In the 1950s, U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy became one of the most infamous public figures in American history and he had a unique connection to West Virginia.
After World War II, as the Soviet Union and communist China expanded, McCarthy led what’s now known as the “Red Scare,” using unsubstantiated claims and slander to accuse U.S. government officials, and private citizens, of being traitors and spies. Many lives and careers were destroyed.
Some people may have forgotten that the senator’s red-baiting career kicked off with a speech at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950.
Author Larry Tye’s new biography, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy,” details this dinner and McCarthy’s rise and fall. He spoke with Eric Douglas about the book.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: In a nutshell, describe what McCarthy did with his House Un-American Activities Committee.
Tye: He was looking for the perfect issue. He picked up on the kinds of things that people had been talking about for a dozen years in the old house Un-American Activities Committee. He took those issues, but he came to Wheeling, West Virginia, and did something with them at that moment that made him the one name we remember 70 years later.
Douglas: Describe that for us.
Tye: He had two speeches in his briefcase. The first speech was a snoozer on national housing policy, which happened to be something he knew a bit about. Had he picked that speech out that night, you and I wouldn’t be talking about him 70 years later.
Instead he reached deeper into his briefcase and pulled out a speech that he probably had never seen until that night. McCarthy holds up the speech in his right hand. He says, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 spies at the U.S. State Department. These are people that President Truman should have known about, people he should have rooted out and they are making us less safe.”
Douglas: We’re seeing it in the United States and around the world; people who are gaslighting, who were just blatantly lying and have no concern for the truth. Something that really struck me is McCarthy coming up with petty nicknames for people.
Tye: McCarthy came up with incredibly mean, but also incredibly enticing, nicknames that the press couldn’t resist. Shortly after McCarthy’s Wheeling speech, a senator from Maine named Margaret Chase Smith, along with six of her colleagues, came out with what they called their Declaration of Conscience, basically calling him unconscionable and un-American.
McCarthy listened to that, and it seemed like minutes afterwards, he dubbed Smith and her six colleagues, “Snow White and the six dwarfs.” It was McCarthy’s way of understanding that the public responded partly to something that seemed cute, but it also was a quick catchphrase, and something that was a characterization and something that was mean. And McCarthy was, after all, the archetype of American bullies.
Douglas: What would 1950s McCarthyism have been like if Joe McCarthy had access to Twitter?
Tye: Joe McCarthy was brilliant at exploiting the medium of the day. The medium of the day, the leading one, was still newspapers, but it was also television, it was radio, and he knew the deadlines and the techniques for all of those reporters. He knew what they wanted and how to feed them. So he would instinctively, without having to be told, know how to make social media work for him, know how to make instant and 24-hour TV and cable news work for him.
Douglas: In the book you described several times how he manipulated the press, by understanding their deadlines and understanding the way they worked. That he could throw something out there and reporters at the time felt it was perfectly reasonable to report whatever somebody said, and then fact check it later.
Tye: He was cynical, and he understood that what a reporter wanted more than anything else was, if they were a radio reporter, was to lead that evening’s news cycle. And if they were a print reporter was to get on Page One and stay on Page One. There was no U.S. senator then, or maybe ever, who put reporters on Page One more often than the guy who became known as “low blow Joe McCarthy.”
Douglas: Explain what brought McCarthy down.
Tye: He took on the U.S. Army. He made charges he couldn’t substantiate. The army was brought in along with McCarthy for the most famous congressional hearings ever, the Army-McCarthy hearings. And in those hearings McCarthy did himself in. He showed, when Americans were watching him night after night on television, that he wasn’t the great champion that they thought he was at the beginning of the hearings.
At the beginning, his popularity rating nationally was 50 percent. He looked more like the town bully by the end of those hearings. His popularity had gone from 50 percent to 34 percent. So in just six months, he went from being the second most-popular politician in America to being this vulnerable guy who went down.
“Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” by author Larry Tye is now available.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.