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'American Experience: McCarthy' Recounts a Time of Fear and Concern
January 6, 2020  | By David Hinckley

A new documentary on the late Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy references no events after May 1957.

That's left up to the viewer.

McCarthy, which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Monday (check local listings) as part of PBS' American Experienceseries, focuses on the years between 1950 and 1954 when McCarthy's crusade to root out Communist spies, subversives and traitors inside the American government helped shape national policies, polarized the country and ruined a number of lives.

Sharon Grimberg, who created, wrote, and directed McCarthy, doesn't make her subject a monster. He was a classic American success story in several ways, the son of hardscrabble Wisconsin farmers who earned a law degree, got himself elected to a judgeship with old-fashioned door-to-door politics and fought in World War II. In 1946 he pulled off a huge upset by relieving Wisconsin institution Robert LaFollette of his U.S. Senate seat.

McCarthy positioned himself as an outsider, a man of the people with an easy, jovial manner. He could be friendly and even charming in-person to people he had fiercely attacked on the Senate floor. He married a woman who worked on his staff, and they adopted a child.

He was also an ambitious self-promoter who was spinning his wheels in the Senate until February 1950, when he gave a speech in West Virginia claiming that the State Department employed 205 communists.

He had no such information. It was a lie. But the Soviet Union had recently developed a nuclear weapon, and Mao Zedong's rebels had taken over China, and many Americans were very nervous about communists.

So McCarthy didn't need truth. He only needed to pour gasoline on the fire, and his gambit paid off. The media picked up that speech and soon hung on his every word and every lie.

In retrospect, McCarthy suggests, what became known as McCarthyism was appalling. But it flourished for almost five years, thanks to what Grimberg distills into at least five major enabling factors.

One, McCarthy didn't have to invent fear of communism, just tap into what was already there. The House Un-American Activities Committee had been on a witch hunt, demonizing celebrities and academics with a communist past or just suspiciously progressive views, since 1947. 

Two, his core supports brushed aside nuances like due process and guilt by association as long as they were convinced McCarthy was exposing and combating the larger enemy.

Three, while McCarthy's bullying and intimidation shocked and offended many of his fellow Republicans, all except Margaret Chase Smith of Maine saw the support he had and for several years decided it served them politically to ride his train.

Four, he played into the long-standing resentment of what many consider the out-of-touch Washington power elite. He would tell Midwestern audiences he was happy to be "out of Washington and back in America."

Five, while he had critics in the media, he also had powerful friends who, in effect, became part of his team.

McCarthy doesn't suggest there were no security issues in the "establishment," only that McCarthy elevated his targets into larger-than-life monsters by wildly exaggerating their numbers and influence.

In the end, a different combination of events brought McCarthy down.

When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 and Republicans came to power, McCarthy's own influence exploded overnight. But by then, he was morphing from opportunist to ideologue. When he declared there were communists in the Army, he was taking on Eisenhower's most cherished institution and making his own party's president his adversary.

In early 1954, Edward R. Murrow aired his famous television news special warning that McCarthy was trampling the American values he claimed to be protecting. During a Senate hearing in June 1954, Army counsel Joseph Welch delivered his famous "Have you no decency?" rebuke.

Grimberg adds the intriguing footnote that Welch may have seen that short impromptu speech as a performance on his own part – an ironic if fitting way to nail a man who had been performing for years.

Soon thereafter, half the Republicans in the Senate decided the political capital they had gained from McCarthy was no longer worth it, and they joined in a vote to censure him for his excesses.

McCarthy died in May 1957, primarily from the effects of a long-time drinking problem that soared out of control once he realized his spotlight time was up.

At the end of her documentary, however, Grimberg also notes this. McCarthy had two funerals, one on the floor of the Senate, and both drew large admiring crowds, many of whom insisted that McCarthy was right and his crusade was noble.

McCarthyism, she suggests, was not buried with McCarthy.

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