By the end of the 1940s, Americans were growing increasingly unsettled by Cold War events. The Soviets had developed their own A-bomb. Nationalist China had fallen to the Communists. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee aimed to root out Communist subversion in the United States.
So when the junior U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, gave a speech at Wheeling, W. Va., on Feb. 9, 1950, he found a ready audience for his message: America was being betrayed by government officials who had sold out their country to the Communists.
Overnight, McCarthy became a populist hero. He deftly waged his battles in print and on camera against “traitors” in government he said were aiding the spread of international communism.
Along the way, McCarthy subverted Constitutional protections by interrogating his opponents using unnamed sources, casting their political leanings as criminal activity and treating their right not to answer his questions as an admission of guilt. He perfected the art of the smear: attacking suspects and foes with innuendo, rumor, outright lies.
He created a climate of fear called McCarthyism that would ultimately ruin thousands of lives. The movement seemed terrifying and unstoppable for years because many politicians felt they couldn’t take a public stand against him.
But in 1954, after several newspapers had begun to question McCarthy’s methods, the intrepid CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow broadcast a devastating indictment of the Wisconsin senator and won resounding support among viewers.
McCarthy’s problems only worsened that summer when he was singled out during a nationally televised Senate hearing for trying to turn his smear tactics against members of the U.S. Army.
The media attention that had fed McCarthy’s rise to power, now opened the door to his demise. By the end of the year, McCarthy’s behavior led the Senate to censure him. He died three years later at the age of 48.