McCarthy Era

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Joseph McCarthy was the junior senator from Wisconsin for 10 years from 1947 until his death in 1957. McCarthy was born in 1908 on a dairy farm, went to college and earned a law degree from Marquette in 1935. In 1939 he became the youngest elected judge in state history, clearing a massive backlog of cases. When war began, McCarthy left his judgeship and joined the Marines, working mostly in intelligence though he did earn the nickname Tail-Gunner Joe for flying 12 observer missions in the tail-gunner position.

After the war, McCarthy ran for senate against Robert M. La Follette, Jr, and won, mostly using innuendo and half-truths to defeat his opponent. He started his senate career in 1947. The first three years were pretty unremarkable. In 1950, however, at a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy started making his mark as an anti-Communist crusader. He claimed to have a list of Communists working in the State Department.

With the Cold War, the red scare, and the House UnAmerican Activities hearings, the media immediately picked up on the story and ran with it. McCarthy was surprised at the publicity but he took complete advantage of the situation. He made accusations, especially against those who challenged him, using just enough truth to make them sound plausible. Murrow was one of the people who openly challenged McCarthy.

McCarthy was widely criticized in newspapers and on broadcasts but Murrow said very little. His most noteworthy statement was on a Thanksgiving broadcast in 1951 when he said, “This is a day when it is customary to list reasons for thankfulness. ... We should, I think, be grateful to Senator Joe McCarthy. He has become a symbol of accusation without proof. We shall have to decide - we are in the process of deciding, - whether as a people, we are prepared to proceed upon that premise.”

In turn, Murrow was criticized for his silence. It’s hard to know exactly what Murrow was thinking. He was, after all, a busy man trying to juggle many radio and television shows. If he was waiting for the right time, the case of reserve Air Force Lieutenant Milo Radulovich was it.