many of these people lost not just “jobs” – but careers and livlihoods and food on the table for their children. They lost their First Amendment Rights.

If anyone spoke out against McCarthy, then they must be a Commies too. It was the Salem Witch Trials all over again except that it wasn’t confined to a small village. The nation was paranoid. I think that McCarthy even threw – or certainly tried to throw – a Presidential election.

McCarthy finally was about to pick on the wrong person. Edward R. Murrow’s name may be unfamiliar to many of you now. But he is considered by many to have been the finest journalist of the Twentieth Century. Certainly he was known for his integrity. And when he made the truth known about McCarthy, the nation stopped and listened and knew the truth. McCarthy’s spell was broken.

That broadcast is sometimes referred to as “television’s finest hour.” I was ten years old and I can remember it. I didn’t understand it then, but I knew it was important. That was almost fifty years ago. If you want to know about McCarthy’s abuses, here is a link to a transcript of that broadcast. It is well worth your time.


McCarthy also gave a big career boost to Roy Cohn, who acted as counsel to HUAC. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn together - scary.

yes Mccarthy was as bad as he was meant to be. True, nobody went to jail but jobs and reputations were lost and that is just as bad. Whether he was a malicious person out to create a name for himself or whether he genuinely believed his claims will never be clear, but he did cause a lot of damage not only with the people he ruined, but with the hysteria his witch-hunt whipped up