Address to the League of Women Voters, Wheeling, West Virginia

Why does McCarthy believe the United States is losing the Cold War? According to McCarthy, who within the United States is helping the communists? What kind of list does McCarthy claim to have? Why might his accusation have attracted lots of attention and controversy? What does he think must be done?
How does Robert Treuhaft question the fear and alarm raised by speeches like McCarthy’s? How is Smith a rejection of the approach taken by McCarthy? Does Smith agree with McCarthy on any points? How do the Students for a Democratic Society criticize the widespread fear of communism?

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Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) was not a well-known figure when he spoke on February 9, 1950 at an event in Wheeling, West Virginia, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. A first-term Republican senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy addressed issues of espionage, domestic communism, and subversion within the U.S. government. Although McCarthy was unaware of the Venona decoding project (see the introduction to Kaufman’s), recent events had provided alternative evidence of Soviet espionage. On January 21, 1950, for example, a federal grand jury indicted Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, of perjury charges related to his spy work for the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Hiss, who had many defenders, vigorously denied the charge that he had been a spy. The fact that he was found guilty of lying, not espionage, left many questions unanswered. Had Hiss really aided the Soviet Union? How many spies remained unidentified? Were they still active?

McCarthy seized on these questions to make the sensational charge that 205 State Department employees were members of the Communist Party of the United States of America and that Secretary of State Dean Acheson was protecting them. No list of such persons existed. In subsequent speeches, McCarthy cited different numbers – eighty-one, then fifty-seven – without providing much corroboration.

Problems with McCarthy’s evidence did not diminish the massive attention McCarthy and his speech received. (Nor did the existence of a federal employee loyalty program that Truman had implemented in 1947.) The Hiss case, the communist victory in China, and the Soviet development of atomic weapons fed the impression that the United States was losing the Cold War. According to McCarthy, subversives within the U.S. government were responsible for this sudden reversal of fortune.

For the next several years, McCarthy was a celebrity, leading numerous Senate investigations of government agencies in search of subversion. Most of the people whom McCarthy accused of being communists were innocent of espionage. (Of the 159 individuals McCarthy named on his various lists, only nine were later identified by the Venona decoding project as having helped the Soviet Union; as noted, McCarthy did not have access to this information.) His anti-communist campaign was the centerpiece of the Cold War’s Red Scare. His methods – the skillful use of the media, insinuations, and smears – earned the negative label of “McCarthyism” and contributed to the polarization of domestic politics. However, the undeniable evidence that numerous Americans had, in fact, spied for the Soviet Union kept the issue of subversion alive. McCarthy’s recklessness and over-reach, especially his 1954 investigation of communism within the U.S. Army, led to his downfall (See Smith). He died in 1957 at age 48 from complications caused by heavy drinking.

—David Krugler

Source: McCarthy spoke from a prepared text, but he apparently deviated from it at points and a tape recording was erased. This version comes from a copy provided to a Senate committee that investigated McCarthy’s charges later that year. See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Roger Bruns, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974, Vol. 5 (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1975), 3757–63.

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight as we celebrate the one hundred forty-first birthday of one of the greatest men [Abraham Lincoln] in American history, I would like to be able to talk about what a glorious day today is in the history of the world. As we celebrate the birth of this man who with his whole heart and soul hated war, I would like to be able to speak of peace in our time – of war being outlawed – and of world-wide disarmament. These would be truly appropriate things to be able to mention as we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.