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New Book Details Rise And Fall Of American Demagogue Joe McCarthy

1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Left to right: G. David Schine, Senator McCarthy, and Roy Cohn. [Wisconsin Historical Society/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]
Photo of 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Left to right: G. David Schine, Senator McCarthy, and Roy Cohn. [Wisconsin Historical Society/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Although Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy has been long gone from the American political scene, best-selling author Larry Tye said he still makes his presence felt.

“70 years later, there’s still an ‘ism’ named after him that gives us the shivers,” Tye said.

That “ism” is “McCarthyism,” which has come to represent politicians who engage in demagoguery, mudslinging and making baseless charges against opponents.

From 1950 until 1954, McCarthy was one of the best-known and polarizing political figures in the United States. McCarthy accused numerous government officials, military members, educators and others of being communists or sympathetic toward their cause. The vast majority of the accusations proved to be unfounded, but it didn’t stop McCarthy from terrorizing his opponents through vicious intimidation tactics, which ruined careers and destroyed lives.

As part of Tye’s research for his 2018 book, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon” (Random House), Tye spoke to Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, about McCarthy.  Early in his career, Robert Kennedy worked as assistant council on the Senate subcommittee on investigations chaired by McCarthy. 

Ethel Kennedy described McCarthy in a way that took Tye aback. She said while the rest of America saw McCarthy as a monster, she and her husband felt he was “just plain good fun.”

“I’ve thought of Joe McCarthy in lots of different ways. The idea of him being ‘good fun’ wasn't one of them. It struck me that there must be another side to this character that I didn't understand,” Tye said.

This desire to better understand McCarthy led Tye to write his latest book “ Demagogue: The Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

[Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Tye had access to a number of rare documents, including McCarthy’s personal and professional papers which had been donated to his alma mater, Marquette University.  Using those papers, Tye discovered much about McCarthy, including that he been telling the truth about an infamous episode when he ran for United States Senate in 1946.

As member of the Marines, McCarthy was a land-based intelligence officer. However, he said he had volunteered to fly a dozen combat missions as a gunner-observer, earning him the nickname “Tail-Gunner Joe.” The press was dubious of his claim and turned his nickname into one of derision.

“His real time or records and letters in those files from his squad mates showed that while his official assignment was as a land based intelligence officer, who was relatively safe, he volunteered for perilous missions. He sometimes flew in the back of the plane as a tail gunner. It showed two things, one is that he was telling the truth about that critical aspect of his early life, the other is it suggested, if you lie often enough, when you're occasionally telling the truth people aren't going to believe you,” Tye said.

Joe McCarthy posing in a Douglas SBD Bomber [Wisconsin Historical Sociey/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

McCarthy won that 1946 Senate race. Tye said McCarthy’s career wasn’t particularly noteworthy, until he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that changed his career.”

“He went there on February 9th, 1950, with a briefcase that had two speeches. He was looking for something that would put him in the public spotlight. The first speech in his briefcase was a snoozer on national housing policy, which was a topic that he actually knew something about. But instead, he reached into that briefcase and pulled out the second speech, one that he probably had never really looked at because he hadn't written or edited it. It was a barnburner. It said that there were 205 spies hiding in our State Department, that these were people the President Truman should have known about and should have rooted out. They were part of what was putting us in peril in terms of our Soviet enemies. It was a compelling speech that ended up making the front page of every newspaper in America,” Tye said.

However, there was just one problem.

“He didn't have a list of spies in his hand. The names that he had probably never added up to close to 205. Most of them were people who were low level functionaries who might have had leftist flirtations a generation before when they were in college. It was all a recycled act, but it didn't matter to him. He found the issue. He developed the movement,” Tye said.

Over the next four years, McCarthy devoted himself to an anti-communist crusade. In hearings and other venues, McCarthy accused figures ranging from diplomats to educators to military members of being traitors to the United States.

Numerous other political figures, including Richard Nixon had made names for themselves by red-baiting, but Tye said McCarthy stood out.

“McCarthy was a cowboy. He showed from his first speech on this topic that he understood that if you actually counted and named the alleged traitors, that that was much more appealing to the press who would put you on page one and to the public who read those newspapers. He borrowed all the techniques of demagogues who came before him, (including) Huey Long, the governor and Senator, and many minor dictators from Louisiana and the Jew-baiting radio priest Father Charles Coughlin. All of these people had a certain flair. McCarthy had even more of a flair. He was the one who best captured public fears and public hopes,” Tye said.

According to Tye, by the time McCarthy began his campaign to find traitors to the communist cause, nearly all the major spies had already been discovered. Tye said that by “crying wolf” so often, McCarthy severely damaged the anti-communist cause, because when credible threats were present they were dismissed as being part of McCarthy’s witch hunt.

In “Demagogue,” Tye draws comparisons between McCarthy and President Donald Trump. He contends that Trump employs the same tactics as the Wisconsin senator, and Tye said Trump learned these methods of attack from Roy Cohn, who served as McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 and later represented and mentored Trump.

The Army-McCarthy hearings brought about McCarthy’s downfall.  The Senator claimed that there was a nest of spies harbored at the Fort Monmouth Army base in New Jersey. At first the Army told McCarthy if he would name the spies, they would suspend and investigate them. However, when it was revealed that Cohn had attempted to gain treatment for his friend G. David Shine during Shine’s time in the Army, public sentiment turned against McCarthy, who had defended Cohn’s actions.

At the end of 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy, leaving him powerless. Deprived of the limelight, McCarthy, who had a drinking problem, retreated further to alcohol until his death in 1957.

Tye said he understands why some might see “Demagogue” as a bleak book about a dark period in American politics, but he sees it differently.

“I see it as a good news story. Every demagogue in American history, from Huey Long to Governor (George) Wallace of Alabama to most importantly Joe McCarthy, given the rope, every demagogue has hung themselves. More importantly, given the time America has discovered its better nature and rejected the bully. It takes too long at times for us to do that, but I'm confident going forward that we'll continue to do that,” Tye said.