With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Joe McCarthy: Dangerous Buffoon

In her latest book, Treason, Ann Coulter claims that Joseph McCarthy was a hero. Mr. Kessler in this excerpt from his recent book about the FBI, reminds us why McCarthy is usually remembered as a dangerous buffoon.

On February 9, 1950, Joseph R. McCarthy, an obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, gave a speech to 275 members of the local Republican women's club at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia. The spy cases had heightened concerns about Communist penetration of the government. Republicans were using the issue to attack the Truman administration, which they said was "soft on Communism." With Lincoln's birthday coming up, Republican politicians had fanned out across the country.

"While I cannot take the time to name all 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—a list of names that were known to the secretary of state and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy of the State Department," McCarthy said, holding up a scrap of paper.

By the time McCarthy got to Salt Lake City, the next stop on his speech itinerary, McCarthy—an alcoholic—could not remember the number he had cited. He told his audience there that the number of Communists was fifty-seven.

The conservative Chicago Tribune had been running a series on the Communist threat. The day after McCarthy's speech in West Virginia, Willard Edwards, the author of the articles, urgently asked to talk with Walter Trohan, the Washington bureau chief, in Edward's office at the Albee Building at 15th and G Streets NW. Edwards confided to Trohan that just before he gave his speech, McCarthy had asked Edwards about the number of Communists in the State Department. Edwards said he gave McCarthy the figure of 205. Now he realized his mistake.

"Edwards said it was more or less a rumor. It was just a piece of gossip," Trohan said. "He probably got it from some ultra-rightist, someone who probably didn't know what he was talking about. Edwards was a drinker, among other problems. He got fired, and I got him back. Then he got into trouble again, and they were going to fire him again. When Edwards gave the figure to McCarthy, he was probably drinking."

Trohan was "furious" at Edwards. "Edwards was afraid that McCarthy was going to blame him for it. I will say that McCarthy never revealed his source," Trohan said.

As for McCarthy, besides being an alcoholic, the senator was "crazy about girls about eighteen" Trohan said. "I always thought if the Commies wanted to get him, all they had to do was supply him with a girl."

Bogus figures or not, McCarthy soon became a national figure. Without Hoover's help, it might never have happened. The FBI, through Hoover's speeches and contacts with the media and Congress, had been highlighting the Communist menace since 1946. McCarthy and Hoover had been friends since 1947, when McCarthy met with the director to convey his respects. Soon, the junior senator was dining with Hoover and Tolson at Harvey's.

McCarthy knew how susceptible Hoover was to flattery. "No one need erect a monument to you," the senator wrote to Hoover in one letter. "You have built your own monument in the form of the FBI—for the FBI is J. Edgar Hoover, and I think we can rest assured that it always will be."

Upon returning from his tour, McCarthy called Hoover and told him his speech was getting a lot of attention, according to a memo Hoover wrote after the call. There was only one problem: McCarthy said he had "made up the numbers as he talked." In the future, Hoover advised him, he should not give specific numbers. McCarthy asked if the FBI would give him information to back up his charges.

"Review the files and get anything you can for him," Hoover ordered.

"We didn't have enough evidence to show there was a single Communist in the State Department, let alone fifty-seven cases," said William Sullivan, who became the number three man in the bureau. Nevertheless, FBI agents spent hundreds of hours reading files and making abstracts for McCarthy. As time went on, the FBI supplied speech writers for McCarthy and for two of his aides, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine. Lou Nichols provided public relations counsel. Nichols cautioned McCarthy not to use the phrase "card-carrying Communists," because that could not be proven. Instead, he should refer to "Communist sympathizers" or "loyalty risks."

The phrases were as fuzzy as Hoover's files, which were a repository of any rumor, third-hand account, or gossip agents happened to hear. Soon, McCarthy began using the files as the basis for hearings he held on Communist penetration of the government, instilling fear in anyone who might have looked at a Communist. Because of the pressure, the Hollywood studios blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman because her lover, mystery-writer Dashiell Hammett, was one. John Melby, a State Department officer who had impeccable anti-Communist credentials, was fired for having had an affair with Hellman.

Washington Post cartoonist Herbert L. Block (Herblock) dubbed McCarthy's tactics "McCarthyism," a witch-hunt that created as much fear among loyal Americans as terrorism. One of his cartoons portrayed McCarthy with a three-day growth of beard holding up a "doctored photo" and a "faked letter."

If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

FBI agents like Robert Lamphere who worked counterintelligence were aghast at Hoover's support of McCarthy. "McCarthyism did all kinds of harm because he was pushing something that wasn't so," Lamphere said. To be sure, the Venona intercepts showed that over several decades, "There were a lot of spies in the government, but not all in the State Department," Lamphere said. "The problem was that McCarthy lied about his information and figures. He made charges against people that weren't true. McCarthyism harmed the counterintelligence effort against the Soviet threat because of the revulsion it caused. All along, Hoover was helping him."