On February 9, 1950, a speech in Wheeling given by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy altered the course of history.
During his speech at the McClure Hotel, the Wisconsin Republican held up a piece of paper that allegedly listed 205 communists who worked for the U.S. State Department.
It was a pivotal moment in the early Cold War and propelled McCarthy into the national spotlight.
The speech was part of the Wheeling Republicans’ annual Lincoln Day celebration. Although McCarthy’s remark made national headlines, it didn’t even “cause a ripple in the room,” according to a local lawyer who attended the event. In reality, McCarthy didn’t have an actual list. In the coming days, he lowered his 205 total significantly and often cited conflicting numbers.
Despite these inconsistencies, the speech in Wheeling made McCarthy the face of the anti-communism movement, which played out in nationally televised hearings. McCarthy’s popularity eventually plummeted after he charged that communists had infiltrated the U.S. Army. In the end, his investigations failed to uncover even one communist working in the government. As a result, the term McCarthyism became synonymous with witch hunts and baseless allegations.