Legacies Reconsidered: Joseph McCarthy

The stories of the late U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare have been widely discussed and often panned by several in historical commentary. They center around the growing communist influence within the confines of the U.S. government and several pillars of American life in the late 1930s through the 1940s and culminating with the senate hearings of the early 1950s that mainstreamed this concern. Often McCarthy is described as fanatical and way out of line for his accusations and allegations of suspected perpetrators. Some of his frequent targets included those in various agencies in government; the military and American social life. After the strain from the hearings Senator McCarthy succumbed at the young age of 48 in 1957. He battled a variety of medical problems, some that were aggravated by the stress and anxiety of the hearings.

In this piece, however, we offer a brief reconsideration of McCarthy and the anti-communist crusade that he stood for based on providing some empirical facts researched from first-hand accounts such as the work McCarthy[1] by Roy Cohn (who served as chief counsel to McCarthy during the hearings) and The Autobiography of Roy Cohn[2] by Sidney Zion. This reflection will add to the commentary and debate on the McCarthy legacy and hopefully will encourage the reader to reflect on contextual issues that are often ignored in modern discussion. We will largely focus here on a few elements of the Army-McCarthy hearings, a major episode that contributed to the present understanding of his legacy.

A main criticism of McCarthy has been his combative and bombastic style during the Army-McCarthy hearings in which he communicated his accusations. It unsettled several members of Congress and the media were eager to assist in clouding his image by presenting him in the light of a relentless zealot that sought to take no prisoners. In the modern day, we have seen similar criticisms appear when considering the legacy of former President Donald Trump. The substance is often ignored or diluted by a harsh reaction to communicative style. McCarthyism has now become a punchline word in the dictionary and today just uttering the name Trump has frequently become synonymous with the rising “cancel culture”.

In regards to McCarthy, however, one must first ask the question- how did this begin? A rising popular senator from Wisconsin who was very close with the Kennedy clan had defeated a popular incumbent and later decided to stake his career on this risky and controversial initiative. In McCarthy, his chief counsel to the hearings, Roy Cohn who ironically would later advise a young Donald Trump, stated it all began with an FBI contingent concerned about the national security of the nation met with Senator McCarthy and provided him with information on communist operatives working in the U.S. that had been vetted and investigated by the FBI in the 1940s. J. Edgar Hoover, longtime head of the FBI had begun this initiative at the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This FBI contingent, however, was unsatisfied at the persistent stalling and often minimizing the importance of addressing the issue, and sought to find a leader in Washington willing to mainstream and shed light on the problems. Prior to McCarthy, other senators had chosen to not seriously address the situation out of fear for their political careers. It took some convincing as McCarthy did not begin his senate career focusing on the issue. Once he thoroughly found himself studying and immersing himself into the intelligence, however, he decided to proceed. As chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he was in a position to use resources and thoroughly conduct an investigation into this issue. Little did he know the firestorm that would be set off that would draw him into conflict with both sides of the aisle and a Republican administration headed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A Few Points to Consider

In McCarthy’s crusade against communist infiltration, several substantive issues were brought to light. This episode also showcased the efforts of the Eisenhower administration, its allies and the media to release relentless attacks on McCarthy and present him as so far outside the mainstream with his goals that he should not be respected. The following are just a few of the many major areas in which McCarthy was drawn into conflict for seeking transparency for situations in which he believed the United States was at risk.

G. David Schine

G. David Schine was a member of McCarthy team along with Roy Cohn that worked to tackle the growing communist threat. One of his major missions was accompanying Roy Cohn overseas to Europe to investigate U.S state-sponsored libraries and education resources that had promoted communism. This was clearly an interest contrary to the U.S.’s formal anti-communism foreign policy. The media had dogged and sensationalized the work of Cohn and Schine throughout this trip in which they found a large degree of evidence. Cohn provides a comprehensive first-hand account in McCarthy.

Schine proved to be a strong asset to the team and also became a good friend of Cohn, but unfortunately was caught in the middle of the heated conflict between the McCarthy team and the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings. As Cohn categorized it in his autobiography, Schine would essentially become a “hostage” of the forces acting against McCarthy. For his great work on the McCarthy team, Cohn as Chief Counsel to McCarthy recommended him for a commission in the Army after he was drafted in 1953. It was typical practice that politicians would recommend individuals for this designation from time to time in gratitude for the work they have performed in governmental capacities. As McCarthy and Cohn were putting pressure on the Army to challenge it into providing some insight into intelligence failures and infiltrations in their ranks most notably through the Irving Peress affair which will be discussed later, the Army with the support of the Eisenhower administration and the media detracted with essentially manufacturing the Schine scandal. The Army had sought to pressure McCarthy through Cohn based on allegations of improper pressure exerted for Schine’s commission by Cohn. The relentless attacks during the Schine affair on McCarthy and Cohn were truly a dark point in American history.  Allegations of corruption for seemingly a routine act by a politician were baseless, but detracted the attention from the major issue of the Army’s failure for effective oversight to minimize the communist threat.

Army Failure- The Irving Peress Affair

The Irving Peress affair was one of the major areas of McCarthy’s focus when investigating the alleged communist infiltration in the Army. It centered around Irving Peress, a dentist believed to be a member of the communist movement and who helped facilitate its cause as verified by members of the U.S. intelligence community. Pursuant to policy, Peress was eligible for automatic promotion as a medical professional but was under investigation based on his application responses in which he plead the 5th Amendment in regards to inquires related to communist and subversion activities. Nevertheless, he was still granted the promotion, thus creating a quandary and further reports and complaints were submitted about his potential communist activities. The Army then resolved to grant him an honorable discharge as a means to remedy the situation, however, McCarthy demanded accountability at the hearings on this bureaucratic failure and sought to assess if this was a systematic issue that required the Army to conduct serious reforms. It came to light later that the thorough investigation conducted by McCarthy and verified by intelligence on Peress was not a red herring, but in fact proved he was connected with communist activity. The Army had very strong allies in the White House and media and had pushed back on McCarthy’s crusade. The Schine affair was part of a wider counter-initiative to discredit McCarthy and Cohn. McCarthy would continue to raise the issue of other security breaches within the Army, but would find himself facing powerful establishment forces that sought to shield these issues from the public.

Ironically, General Ralph W. Zwicker had notified McCarthy of the Peress problem which spurred the investigation that revealed errors on the part of the Army. When pressed on these issues later during the hearings, Zwicker succumbed to outside pressure and refused to commit to this initial position. McCarthy was forced into a difficult position and could not burn his source out of fear that other sources would soon follow, thus compromising further intelligence gathering. More examples of blatant corruption are discussed in Roy Cohn’s works.

Annie Lee Moss

Annie Lee Moss held a position in the government working with Pentagon coding and suspiciously had been promoted from an unrelated cafeteria position. An undercover FBI agent testified to Moss’ communist membership in the 1940s and involvement with communist initiatives before Congress in 1954. Moss had denied these claims. The FBI testimony was corroborated by another witness and there was also a Department of Justice file on her. Politicians and the media painted Roy Cohn as a bully for pressing forward on behalf of McCarthy regarding this investigation during the Congressional testimony.

There were also claims that the FBI agent had perjured herself when testifying as to Moss’ activities. Some politicians even offered employment to Moss if she was to be reassigned or removed from her present position based on her alleged “mistreatment” during the hearings. In 1958, the Subversive Activities Control Board, a committee tasked with investigating communist infiltration and compelling the American Communist Party to register with the government, formally cleared the FBI agent of any perjury allegation as relating to the Moss matter. The board had in its possession considerable documentation supporting the testimony. McCarthy died in 1957 and would not live to see the vindication bear fruit.

Final Thoughts-A Legacy Reconsidered

McCarthy was ultimately censured by the Senate as a result of the fallout from his anti-communist crusade and hearings. His legacy has been sadly remembered in the history books as a sensationalist that fanatically alleged communist infiltration in the U.S. government and other areas of American life. This is an unfair verdict that has persisted for decades. As evidence has developed over time, however, we owe it to ourselves as Americans to revisit his legacy and respect his initiative to bring greater transparency to government. There was evidence of communist infiltration that he chose to bring to light and as provided in first-hand accounts, he was supported by the intelligence community. This prompted him to first tackle the issue.

While he may have exaggerated in some contexts and was a brash communicator, there were indeed several problems with infiltration in the U.S. government during WWII and the post-WWII era. If able, it is highly recommended to pick up copies of McCarthy by Roy Cohn and The Autobiography of Roy Cohn to inform from a first-hand perspective on the backstory of this often misunderstood issue in modern American history.


[1] Cohn, Roy. McCarthy. New American Library, Inc., 1968.

[2] Zion, Sidney. The Autobiography of Roy Cohn. Lyle Stuart, Inc. 1988.

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