This day in history, February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that he has a list with the names of over 200 members of the Department of State that are “known communists.”
During a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy claimed that he had a list of 205 communists that had infiltrated the State Department. The speech caused nationwide hysteria and Senator McCarthy was thrown into the national spotlight with his unsubstantiated declaration.
“I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department,” McCarthy said in a speech according to a newspaper account.
McCarthy went back and forth on how many communists infiltrated the State Department by constantly changing the numbers.
Despite McCarthy’s inconsistency, his refusal to provide any of the names of the “known communists,” and his inability to produce any coherent or reasonable evidence, his charges struck a chord with the American people.
Asked to reveal the names on the list, McCarthy named officials he determined guilty by association, such as Owen Lattimore, an expert on Chinese culture and affairs who had advised the State Department. McCarthy described Lattimore as the “top Russian spy” in America.
The months leading up to his February speech had been trying ones for America’s Cold War policies. China had fallen to a communist revolution and the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic device. McCarthy’s wild charges provided a ready explanation for these foreign policy disasters: communist subversives were working within the very bowels of the American government.
Prior to McCarthy’s claims, Congress had investigated Hollywood for its supposed communist influences, and former State Department employee Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury in January 1950 for testimony dealing with accusations that he spied for the Soviet Union during the 1930’s.
“McCarthyism,” as the hunt for communists in the United States came to be known during the 1950’s, scared millions of Americans and had a profound effect on the domestic debate of Cold War issues.
In 1953, a newly Republican Congress appointed McCarthy chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of Governmental Operations. He made wild accusations and damaged the reputation of innocent citizens and officials.
McCarthy failed at locating any communists and his personal power collapsed in 1954 when he accused the Army of coddling known communists. Televised hearings of his investigation into the U.S. Army let the American people see his bullying tactics and lack of credibility in full view for the first time, and he quickly lost support. The U.S. Senate censured him shortly thereafter and he died in 1957.