Joseph Raymond McCarthy was a US politician who served as Wisconsin senator from 1947 to 1957. He is responsible for McCarthyism, a period of time in US history stretching from 1950 to 1956 during which he engineered witch-hunts against US citizens suspected of harboring Communist sympathies. McCarthy was born on November 14, 1908 in Grand Chute, Wisconsin.
In 1935, he graduated with a law degree and, at the age of 30, became the youngest judge ever elected in Wisconsin. In 1942, during World War Two, McCarthy enrolled in the Marines. His war record became a theme of his later electoral campaign, which led to him becoming a Republican Senator at 38.
McCarthy entered politics at the height of the Cold War, the formally undeclared conflict that began in the mid-1940s between the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union and the US and its allies. By the end of the 1940s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was waging a violent anti-Communist campaign that amounted to a modern-day witch-hunt. Hollywood personalities were among its main targets. On February 9, 1950, during a public speech, Senator McCarthy declared he had a list of names of Communist sympathizers working at the State Department. The news had a huge effect, and McCarthy became a celebrity. His accusations reinforced the fears of many Americans. A committee was set up in the wake of McCarthy’s claims to assess and verify whether they were well founded. Investigations failed to find any substantial proof. Nonetheless, McCarthy continued to wage his anti-Communist campaign, and in 1952 was re-elected senator and became the head of a special committee set up to question suspects.
Tensions were running high in the US. Numerous public figures were accused of espionage and membership in the Communist Party. Their lives and careers were often seriously damaged. McCarthy even began to harbor doubts about President Eisenhower himself. For 36 days in 1954, McCarthy’s interrogations of various US Army officers were televised. The senator’s high-handed and harsh manners tarnished his image in the eyes of many Americans. In 1954, the Republicans lost their Senate majority. Many of McCarthy’s own party comrades disavowed him. The Senate began an inquiry into his behavior, finding him worthy of censure and effectively ending his political life. McCarthy spent his final years as a pale ghost of his former self, eventually succumbing to alcoholism and death in the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1957.