For a period of four years in American history, a major subject was the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Before he made his famous speech titled “Enemies from Within” in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950 about his list of 205 Communists (a claim he subsequently reduced to 57) in the State Department, he had been in the Senate since 1947 and had not made any major splashes. He was generally a conservative in his voting record although he tended to favor increasing admissions of European displaced persons, which was opposed by advocates of immigration restriction. He was also less conservative than people might think, as his DW-Nominate score was 0.287 (1 is most right and -1 is most left), lower than that of his top Senate supporters. McCarthy was very far from the first to broach the subject of Communist infiltration of government or American life – the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been a permanent committee since 1945, primarily investigated communism in the United States. Although McCarthy did name some people who were communists and even agents, his time in the spotlight was notable for his propensity for exaggeration and reckless, unsubstantiated accusations. A prime example of such exaggeration was the list of communists, which had a source: a 1946 letter from Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to Congressman Adolph Sabath (D-Ill.) that reported that there were 284 people that State Department loyalty investigations had recommended discontinuing their employment. Of these 284, 79 had been dismissed, thus the number 205. These people were not only not all necessarily communists (homosexuals or alcoholics could be on this list on the grounds they were potential blackmail targets) but only 65 of these people remained by 1950 and they had undergone further review. His Waterloo was the Army-McCarthy hearings, which, combined with a lack of courtesy towards certain senators, ultimately resulted in his censure in 1954.
Although twenty-two senators objected to McCarthy’s censure, he could in truth count three men as his most consistent supporters: Herman Welker of Idaho, William Jenner of Indiana, and George Malone of Nevada. All four senators opposed Eisenhower’s nomination of Charles “Chip” Bohlen as Ambassador to Russia, charging that he was too conciliatory to the Russians. All three supporters backed McCarthy’s 1953 proposal to cut foreign aid to countries who traded with Communist China. McCarthy, Jenner, and Malone were also identified by President Eisenhower in 1956 as three Republicans he couldn’t count on and wasn’t forthcoming in helping Welker with his reelection bid. The three foremost supporters stood by him after his censure and after his death brought on by alcoholism at the age of 48, accompanied his body as it was flown back in a military plane for burial in his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.
Herman Welker was a staunch conservative (DW-Nominate score of 0.493) and such a public supporter of McCarthy that he became known as “Little Joe from Idaho”. He led McCarthy’s defense at the hearings that resulted in his censure. Unfortunately, Welker figures prominently in a shameful episode in the Senate’s history. He along with Senator Styles Bridges (R-N.H.), had learned that Senator Lester Hunt’s (D-Wyo.) son had been arrested for propositioning a policeman (normally first-time offenses weren’t prosecuted on this matter). They threatened to expose the scandal and have him prosecuted unless he retired immediately. He didn’t quit immediately, so his son was tried, convicted, and fined. Hunt announced his retirement on June 8, 1954, and shot himself in his office eleven days later. Welker lost reelection by almost 18 points in 1956 and would die of an aggressive brain tumor the following year at the age of 50.
William Jenner had been elected with McCarthy in the GOP wave of 1946 and was his most visible defender. He was vigorous in his belief that a communist conspiracy existed within the federal government and that this conspiracy had led to China becoming communist. Jenner was a leading critic of Secretary of Defense George Marshall, calling him “a living lie” and stated that he was “eager to play the role of front man for traitors” (Uldrich, 87). He was willing to engage in such harsh language as he, like McCarthy, believed that Marshall had served as a dupe for the Chinese Communists in his efforts to negotiate peace between them and the Nationalists in 1946, which included an embargo of supplying arms to the Nationalists. Jenner was probably the most conservative of the senators as his DW-Nominate score of 0.572 is the highest. Although he stood as one of the most right-wing senators in his time, his support of civil rights would likely surprise the contemporary observer. In his final effort in the Senate before his 1958 retirement, Jenner tried to limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to prevent its interference in anti-communist efforts, but this was defeated on a vote of 49-41. He never again sought elected office after his retirement and died in 1985.
George Malone had been elected in the GOP wave of 1946 with McCarthy and was a reliable voice for socially conservative and anti-communist causes who could be swayed to support some fiscally liberal positions (such as increasing unemployment compensation and public assistance for the disabled) and often sided with unions over management on labor issues (DW-Nominate score: 0.312). He was, however, the most non-interventionist of the four men. He had voted against Greek-Turkish Aid (McCarthy and Jenner had voted for it) and the Marshall Plan (McCarthy voted for this one too). Malone was also known as a speaker so boring he could clear the Senate floor. He was not a strong presence and would have likely lost reelection in 1952 had powerhouse Democratic Senator Pat McCarran not surreptitiously backed him over a liberal Democratic critic. In 1958, Malone, lacking the benefit of McCarran’s assistance (he had died in 1954) as well as the support of the Eisenhower Administration, lost reelection. He attempted a comeback in 1960 in his run for Congress but lost decisively and died less than a year later.
This small group of senators were reviled by liberals in the press and their style fell out of favor with the fall of McCarthy. Unfortunately, these developments also resulted in anti-communism as a whole losing ground in the United States, with such a vigorous approach on the subject not truly returning until the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.
Caute, D. (1988). The fellow-travelers: Intellectual friends of communism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Glass, A. (2015, June 8). Sen. Lester Hunt resigns, June 8, 1954. Politico.
Myers, D. (2010, October 14). George Malone. Online Nevada Encyclopedia.
Uldrich, J. (2005). Soldier, statesman, peacemaker: Leadership lessons from George C. Marshall. Broadway, NY: AMACOM.