The Boundaries of TV and Anti-Communism:
The Case of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

McCarthy was the chief catalyst of mass anti-Communism. More than the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or President Truman's loyalty oaths, or even Russian actions, McCarthy sparked this frightening era and became the principal prophet of anti-Communism as an irrational fear consuming logical analysis and orderly process. If one personality best captured the essence of hating Communists and their politics, it was McCarthy. If one individual exploited popular ig­norance and apprehension, it was the junior senator from Wisconsin. If one politician was most responsible for the course of national life in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, it  too was Senator McCarthy. As David Caute has explained McCarthy and his appeal to mass America, "His pugilistic flamboyance, blatant love of money, women, and horseflesh, his Falstaff-like war service and mythical machismo, caught a cowboy nation by the gut." McCarthy accomplished all this in great part because of the exposure he gained from the broadcasting industry.

As early as April 3, 1947, he was on national radio as a spokesman for anti-Communist values. On America's Town Meeting of the Air he explained why the Communist Party should be outlawed in the United States. He called for the legal banning of the CPUSA, wiping its name from the ballot. According to McCarthy, "The Communist Party is an agency of a foreign power." Therefore, he said, the Justice Department and the FBI should take appropriate steps.

With a broader perspective on the Red menace, the senator returned to America's Town Meeting on March 30, 1948. Here he spoke of a possible World War III against Communism. "As of now we are at war," he declared. "I repeat, as of now we are at war—a war we are rapidly losing." Should his rhetorical war become "a shooting war tomorrow," McCarthy foresaw a Russian takeover of Iceland and Alaska, vantage points from which Communist bombers could hit "practically every American city." To protect the United States, he called for military preparedness. He lauded U.S. air power, and urged "the necessity of keeping abreast or ahead of the time, technically and scientifically, of being prepared to wage or defend ourselves in bacteriological and atomic warfare."

Television was also important to the dissemination of the senator's message. Alone before a TV camera, McCarthy skillfully manipulated half-truths and misrepresented facts. He distorted history by ignoring political context and careful analysis. He pounded his lectern authoritatively, cited documents and specific events, and sounded certain of what he was saying. With little or no convincing rebuttal to his opinions, viewers were ill-equipped to doubt the senator. Furthermore, his slightly disheveled appearance on live TV or the evening news gave him the air of a sincere man under siege by enemies. This lent credibility to his amazing accusations.

In Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950, McCarthy was stunningly specific, announcing that he had the names of 205 Communists who were working for the State Department. The fact that he never revealed those names—and some doubt he ever had that many—was unimportant. As McCarthy remarked on Meet the Press on March 19, 1950, "When you talk about being a member of the Communist Party, I'm not so much concerned about whether they have a card in their pocket saying, 'I am a member of the party.' I'm concerned about those men who are doing the job that the Communists want them to do."

In newspapers, on radio, and especially on television, Senator McCarthy seemed so confident, so convincing. And he had that air of selflessness so important to the character of American heroes. When journalist May Craig asked McCarthy on that Meet the Press program in March 1950 why he was chasing Communists, and if the Republican party had put him up to it, the senator's reply was classical American self-sacrifice: "It's just one of those tasks, May, that someone has to do."

McCarthy was a master of the quick phrase and the attack on personal reputation. On August 15, 1950, he appeared again on the radio version of America's Town Meeting of the Air. Here he spoke of "the sellout to Communism in both East and West." He claimed China "was lost" by the State Department, and that Poland was lost to Communism because of the sins of Secretary of State Dean Acheson. American policy in general, he declared, was being made by "stooges and dupes of the Kremlin." With the customary angry growl in his voice, McCarthy complained that under the Truman administration, the United States would never win the Cold War. America, he concluded, could not "fight world Communism with planners who are either traitors or who are hipdeep in their own failure."

McCarthy could be flowery. No matter that TV exploited pictures more than words, the senator knew how to paint verbal images in the minds of his audiences. On the evening news on July 25, 1950, for example, McCarthy attacked one of his chief critics, Senator Joseph Tydings of Maryland. Speaking of Tydings' Senate committee which had accused him of fraud, McCarthy flamboyantly told a national TV audience:

If they are allowed to succeed, they will keep in power those individuals who are in the State Department today, and those who are responsible for American boys lying face down in the Korean mud with their hands tied behind their backs and their faces shot off. If this fraud is allowed to succeed, it will mean that the trail of blood for which those men are responsible will extend across the sands of Iran right over into the very streets of Berlin. Now if we can prevent it, that fraud will not succeed. This fight isn't over. It's only started.

Senator McCarthy appeared on many TV discussion programs in the early 1950s. He was on Chronoscope, Meet the Press, and American Forum of the Air. Always, McCarthy demonstrated his peculiar argumentative style: making broad charges certain to garner headlines the next day; authoritatively dropping names, dates, and specifics even if they were inaccurate; and dominating any opposing views by undermining the credibility of rival speakers on the show. On American Forum of the Air on June 21, 1953, for example, McCarthy employed accusations, oversimplifications, and interruptions to dominate a discussion about the meaning of McCarthyism in international affairs. To one reviewer, the senator's debating "acrobatics" were "by turn bland and savagely harsh for vocal effects," and marked by "the solemn, intense, momentous pose of a court prosecuting attorney."

McCarthy was a good television performer. TV critic Jack Gould described him as "a master of effective understatement (he seldom telegraphs his punch lines), but skillfully exploits an elementary rule of showmanship—a sensation or two never fails to hold an audience." And his message was believed. McCarthy continued to enjoy great popularity among the American people despite the fact that his enemies used the term "McCarthyism" to mean "the use of indiscriminate, often unfounded, accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods, etc., ostensibly in the suppression of Communism."

McCarthy was not alone, however, in his crusade against Communism. Among his closest allies was the literate, telegenic William F. Buckley, Jr., who wrote frequently in defense of the senator and appeared on TV to cajole critics and boost the anti-Communist movement. In addition to Buckley, close McCarthy loyalists included a host of senators, representatives, patriotic groups, and personal aides such as Roy Cohn and G. David Schine.

And what an effective political tool was anti-Communism. For Republicans grown weary of the reformism of the New Deal and Truman's Fair Deal, it was a useful weapon with which to pound the administration or any liberal Democrat who might wish to succeed the incumbent chief executive. The crusade against Communism was also a powerful tool of those Southern Democrats fearful of more civil rights progress from the Truman administration. But fear of the Red menace, both at home and abroad, was most profitably exploited for political gain by the Republican party—20 years out of the White House—during the 1952 presidential election.

Candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower did not have to be a vociferous anti-Communist. There were others in his party willing to speak bombastically on that subject. Vice-presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon was on the ticket primarily because of his highly publicized anti-Communist activities while in the House of Representatives and later the Senate. The Republican National Committee prepared strong doses of anti-Communism for the campaign. One radio advertisement accused the Democrats of saving Communism from collapse by establishing diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1933. "Then the Communists' Trojan Horse program began in earnest in the United States," declared a deep-voiced narrator, for now "Communists, fellow travelers, and front agents promptly flooded Washington and began to worm their way into the government of the United States." In another such radio announcement, General Eisenhower lent his weight to the cause as he explained American involvement in the Korean War. "We are in that war," said Ike, "because this administration abandoned China to the Communists."

As might be expected, the most flamboyant demolisher of the Democrats was Senator McCarthy. By the fall of 1952 he had abandoned innuendo and directly denounced his critics. In a televised speech he explained that it was the Republicans' job "to dislodge the traitors from every place where they've been sent to do their traitorous work. As he explained it, One Communist in the defense plant is one Communist too many. One Communist on the faculty of one university is one Communist too many. One Communist among the American advisers at Yalta was one Communist too many. And even if there were only one Communist in the State Department, that would be still one Communist too many.

McCarthy's most biting TV appearance was reserved for October 27, 1952, only one week before the presidential election. He declared that "we are at war tonight" against international atheistic Communism, and the result would be either "victory or death." He called American foreign policy "suicidal, Kremlin-directed," and a "deliberate, planned retreat from victory." McCarthy warned that "the millions of loyal Democrats no longer have a loyal party in Washington."

McCarthy saved his most devastating accusations for Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee running against Eisenhower. The senator pummeled Stevenson's advisers for having Red con­nections. He linked the Democratic nominee to subversive organizations and to Alger Hiss, a former State Department employee popularly believed to have been a Communist who had been convicted of committing perjury during a congressional investigation. Because Stevenson had verbally defended Hiss—a man McCarthy casually termed "the arch traitor of our times"—the senator slashed at the Democratic nominee's reputation. Having earlier referred to him as "Alger, I mean Adlai," McCarthy attacked:

Here we have a man who says, "I want to be your President," claiming that Hiss's reputation was good but not very good.... There are no degrees of loyalty in the United States. A man is either loyal or he's disloyal. There is no such thing as being a little bit disloyal, or partly a traitor.

McCarthy and his "ism" represented such a powerful force that even President Eisenhower seemed intimidated by its potential. Congressmen and senators feared McCarthy's wrath. When 25 Senate votes were cast against Robert E. Lee, a right-wing nominee to the Federal Communications Commission whom McCarthy backed, Variety in early 1954 saw the negative votes as a "surprising show of strength" against the senator's formidable reputation.

Several months earlier McCarthy was at his best on national television, delivering a ringing condemnation of the ousted Truman administration as one that "crawled with Communists." On November 16, 1953, Truman had delivered a televised speech in which he assailed McCarthyism. Eight days later the senator from Wisconsin was provided equal time by the networks. He defended his reputation by questioning the Truman’s political loyalty to the United States.

McCarthy's power was based on his ability to communicate convincingly a simplistic understanding of the Cold War. Television was a strategic medium in this process. Ironically, however, TV would plant the seeds of McCarthy's destruction as a political force. As long as he appeared to be the struggling champion, the underdog battling stupidity and disloyalty in government, McCarthy was perfect for the medium. On discussion shows, in press conferences, and in short filmed segments on the evening news, he stood resolutely in defense of the nation.

McCarthy's undoing began, however, when TV was used to show his investigatory style in action. The first important blow against McCarthy occurred on See It Now on March 9, 1954. Edward R. Murrow and producer Fred W. Friendly launched a subtle attack upon the senator by showing him quizzing witnesses before his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. Viewers saw film of witnesses who seemed nervous and vulnerable. Some were confused in answering questions about actions they had taken two decades earlier. On TV the witnesses became the underdogs as McCarthy harangued, impugned, and defamed. In that revelatory forthrightness of which video is capable, he appeared to be a bully. He distorted personal histories, accused witnesses of being traitors, and generally abused frightened people. Clearly, too, the rude senator was relying on congressional immunity to protect him from possible lawsuits for criminal slander.

Murrow did not castigate the senator for abuse of his power. Instead, he turned his verdict upon American society. However much some would wish to deny it, Murrow said, McCarthy was a product of Cold War America, the champion of millions. Murrow's closing remarks amounted to a subtle scolding of the nation for having created and honored a mountebank:

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, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who ap­prove. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. 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. Cassius was right: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves."

There were immediate reactions to that See It Now broadcast. McCarthy and his allies denounced the program and demanded rebuttal time. The result was a half-hour prepared by the McCarthy staff that defended the senator and questioned the loyalty of Murrow. It was aired on See It Now on April 6.

More important, two weeks after the original program, McCarthy's Senate committee voted to permit TV coverage of its most controversial investigation to date: a probe into possible Communist infiltration within the U.S. Army. The Army-McCarthy hearings, as the inquiry was popularly called, began on April 22, 1953, and continued for 18 sessions. After a week-long recess, the hearings were resumed on May 24 for another 18 meetings. Before they ended on June 24, the Army-McCarthy hearings had produced 32 witnesses, 2 million words on 7,424 pages of transcript—and 187 hours of television time.

Ironically, the hearings proved to be a crushing experience for McCarthy. The White House would not cooperate with him. After all, President Eisenhower was an Army man—West Point graduate, leader of the Allied Armies in the European Theater during World War II, and a five-star General of the Army before entering politics. Moreover, with Congressional elections in the fall, Republicans tried to end the hearings as soon as possible, as McCarthy's sullen attitude toward the Army quickly became a debilitating revelation of his own pettiness and ambition.

The senator exceeded the boundaries of permissibility in his attack upon the Army. His attempt to humiliate the Secretary of the Army, military officers, and Defense Department officials was capricious and unfair. McCarthy had no solid evidence to warrant impugning reputations with charges of disloyalty. It was most apparent on TV. What Murrow’s critique had shown of McCarthy in the past, live coverage exposed the bullying and inaccuracy at the core of the senator’s politics.

McCarthy's failure in the Army investigation prompted his colleagues in the Senate to gather courage to repudiate his actions. By the end of the year the Senate voted 67 to 22 to censure McCarthy for abusive, contemptuous conduct toward his fellow senators.

Following the censure, McCarthy openly attacked President Eisenhower. He criticized the chief executive for showing "tolerance" toward Communist China, and for congratulating the senators who voted for his censure. McCarthy also apologized to the nation for having supported Eisenhower in 1952. The action by the Senate, however, effectively stifled his official power. Democratic control of the Senate after the elections of 1954 stripped McCarthy of his committee chairmanship. Two years later, in political eclipse, Senator McCarthy died.

Television is rightly credited with having been important in the popular discrediting of Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism. As Eric Sevareid of CBS phrased it on Years of Crisis: 1954, "McCarthyism is changing from an 'ism' to a 'wasm.’" But it was not a clean victory. In rejecting the notion that TV had caused McCarthy's collapse, Edward R. Murrow years later assailed the feeble response of TV to the senator. "The timidity of television in dealing with this man when he was spreading fear throughout the land," Murrow told the British Association for the Advancement of Science in October 1959, "is not something to which this art of communication can point with pride, nor should it be allowed to forget it."

Video coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings also was no ringing victory for public affairs television. The two networks that carried the hearings live, ABC and DuMont, did so because they had virtually no morning or afternoon programming. With a roster of sponsored soap operas and game shows, CBS rejected the hearings, preferring to air a 45-minute daily summation at 11:30 P.M. NBC offered the hearings live for two days. But since those two days cost $125,000 in lost advertising revenue, that network also opted for a late-evening summary.

There were also local problems. Viewers in Seattle-Tacoma saw only the morning sessions because CBS needed the area's only TV cable to air its afternoon shows. The afternoon hearings were canceled in Cleveland because of major league baseball. Baltimore also had live coverage dropped because of professional baseball games. In Los Angeles the hearings were canceled after one week because "little interest in coverage was seen."

When the hearings resumed in May, TV interest was further diminished. Ten stations carried the DuMont coverage, the same number as in April. But the ABC video feed was accepted by only 54 outlets, compared with 71 stations originally. The May hearings were shown live in only 49 markets, a national coverage of only 60 percent. Viewer interest also lagged. After an estimated 30 million viewers saw the opening session, ratings dropped precipitously. Variety cynically concluded, "The Army-McCarthy hearings appear to have settled into a groove as television's latest soap opera—long run, low-rated, and sexless ... but they take your mind off the H-bomb for an hour or so."

Senator McCarthy had been useful to his Republican colleagues. He had helped the party trounce Stevenson and the Democrats in 1952, sweeping a Republican Congress and Dwight D. Eisenhower into power. With Ike came such outspoken anti-Communists as Nixon, John Foster Dulles, and Allen B. Dulles. McCarthy, however, had clearly moved beyond this category of politician. He had approached demagogic proportions, threatening even the command structure of the U.S. Army. A victory in that contest would have brought him face to face with the White House—occupied now by a retired general. In the Army-McCarthy hearings, the senator from Wisconsin had be­come not only a divisive embarrassment to the Republicans but also a dangerous threat to the republic.

Although McCarthy's fall meant the discrediting of McCarthyism, it did not signify the end of anti-Communism as an alluring mindset. McCarthyism was only one of the more virulent strands of this popular hatred of the political left. Thriving on fear and ignorance, McCarthyism represented oppressive power emanating from unsubstantiated accusation. For ulterior political purposes, it pursued enemies of the state where there were no enemies. It was aggressive and egotistical, colorful and falsely reassuring. The Army-McCarthy hearings only demonstrated that McCarthyism had overstepped the boundaries of acceptable behavior in American politics as well as television. The hearings did not demonstrate popular determination to reappraise anti-Communism or to approach the East-West struggle in more realistic terms. Anti-Communism continued to thrive in politics and video.

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