Standing Tall Against Joseph McCarthy

During the 1950’s, Americans were living in a constant shadow of fear from the threats of the Cold War. This anti-communism idea was rapidly spread through the ideas and protests led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. But, this only falsely accused thousands of innocent people, essentially ruining their lives.  His views transformed this into an era “when to be accused  was to be assumed guilty and when associating with the wrong people could destroy an individual’s life” (133).  Despite the negative effects his protests had on Americans, he did have a wide following considering his ideas at the time were hard to rebel against. McCarthy had no trouble manipulating the press, and that was the sole reason he gained so much popularity, he knew what would make news and get attention. He finessed his way around deadlines in order to avoid his information being checked or corrected, and they would be reported by journalists without question. “…but he was a United States Senator, we reported whatever he said”(136).

TV news played a huge role in exposing McCarthy for his brutal accusations. Because of the interest the people had on his trials, they were televised on ABC for more than a month, holding over 80 million viewers. Edward R. Murrow and his partner Fred Friendly, spoke out against McCarthy in their television program, See It Now. This program was the first of its kind to discuss controversial issues on controversial subjects of all sorts for the information and education of the American people. One of their segments in March of 1954 was dedicated to filmed speeches given by McCarthy that only exposed his own contradictions and falsehoods, being a major turning point in how he was viewed by Americans. This program provided the largest flood of responses in the history of TV up to that point. McCarthy even had the chance to rebuttal those claims, where he only called Murrow himself a communist and contradict himself a little more. This program was the moment when opinion was turned against McCarthy, all thanks to Murrow. In December 1954, the senators voted a 67 to 22 to strip McCarthy of his power, subjecting him to public disgrace, and silencing him once and for all.

Joseph Welch (left), with United States Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin (right), at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations’ McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954. 
Wikimedia Commons

Joseph McCarthy chats with his attorney Roy Cohn during Senate Subcommittee hearings.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. 

Key Terms / People :

  • Joseph McCarthy: United States politician who falsely  accused many citizens of being Communists. The face of the period of intense anti-communist suspicion during the time of the Cold War.
  • Cold War: the state of political hostility that existed between the Soviet bloc countries and the US-led Western powers from 1945 to 1990.
  • McCarthyism: campaign started in 1950 by Joseph McCarthy against alleged communists in the US government and other institutions.
  • Edward R. Murrow: American journalist known for his reports from London during World War II, and later the exposition of Joseph McCarthy, being the individual to change the American view of those policies.
  • Fred Friendly: president of CBS News and the creator, along with Edward R. Murrow, of the documentary television program See It Now. He originated the concept of public-access television cable TV channels.
  • See It Now: an American news magazine and documentary series broadcast by CBS from 1951 to 1958. It was created by Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly.

Discussion Questions:

  • Joseph McCarthy was notorious for treating anyone who disagreed with him as an enemy. How has this type of rule been repeated in recent history?
  • How do leaders demonstrating false accusations and unethical behavior gain so much support?
  • Is there anyone today that would resemble the roles of Murrow and Friendly in speaking out against corrupt political or ethical ideas and behaviors?




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