February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R - Wisconsin) delivers a speech in Wheeling, WV to the Republican Womens Club. During his address, the little-known senator holds up a sheet of paper purportedly containing the names of 205 employees of the US State Department who were known communists.
This list was never actually made public, and the number of names supposedly on the list was changed by Senator McCarthy several times. It was, however, the very insinuation that communists had infiltrated the government that gave birth to one of the darkest periods in American domestic history. The era of "McCarthyism" had arrived.
For most of the next four years, Joe McCarthy held the spotlight on the American political stage. He made one unsubstantiated accusation after another against men and women in various departments of the government (and finally concentrating on the Army) that they were communists. The burgeoning Cold War with China and the Soviet Union fueled the fears of the public and provided the perfect environment for McCarthy's unrelenting campaign of lies, half-truths, and smears.
Senator McCarthy's political clout grew by leaps and bounds during this period. Candidates he supported were almost universally elected; those he opposed were defeated in like manner. Dwight Eisenhower, President and a member of McCarthy's own Republican Party, would not take him on directly for fear of the political damage it might cause. Senator McCarthy also garnered the support of the newest political power broker in America, Joseph P. Kennedy.
Along with the Hollywood blacklist affair engineered by HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the McCarthy attacks ruined lives and impugned the reputations of hundreds of decent, loyal citizens. Even Gen. George C. Marshall, Secretary of Defense and author of the Marshall Plan did not escape the twisted eye of the Senator from Wisconsin.
Ultimately, Senator McCarthy met the same fate as most other misguided zealots. Saner and more rational heads prevailed. His opponents finally had had enough and began to challenge McCarthy's accusations. It was Army chief legal representative Joseph Welch who asked the now-infamous question, "Have you no sense of decency, Senator, at long last?", that drove a final nail in the coffin. In 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy. His popularity, already fading, dropped to Bush-like levels. McCarthy would die in 1957 from complications of alcoholism. His legacy would live on, however. The term "McCarthyism" will forever be synonymous with fear-mongering and scurrilous, baseless character attacks.
Fast-forward 50 years. On October 17, 2008, Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-Minnesota), appearing on Hardball, accused the Democratic candidate for President ,Barack Obama, of being "anti-American." She further called for the media to do an expose on those members of Congress who are pro-American and those who are anti-American. These were shocking statements, to be sure. Ms. Bachman did not hold up a piece of paper containing the names of her anti-American colleagues, but the tenor of her accusations had an eerie ring to it.
In the present era, we have replaced the word "communist" with "terrorist", "muslim", "Arab", and "anti-American" as the buzz words of fear, hate, and division. In the 50s, membership in an organization with a liberal philosophy was enough to get you on a list of subversives. Today, all you need is an unusual name. Adherance to the tenets of a particular religion can be enough for an investigation into your loyalty. Simple opposition to the policies of the current administration means you are "against us."
In the media-savvy world of 2008, those espousing this doctrine of attacking the "anti-Americans" in our government and our society are much better polished than those of that bygone era of black-and-white television. Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan don't look quite as maniacal as the late senator from Wisconsin. Nonetheless, their agendas remain just as dangerous, just as insidious. The message is this: "If you don't share our views, if you disagree with our policies, you are the enemy and must be exposed as such and ostracized from the company of decent, loyal Americans."
As was the case in the early 1950s, there is a need for saner, more rational heads. We must stand up and shout "Enough!" whenever we he hear the rhetoric of McCarthyism being spewed on our airwaves and in our newsprint. It was the great journalist, Edward R. Murrow, concluding the episode on Joseph McCarthy on his show See It Now, who seemingly had the last word on the Senator. Murrow said the following:
"His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. [...] We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully."
These words hold as much significance today as they did over 50 years ago. As we optimistically look toward the birth of a new era in American politics and government, let us never forget the lessons of both the distant and the recent past. Fear, doubt, and divisiveness will never succeed so long as we, the people, stand up and defend liberty and truth.