Skip to content

Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy, 1908-1957

The following biographical essay was prepared by the Reference staff of the Appleton Public Library, based primarily on information from The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography by Thomas C. Reeves.


Early Years

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born on a farm in the Town of Grand Chute, near Appleton, Wisconsin, on November 15, 1908.  He attended the Underhill School, a one-room schoolhouse, where he completed eighth grade.  Bored with farm work, McCarthy started his own chicken business as a teenager, but disease wiped out his flock.  Broke at age 20, he worked as a clerk in an Appleton grocery store, quickly becoming manager.

In 1929, McCarthy was transferred to Manawa to manage a new grocery store.  While there, he entered Little Wolf High School, completing the four-year curriculum in nine months.  McCarthy’s excellent grades enabled him to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, which he entered in the fall of 1930.  In school, he coached boxing, and was elected president of his law school class, all while working a series of part-time jobs.  Immediately after gaining his law degree in 1935, McCarthy opened a practice in Waupaca.   He later joined a law firm in Shawano, becoming a partner in 1937.

McCarthy’s first attempt at public office was an unsuccessful run for the post of Shawano District Attorney as a Democrat in 1936.  In 1939, he sought the nonpartisan post of judge in the Tenth Judicial Circuit, covering Langlade, Shawano, and Outagamie Counties.  He campaigned tirelessly, defeating the incumbent judge, who had served for 24 years.  At age 30, McCarthy became the youngest circuit judge ever elected in Wisconsin.

Borrowing the money, McCarthy made a down-payment on a house at 1508 Lorain Court in Appleton, not far from his new office at the Outagamie County Courthouse.  As a judge, McCarthy was credited with being hard-working and fair, but he was also rebuked by the Wisconsin Supreme Court for an “abuse of judicial authority” after destroying court records.  He was later censured for violating the ethical code that prohibited sitting judges from running for non-judicial posts.

In July, 1942, shortly after the start of World War II, McCarthy took a leave of absence from his judicial office and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Marines.  As an intelligence officer stationed in the Pacific, he participated in combat bombing missions, although he was not wounded in action as he later claimed.

While still on active duty in 1944, McCarthy challenged incumbent Alexander Wiley for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, but was soundly defeated.  In April, 1945, having resigned his military commission, McCarthy was re-elected without opposition to the circuit court.  He immediately began planning for the 1946 Senate campaign.

Senator McCarthy

Initially, McCarthy was given little chance of defeating incumbent Robert M. La Follette, Jr. for the Republican Senate nomination.  La Follette, the son of the famous “Fighting Bob” La Follette, was well known in Wisconsin, having served as senator for 21 years.  But La Follette had only recently rejoined the Republican Party after years as a leader of the Progressive Party, and many Republicans resented his return.  Aided by the support of the Republican organization, McCarthy ran a typically energetic campaign and beat La Follette by a tiny margin.  In the general election, McCarthy easily defeated his Democratic opponent and went to Washington at age 38, the youngest member of the new Senate.

As a senator, McCarthy’s voting record was generally conservative, although he did not follow the Republican Party line.  The main accomplishments of his first years came with his successful fight for housing legislation and his work to ease sugar rationing.  The biggest national issue at the time was the suspicion of communist infiltration of the United States government following a series of investigations and espionage trials.  McCarthy engaged this issue on February 9, 1950, in a speech before a Republican women’s group in Wheeling, West Virginia.  In his address, McCarthy charged that U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson knew of 205 communists in the State Department.  Later, McCarthy claimed to have the names of 57 State Department communists, and called for an investigation.

McCarthy’s charges caused a furor.  In response, the Senate appointed a committee under the direction of Senator Millard Tydings, Democrat of Maryland, who opened hearings on March 8, 1950.  Though McCarthy had hired investigators of his own, all the names he eventually supplied to the committee were of people previously examined.  McCarthy failed to name a single current State Department employee.  On July 17, 1950, the Tydings committee issued a report that found no grounds for McCarthy’s charges.  McCarthy, however, refused to back down, issuing further accusations of communist influence on the government.  These charges received extensive media attention, making McCarthy the most famous political figure in the nation after President Harry Truman.  He was also one of the most criticized.  McCarthy’s enemies began a smear campaign against him, spreading lies that have permeated his biographies ever since.

Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government, though he failed to provide evidence.  McCarthy himself was investigated by a Senate panel in 1952.  That committee issued the “Hennings Report,” which uncovered unethical behavior in McCarthy’s campaigns and tax returns, but found no basis for legal action.  Despite that report, McCarthy was re-elected in 1952 with 54% of the vote, although he ran behind all other statewide Republicans and had a lower vote total than in 1946.

With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the subcommittee on investigations.  In that capacity, he so angered Democrats that they resigned from the committee in protest.  McCarthy also angered the new president and fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower by accusing the administration of sheltering communists.  Eisenhower refused to publicly rebuke McCarthy, but worked behind the scenes to isolate him.

The Army McCarthy Hearings

In the fall of 1953, McCarthy investigated the Army Signal Corps, but failed to uncover an alleged espionage ring.  McCarthy’s treatment of General Ralph W. Zwicker during that investigation causedmany supporters to turn against McCarthy.  That opposition grew with the March 9, 1954, CBSbroadcast of Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now,” which was an attack on McCarthy and his methods.  The Army then released a report charging that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army to give favored treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide who had been drafted.  McCarthy counter-charged that the Army was using Schine as a hostage to exert pressure on McCarthy.

Both sides of this dispute were aired over national television between April 22 and June 17, 1954, during what became known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings.  McCarthy’s frequent interruptions of the proceedings and his calls of “point of order” made him the object of ridicule, and his approval ratings in public opinion polls continued a sharp decline.  On June 9, the hearings climaxed when McCarthy attacked a young lawyer who worked for the law firm of Joseph Nye Welch, the Army’s chief counsel.  Welch’s reply to McCarthy became famous: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you no sense of decency?”  After that, the hearings petered out to an inconclusive end, but McCarthy’s reputation never recovered.

In August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy.  On September27, the committee released a unanimous report calling McCarthy’s behavior as a committee chairman “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” “vulgar and insulting.”  On December 2, 1954, the full Senate, by a vote of 67-22, passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for abusing his power as a senator.  Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy now had little power and was ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.

Last Years

Throughout his Senate career, McCarthy was troubled by ill health.  Severe sinus problems caused many hospital stays, and a herniated diaphragm led to a difficult operation.  With his friends, McCarthy was a gregarious, kind, warm-hearted man, but in later years he seemed to lose his sense of humor.  Always a heavy drinker, McCarthy’s drinking increased to dangerous levels, especially after the Senate’s actions against him. The drinking eventually caused liver ailments, leading to his hospitalization in April, 1957.  On May 2, 1957, McCarthy died of acute hepatitis at the Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington.  With him when he died was his wife, the former Jean Kerr, who had worked as a researcher in his office.  The couple had married on September 29, 1953.  They had adopted a baby girl, Tierney Elizabeth, in January, 1957.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was buried on a bluff overlooking the Fox River in Appleton’s St. Mary’s cemetery.


The Early Years

The Senate Years

The Funeral

Joseph McCarthy at APL

Books in the Wisconsin Collection

Fried, Richard M.
Men against McCarthy
Columbia University Press, 1976
320.973 MacC  Wisconsin

Oshinsky, David
Senator Joseph McCarthy and the American Labor Movement
University of Missouri Press, 1976
322.2092 MacC  Wisconsin

McCarthy, Joseph
McCarthyism, the Fight for America
Devin-Adair Co., 1952
335.4 MacC  Wisconsin

McCarthy, Joseph
America’s Retreat from Victory: The Story of George Catlett Marshall
Devin-Adair, 1954
355.331092 Mar  Wisconsin Reference

Rosteck, Thomas
See It Now Confronts McCarthyism: Television Documentary and the Politics of Representation
University of Alabama Press, 1994
791.4572 Ros  Wisconsin

McCarthy, Joseph
Major Speeches and Debates of Senator Joe McCarthy: Delivered in the United States Senate; 1950-1951
United States Government Printing Office, (no date)
815 MacC  Wisconsin Reference

Memorial Services Held in the Senate and House of Representatives
United States Government Printing Office, 1957
815 Uni  Wisconsin Reference

Anderson, Jack
McCarthy: The Man, the Senator, the “ism”
Beacon Press, 1952
921 MacC  Wisconsin

Rovere, Richard Halworth
Senator Joe McCarthy
Harcourt, Brace, 1959
921 MacC  Wisconsin

Ewald, William Bragg
McCarthyism and Consensus
University Press of American, 1986
973.918 Ewa  Adult Nonfiction

Fried, Richard M.
Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective
Oxford University Press, 1990
973.918 Fri  Wisconsin

Ranville, Michael
To Strike at a King: The Turning Point in the McCarthy Witch Hunts
Momentum Books, 1997
973.918 Ran  Wisconsin

Adams, John Gibbons
Without Precedent: The Story of the Death of McCarthyism
W. W. Norton, 1983
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Bayley, Edwin R.
Joe McCarthy and the Press
University of Wisconsin Press, 1981
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Buckley, William F., Jr. and L Brent Bozell
McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning
H. Regnery Co., 1954
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Cohn, Roy M.
New American Library, 1968
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Cook, Fred J.
The Nightmare Decade; The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy
Random House, 1971
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Crosby, Donald F.
God, Church, and Flag: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Catholic Church, 1950-1957
University of North Carolina Press, 1978
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Evans, Medford
The Assassination of Joe McCarthy
Western Islands, 1970
973.918092 Eva  Wisconsin

Gore, Leroy
Joe Must Go
J. Messner, 1954
973.918092 Gor  Wisconsin

Griffith, Robert
The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate
University of Massachusetts Press, 1987
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin Reference

Ingalls, Robert P.
Point of Order: A Profile of Senator Joe McCarthy
Putnam, 1981
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Landis, Mark
Joseph McCarthy: The Politics of Chaos
Susquehanna University Press, 1987
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Matusow, Allen J.
Joseph R. McCarthy
Prentice-Hall, 1970
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

O’Brien, Michael
McCarthy and McCarthyism in Wisconsin
University of Missouri Press, 1980
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Oshinsky, David M.
A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy
Free Press, 1983
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

McCarthy, A Documented Record
The Progressive, Inc., 1954
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin Reference

Reeves, Thomas C.
The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography
Stein and Day, 1982
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Rorty, James
McCarthy and the Communists
Greenwood Press, 1954
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Thomas, Lately
When Even Angels Wept;
The Senator Joseph McCarthy Affair-A Story Without a Hero

Morrow, 1973
973.918092 MacC  Wisconsin

Merson, Martin
The Private Diary of a Public Servant
Macmillan, 1955
973.92 Mer  Wisconsin Reference


Books in the Adult Nonfiction Collection

Theoharis, Athan G.
Seeds of Repression; Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism
Quadrangle Books, 1971
320.973 The  Adult Nonfiction

Newman, Robert P.
Owen Lattimore and the “loss” of China
University of California Press, 1992
327.51073 New  Adult Nonfirction

Watkins, Arthur V.
Enough Rope; The Inside Story of the Censure of Senator Joe McCarthy by His Colleagues-the Controversial Hearings that Signaled the End of a Turbulent Career and a Fearsome Era in American Public Life
Prentice Hall, 1969
328.73092 MacC  Adult Nonfiction

McCarthy, Joseph
America’s Retreat from Victory: The Story of George Catlett Marshall
Devin-Adair, 1954
355.331092 Mar  Adult Nonfiction

Murphy, Brenda
Congressional Theatre: Dramatizing McCarthyism on Stage, Film and Television
Cambridge University Press, 1999
812.008 Mur  Adult Nonfiction

Daynes, Gary
Making Villians, Making Heroes: Joseph R. McCarthy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Politics of American Memory
Garland Pub., 1997
973.9 Day  Adult Nonfiction

Schrecker, Ellen
Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America
Little, Brown, 1998
973.9 Schr  Adult Nonfiction

Belfrage, Cedric
The American Inquisition, 1945-1960: A Profile of the “McCarthy Era”
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989
973.918 Bel  Adult Nonfiction

Schrecker, Ellen
The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents
Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994
973.918 Schr  Adult Nonfiction

Herman, Arthur
Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator
Free Press, 2000
973.918092 MacC  Adult Nonfiction



Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Anti-Communism in Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin-Steven’s Point, 1995
320.9775 MacC  Adult Video Ordinary Americans: The Red Scare

Ordinary Americans: The Red Scare
Close Up Foundation, 1999
973.918 Ord  Adult Video

McCarthy Reconsidered
The History Channel, 1999
973.918092 MacC  Adult Video

McCarthy: Death of a Witch Hunter
MPI Home Video, 1986
973.918092 MacC  Adult Video

The McCarthy Years
Ambrose Video, 1991
973.918092 MacC  Adult Video

Other Websites

  • Joseph McCarthy: A Modern Tragedy
    Essays and photographs covering the life and legacy of McCarthy. A cooperative product of the Outagamie County Historical Society and the UW Oshkosh Archives and Area Research Center.
  • Joseph McCarthy Papers
    Inventory for the Joseph R. McCarthy papers held in the Special Collections and Archives of Marquette University Libraries.