In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) of Wisconsin launched a series of investigations to indentify communist sympathizers he believed had infiltrated the United States government. Before the Senate ended his high-profile crusade a year later, McCarthy had convened dozens of hearings carried on national television and accused hundreds of government and military officials of communist leanings, fostering a climate of fear and suspicion in the early years of the Cold War.
McCarthy, a former marine who was first elected to the Senate in 1946, rose to the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations when the Republicans took control of the Senate after the 1952 election. He arranged his first hearings to investigate alleged communist influence at the Voice of America radio network.
Initially, McCarthy’s hearings enjoyed bipartisan support, since political leaders of both parties regarded communism as a mortal threat. One of his early staffers was Democrat Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968), the brother of future president John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).
But criticism of McCarthy’s tactics mounted in 1954 as the senator and his senior staff member, Roy Cohn (1927-1986) lodged a series of wild accusations against witnesses, often with little or no evidence. His targets included authors, lawyers, and high-ranking military officers.
Critics accused McCarthy of conducting a witch hunt, and even former allies complained he had gone too far with the baseless accusations. Opposition to McCarthyism was voiced most famously by a lawyer for the army, Joseph Welch (1890-1960), who asked McCarthy during a heated hearing in 1954, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
By the end of 1954, the Senate had halted the hearings and voted to censure the senator. McCarthy died of alcoholism three years later, at the age of forty-eight.
From The Intellectual Devotional – Modern Culture by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim