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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 Document 10), 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 (Document 4) 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 (Document 7). He died in 1957 at age 48 from complications caused by heavy drinking.
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.
Five years after a world war has been won, men’s hearts should anticipate a long peace – and men’s minds should be free from the heavy weight that comes with war. But this is not such a period – for this is not a period of peace. This is a time of the cold war. This is a time when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile, armed camps – a time of a great armament race.
Today we can almost physically hear the mutterings and rumblings of an invigorated god of war. You can see it, feel it, and hear it all the way from the Indochina1 hills, from the shores of Formosa [Taiwan], right over into the very heart of Europe itself.
The one encouraging thing is that the mad moment has not yet arrived for the firing of the gun or the exploding of the bomb which will set civilization about the final task of destroying itself. There is still a hope for peace if we finally decide that no longer can we safely blind our eyes and close our ears to those facts which are shaping up more and more clearly – and that is that we are now engaged in a show-down fight – not the usual war between nations for land areas or other material gains, but a war between two diametrically opposed ideologies.
The great difference between our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral. For instance, the Marxian idea of confiscating the land and factories and running the entire economy as a single enterprise is momentous. Likewise, Lenin’s2 invention of the one-party police state as a way to make Marx’s idea work is hardly less momentous.
Stalin’s3 resolute putting across of these two ideas, of course, did much to divide the world. With only these differences, however, the east and the west could most certainly still live in peace.
The real, basic difference, however, lies in the religion of immoralism – invented by Marx, preached feverishly by Lenin, and carried to unimaginable extremes by Stalin. This religion of immoralism, if the Red half of the world triumphs – and well it may, gentlemen – this religion of immoralism will more deeply wound and damage mankind than any conceivable economic or political system. . . .
Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time, and ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down. . . .
Ladies and gentlemen, can there be anyone tonight who is so blind as to say that the war is not on? Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the Communist world has said the time is now – that this is the time for the show-down between the democratic Christian world and the communistic atheistic world?
Unless we face this fact, we shall pay the price that must be paid by those who wait too long.
Six years ago . . . there was within the Soviet orbit, 180,000,000 people. Lined up on the anti-totalitarian side there were in the world at that time, roughly 1,625,000,000 people. Today, only six years later, there are 80,000,000,000 people under the absolute domination of Soviet Russia – an increase of over 400 percent. On our side, the figure has shrunk to around 500,000. In other words, in less than six years, the odds have changed from 9 to 1 in our favor to 8 to 1 against us.4
This indicates the swiftness of the tempo of Communist victories and American defeats in the cold war. As one of our outstanding historical figures once said, “When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within” . . . 5
The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores – but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this Nation – but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer – the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.
This is glaringly true in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been most traitorous. . . .
. . . 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. . . .
As you know, very recently the Secretary of State [Dean Acheson] proclaimed his loyalty to a man guilty6 of what has always been considered as the most abominable of all crimes – being a traitor to the people who gave him a position of great trust – high treason. . . .
He has lighted the spark which is resulting in a moral uprising and will end only when the whole sorry mess of twisted, warped thinkers are swept from the national scene so that we may have a new birth of honesty and decency in government.
A. 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?
B. How does Robert Treuhaft (Document 15) question the fear and alarm raised by speeches like McCarthy’s? How is Document 7 a rejection of the approach taken by McCarthy? Does Document 7 agree with McCarthy on any points? How do the Students for a Democratic Society (Document 22) criticize the widespread fear of communism?
- Indochina refers to the southeast Asian peninsula that includes the present-day nations of Burma (Myanmar), Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
- Vladimir Lenin, a leader of the Russian Revolution and an important communist theorist.
- Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union.
- McCarthy’s population statistics are grossly wrong. He claims, for example, that 80 billion people live under the “absolute domination” of the Soviet Union; in 1950, the total world population was approximately 2.5 billion.
- McCarthy did not identify the speaker of the quote. He may be referring to a speech Abraham Lincoln delivered in 1838, but what Lincoln actually said was, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” See “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois,” January 27, 1838.
- Alger Hiss (see introductory note).