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Henningsen: McCarthy Legacy

In 1945, the victorious United States, with its monopoly on atomic weapons, was the world’s only “superpower.” But barely five years later it was locked in Cold War with the Soviet Union, now an atomic power too, and China had fallen to the Communists. As the glittering promise of ‘45 disappeared, Americans felt betrayed.

Because spies gave atomic secrets to the Soviets, many believed traitors also engineered foreign policy leading to Communist triumph in Asia. To cries of “Who lost China?” the Truman administration began investigating the loyalty of government employees. Soon the nation was in the grip of anti-communist hysteria. Loyalty investigations spread to Hollywood, education and business. Investigators ignored civil liberties: charges could be vague, prosecutors could withhold evidence, people couldn’t confront their accusers. Even unproven accusations of disloyalty ruined careers and cost thousands their jobs.

Symbol of this activity was Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, an opportunist who seized on anti-Communism to gain attention and power. His crusade against “the enemy within” became wildly popular. Few dared oppose him.

But when he challenged the U.S. Army in spring 1954 McCarthy overreached. Americans knew him through newspaper headlines that made him seem a courageous defender of freedom. But the Army hearings were televised and, day after day, viewers saw the real McCarthy – a reckless, sneering bully interrupting colleagues, browbeating witnesses. The accused didn’t look dangerous. They seemed rather ordinary folk, justifiably terrified.

When on June 9th McCarthy dishonestly attacked a young defense lawyer for alleged ties to communism, Army counsel Joseph Welch exploded: “ Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator” he cried, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? ”

As the nation cheered Welch, the Red Scare lost momentum. Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders introduced a motion in the Senate to censure McCarthy, who died in disgrace in 1957.

Although most people remember behavior that added “McCarthyism” to the dictionary, a larger legacy of the Army-McCarthy hearings was television’s power to shape public opinion. In 1950 only 11% of American families had television, but during the spring of ‘54 people started buying sets to watch in horrified fascination as McCarthy destroyed himself in front of a national audience. For the next two years, they purchased 10,000 sets a day. By 1960, 88% of American families had one. And so began the Golden Age of television, a period of sitcoms and commercials, but also a time when televised images of riots and assassinations and of struggles over Civil Rights and Vietnam shaped our understanding of events and, ultimately, the events themselves.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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