Joseph McCarthy takes office as a Republican senator from Wisconsin.1 In a primary election, McCarthy had defeated Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., son of one of the icons of American liberalism. Branding himself as “Tail Gunner Joe,” McCarthy had run a vicious, negative campaign against his opponent with accusations that La Follette was a war profiteer.2
The heads of several major Hollywood movie studios gather at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York to respond to recent hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. Several prominent writers, actors and directors – a group that would later become known as the Hollywood Ten – refused to testify at the hearings about their alleged ties to the Communist Party. At the Waldorf, the studio heads decide they will refuse to hire anyone with Communist connections or anyone who won’t testify before HUAC. This is the first official formulation of a blacklist.3
At a HUAC hearing, former Communist Party member Whittaker Chambers accuses Alger Hiss, a former high-level State Department official, of being a Communist. Over the next several months, the committee hears dramatic allegations about Hiss’ double life as a Communist sympathizer working within the U.S. government.4
A jury convicts Hiss of two counts of perjury for lying about his Communist connections.5 Many consider this to be the official end of the New Deal era. “For eighteen years [this country] had been run by New Dealers, Fair Dealers, Misdealers and Hiss dealers,” HUAC member Karl Mundt (R-S.D.) says.6
During a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., little-known Sen. McCarthy claims he has a list of 205 active Communist Party members and Soviet spies working in the State Department.7
In a follow-up to his Wheeling speech, McCarthy speaks to the Senate for five hours, claiming he has a list of 81 people who pose a risk to the State Department.
McCarthy begins testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on the Investigation of Loyalty of State Department Employees – also known as the Tydings Committee – which was established in response to the senator’s allegations and named for its chairman, Sen. Millard Tydings (D-Md.). Although McCarthy reveals the names of nine supposed Communists in the State Department, the committee does not find any truth to the allegation of Communist penetration of the agency. Thanks to increasing press coverage, however, McCarthy’s fanatic behavior rapidly gains popularity.
A federal grand jury indicts Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, on charges of espionage for leaking information about nuclear weapons technology to the Soviets.8
Taking his combative nature with the press to the next level, McCarthy assaults muckraker Drew Pearson in the men’s cloakroom of the Sulgrave Club in Washington. Although Pearson sued McCarthy, the senator was never punished for his actions.9
The Rosenbergs are convicted of espionage.10 Two years later, they would be executed, the first civilians to be sentenced to death for espionage in American history.11 12 Many historians have concluded that Julius Rosenberg was, in fact, a Soviet spy but that Ethel, while she knew of her husband’s activities, did not actively participate in them.13
Press coverage, focusing mostly on McCarthy’s diatribes against his political opponents, helps McCarthy win re-election.14 He defeats Len Schmitt in the Republican primary and Democratic challenger Thomas Fairchild in the general election.
Robert La Follette Jr., McCarthy’s opponent in the 1946 campaign, is found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. La Follette had told friends that he feared he might have to testify before McCarthy about Communist infiltration of the committee he chaired while he was in Congress.15
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, McCarthy begins investigating alleged subversive infiltration of the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J.16
CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, host of the popular show “See It Now,” airs the story of the wrongful discharge of Air Force Lt. Milo Radulovich. Radulovich becomes an example of the negative consequences of McCarthy’s anti-Communist hysteria. Within a month of Murrow’s report, the Air Force reinstates Radulovich.17
The Washington Post begins running a dramatic series of stories on McCarthy’s reckless charges against the Fort Monmouth Signal Corps written by reporter Murrey Marder. “Nothing that can be independently ascertained from information available here or in Washington indicates that there is any known evidence to support such a conclusion,” Marder writes.18
On “See It Now,” Murrow reveals weaknesses in McCarthy’s bombastic rhetoric by splicing together contradictory statements from the senator’s own speeches.19 One example of McCarthy’s inflammatory nature was his insistence that the Fifth Amendment was a “shield for the guilty.”20
Prompted by reporting from both Murrow and Marder – both of whom chronicled and scrutinized Joseph McCarthy’s every utterance and official action for four solid years – the Senate begins holding hearings to investigate the senator’s controversial accusations. The Army-McCarthy hearings were the first televised hearings in U.S. history, watched by 20 million people.21
Toward the end of a long day of hearings, McCarthy engages in a confrontation with Army counselor Joseph Welch. McCarthy accuses a young lawyer at Welch’s firm of having worked for a Communist organization – despite a secret promise made days earlier by McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, that the senator would not bring this up during the nationally televised hearings. Welch lambastes McCarthy, asking him “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”22
The Senate votes 67 to 22 in favor of condemning – but not censuring – McCarthy for false accusations and his crass demeanor throughout the Army-McCarthy hearings. Vice President Richard Nixon, presiding over the Senate, strikes the word “censure” from the resolution’s title at the last minute at the behest of McCarthy’s die-hard supporters who, as author Haynes Johnson put it, “launched an effort to discredit the proceedings and diminish the meaning of what took place.”23 Not a single act of espionage or subversion was ever found by McCarthy’s subcommittee.24
Disgraced and downtrodden, McCarthy falls from the public eye and dies of alcoholism-related cirrhosis at the age of 48.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” is released in theaters. Starring Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., and David Strathairn and directed by George Clooney, the film depicts what went on behind the scenes of Murrow’s “See It Now” broadcasts. It is nominated for six Academy Awards.25