Joseph McCarthy: Biography

McCarthy PhotoSenator Joseph McCarthy, 1908-1957

The following biographical essay was prepared by the Reference staff of the Appleton Public Library, based primarily on information from The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography by Thomas C. Reeves.

Early Years

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born on a farm in the Town of Grand Chute, near Appleton, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1908.  He attended the Underhill School, a one-room schoolhouse, where he completed eighth grade.  Bored with farm work, McCarthy started his own chicken business as a teenager, but disease wiped out his flock.  Broke at age 20, he worked as a clerk in an Appleton grocery store, quickly becoming manager.

In 1929, McCarthy was transferred to Manawa to manage a new grocery store.  While there, he entered Little Wolf High School, completing the four-year curriculum in nine months.  McCarthy’s excellent grades enabled him to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, which he entered in the fall of 1930.  In school, he coached boxing, and was elected president of his law school class, all while working a series of part-time jobs.  Immediately after gaining his law degree in 1935, McCarthy opened a practice in Waupaca.   He later joined a law firm in Shawano, becoming a partner in 1937.

McCarthy's first attempt at public office was an unsuccessful run for the post of Shawano District Attorney as a Democrat in 1936.  In 1939, he sought the nonpartisan post of judge in the Tenth Judicial Circuit, covering Langlade, Shawano, and Outagamie Counties.  He campaigned tirelessly, defeating the incumbent judge, who had served for 24 years.  At age 30, McCarthy became the youngest circuit judge ever elected in Wisconsin.

Borrowing the money, McCarthy made a down-payment on a house at 1508 Lorain Court in Appleton, not far from his new office at the Outagamie County Courthouse.  As a judge, McCarthy was credited with being hard-working and fair, but he was also rebuked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court for an "abuse of judicial authority" after destroying court records.  He was later censured for violating the ethical code that prohibited sitting judges from running for non-judicial posts.

In July, 1942, shortly after the start of World War II, McCarthy took a leave of absence from his Photo: Captain Joseph McCarthyjudicial office and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Marines.  As an intelligence officer stationed in the Pacific, he participated in combat bombing missions, although he was not wounded in action as he later claimed.

While still on active duty in 1944, McCarthy challenged incumbent Alexander Wiley for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, but was soundly defeated.  In April, 1945, having resigned his military commission, McCarthy was re-elected without opposition to the circuit court.  He immediately began planning for the 1946 Senate campaign.

Senator McCarthy

Initially, McCarthy was given little chance of defeating incumbent Robert M. La Follette, Jr. for the Republican Senate nomination.  La Follette, the son of the famous "Fighting Bob" La Follette, was well known in Wisconsin, having served as senator for 21 years.  But La Follette had only recently rejoined the Republican Party after years as a leader of the Progressive Party, and many Republicans resented his return.  Aided by the support of the Republican organization, McCarthy ran a typically energetic campaign and beat La Follette by a tiny margin.  In the general election, McCarthy easily defeated his Democratic opponent and went to Washington at age 38, the youngest member of the new Senate.

As a senator, McCarthy’s voting record was generally conservative, although he did not follow the Republican Party line.  The main accomplishments of his first years came with his successful fight for housing legislation and his work to ease sugar rationing.  The biggest national issue at the time was the suspicion of communist infiltration of the United States government following a series of investigations and espionage trials.  McCarthy engaged this issue on February 9, 1950, in a speech before a Republican women’s group in Wheeling, West Virginia.  In his address, McCarthy charged that U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson knew of 205 communists in the State Department.  Later, McCarthy claimed to have the names of 57 State Department communists, and called for an investigation.

McCarthy’s charges caused a furor.  In response, the Senate appointed a committee under the direction of Senator Millard Tydings, Democrat of Maryland, who opened hearings on March 8, 1950.  Though McCarthy had hired investigators of his own, all the names he eventually supplied to the committee were of people previously examined.  McCarthy failed to name a single current State Department employee.  On July 17, 1950, the Tydings committee issued a report that found no grounds for McCarthy’s charges.  McCarthy, however, refused to back down, issuing further accusations of communist influence on the government.  These charges received extensive media attention, making McCarthy the most famous political figure in the nation after President Harry Truman.  He was also one of the most criticized.  McCarthy’s enemies began a smear campaign against him, spreading lies that have permeated his biographies ever since.

Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government, though he failed to provide evidence.  McCarthy himself was investigated by a Senate panel in 1952.  That committee issued the "Hennings Report," which uncovered unethical behavior in McCarthy’s campaigns and tax returns, but found no basis for legal action.  Despite that report, McCarthy was re-elected in 1952 with 54% of the vote, although he ran behind all other statewide Republicans and had a lower vote total than in 1946.

With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became chairman of the Photo: Eisenhower and McCarthyCommittee on Government Operations and the subcommittee on investigations.  In that capacity, he so angered Democrats that they resigned from the committee in protest.  McCarthy also angered the new president and fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower by accusing the administration of sheltering communists.  Eisenhower refused to publicly rebuke McCarthy, but worked behind the scenes to isolate him.

The Army McCarthy Hearings

In the fall of 1953, McCarthy investigated the Army Signal Corps, but failed to uncover an alleged espionage ring.  McCarthy’s treatment of General Ralph W. Zwicker during that investigation causedmany supporters to turn against McCarthy.  That opposition grew with the Photo: Roy Cohn and McCarthy at  the Army-McCarthy HearingsMarch 9, 1954, CBSbroadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s "See It Now," which was an attack on McCarthy and his methods.  The Army then released a report charging that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army to give favored treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide who had been drafted.  McCarthy counter-charged that the Army was using Schine as a hostage to exert pressure on McCarthy.

Both sides of this dispute were aired over national television between April 22 and June 17, 1954, during what became known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings.  McCarthy’s frequent interruptions of the proceedings and his calls of "point of order" made him the object of ridicule, and his approval ratings in public opinion polls continued a sharp decline.  On June 9, the hearings climaxed when McCarthy attacked a young lawyer who worked for the law firm of Joseph Nye Welch, the Army’s chief counsel.  Welch’s reply to McCarthy became famous: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you no sense of decency?"  After that, the hearings petered out to an inconclusive end, but McCarthy’s reputation never recovered.

Photo: Joseph Welch and McCarthyIn August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy.  On September27, the committee released a unanimous report calling McCarthy’s behavior as a committee chairman "inexcusable," "reprehensible," "vulgar and insulting."  On December 2, 1954, the full Senate, by a vote of 67-22, passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for abusing his power as a senator.  Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy now had little power and was ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.

Last Years

Photo: McCarthy BustThroughout his Senate career, McCarthy was troubled by ill health.  Severe sinus problems caused many hospital stays, and a herniated diaphragm led to a difficult operation.  With his friends, McCarthy was a gregarious, kind, warm-hearted man, but in later years he seemed to lose his sense of humor.  Always a heavy drinker, McCarthy’s drinking increased to dangerous levels, especially after the Senate’s actions against him. The drinking eventually caused liver ailments, leading to his hospitalization in April, 1957.  On May 2, 1957, McCarthy died of acute hepatitis at the Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington.  With him when he died was his wife, the former Jean Kerr, who had worked as a researcher in his office.  The couple had married on September 29, 1953.  They had adopted a baby girl, Tierney Elizabeth, in January, 1957.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was buried on a bluff overlooking the Fox River in Appleton’s St. Mary’s cemetery.

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