Joe McCarthy: Dangerous Buffoon

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Kessler is the author of The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, available from Amazon.com.

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In her latest book, Treason, Ann Coulter claims that Joseph McCarthy was a hero. Mr. Kessler in this excerpt from his recent book about the FBI, reminds us why McCarthy is usually remembered as a dangerous buffoon.

On February 9, 1950, Joseph R. McCarthy, an obscure Republican senator from Wisconsin, gave a speech to 275 members of the local Republican women's club at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia. The spy cases had heightened concerns about Communist penetration of the government. Republicans were using the issue to attack the Truman administration, which they said was "soft on Communism." With Lincoln's birthday coming up, Republican politicians had fanned out across the country.

"While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were known to the secretary of state and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy of the State Department," McCarthy said, holding up a scrap of paper.

By the time McCarthy got to Salt Lake City, the next stop on his speech itinerary, McCarthy—an alcoholic—could not remember the number he had cited. He told his audience there that the number of Communists was fifty-seven.

The conservative Chicago Tribune had been running a series on the Communist threat. The day after McCarthy's speech in West Virginia, Willard Edwards, the author of the articles, urgently asked to talk with Walter Trohan, the Washington bureau chief, in Edward's office at the Albee Building at 15th and G Streets NW. Edwards confided to Trohan that just before he gave his speech, McCarthy had asked Edwards about the number of Communists in the State Department. Edwards said he gave McCarthy the figure of 205. Now he realized his mistake.

"Edwards said it was more or less a rumor. It was just a piece of gossip," Trohan said. "He probably got it from some ultra-rightist, someone who probably didn't know what he was talking about. Edwards was a drinker, among other problems. He got fired, and I got him back. Then he got into trouble again, and they were going to fire him again. When Edwards gave the figure to McCarthy, he was probably drinking."

Trohan was "furious" at Edwards. "Edwards was afraid that McCarthy was going to blame him for it. I will say that McCarthy never revealed his source," Trohan said.

As for McCarthy, besides being an alcoholic, the senator was "crazy about girls about eighteen" Trohan said. "I always thought if the Commies wanted to get him, all they had to do was supply him with a girl."

Bogus figures or not, McCarthy soon became a national figure. Without Hoover's help, it might never have happened. The FBI, through Hoover's speeches and contacts with the media and Congress, had been highlighting the Communist menace since 1946. McCarthy and Hoover had been friends since 1947, when McCarthy met with the director to convey his respects. Soon, the junior senator was dining with Hoover and Tolson at Harvey's.

McCarthy knew how susceptible Hoover was to flattery. "No one need erect a monument to you," the senator wrote to Hoover in one letter. "You have built your own monument in the form of the FBI—for the FBI is J. Edgar Hoover, and I think we can rest assured that it always will be."

Upon returning from his tour, McCarthy called Hoover and told him his speech was getting a lot of attention, according to a memo Hoover wrote after the call. There was only one problem: McCarthy said he had "made up the numbers as he talked." In the future, Hoover advised him, he should not give specific numbers. McCarthy asked if the FBI would give him information to back up his charges.

"Review the files and get anything you can for him," Hoover ordered.

"We didn't have enough evidence to show there was a single Communist in the State Department, let alone fifty-seven cases," said William Sullivan, who became the number three man in the bureau. Nevertheless, FBI agents spent hundreds of hours reading files and making abstracts for McCarthy. As time went on, the FBI supplied speech writers for McCarthy and for two of his aides, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine. Lou Nichols provided public relations counsel. Nichols cautioned McCarthy not to use the phrase "card-carrying Communists," because that could not be proven. Instead, he should refer to "Communist sympathizers" or "loyalty risks."

The phrases were as fuzzy as Hoover's files, which were a repository of any rumor, third-hand account, or gossip agents happened to hear. Soon, McCarthy began using the files as the basis for hearings he held on Communist penetration of the government, instilling fear in anyone who might have looked at a Communist. Because of the pressure, the Hollywood studios blacklisted playwright Lillian Hellman because her lover, mystery-writer Dashiell Hammett, was one. John Melby, a State Department officer who had impeccable anti-Communist credentials, was fired for having had an affair with Hellman.

Washington Post cartoonist Herbert L. Block (Herblock) dubbed McCarthy's tactics "McCarthyism," a witch-hunt that created as much fear among loyal Americans as terrorism. One of his cartoons portrayed McCarthy with a three-day growth of beard holding up a "doctored photo" and a "faked letter."

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FBI agents like Robert Lamphere who worked counterintelligence were aghast at Hoover's support of McCarthy. "McCarthyism did all kinds of harm because he was pushing something that wasn't so," Lamphere said. To be sure, the Venona intercepts showed that over several decades, "There were a lot of spies in the government, but not all in the State Department," Lamphere said. "The problem was that McCarthy lied about his information and figures. He made charges against people that weren't true. McCarthyism harmed the counterintelligence effort against the Soviet threat because of the revulsion it caused. All along, Hoover was helping him."

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Ernie Lazar - 10/26/2005

Bill Heuisler:

How do you explain the discrepancy between statistics contained in the FBI's Security Index for February 1950 (which includes stats re: known or suspected Communists working in the U.S. government) versus the charges which McCarthy made?

McCarthy claimed he had a list of "205" names --- i.e. Communists working in just ONE agency -- the State Department.

By contrast, the FBI Security Index report for February 1950 shows a total of 171 names in the "Special Section" of the Security Index. The Special Section consisted of data for 5 categories:

(1) U.S. government employees
(2) Atomic Energy Program employees
(3) prominent persons
(4) employees of UN Secretariat
(5) espionage subjects

Also, how do you explain the statements by such senior FBI officials as Chief Inspector (later Assistant Director) William Sullivan and Robert J. Lamphere, both of whom flatly stated that McCarthy lied?

Jeff Russell - 1/21/2005

What we are being asked to believe by these revisionists is that that there is a vast conspiracy to smear the history of McCarthy and he was not in fact a lying, self-aggrandizing demagogue. It may be that Joe did somehow inadvertently uncover some spying in the State Department. If you fire a loaded shotgun into a crowd you may hit someone who cheats on their taxes but what a price to pay. Joe's tactics were unacceptable to most Americans now and then. The means are not justified by the ends in this case. What next-->'The Holocaust-Jewish Conspiracy to Defame Hitler.'?

Justin D Trouard - 10/2/2004

Mr. Firefly,

Please respond to at least one of the questions you have been asked. I hope you do, since you have hab over a year to think about it.

Robert Michael Simon - 6/23/2004

We have constantly been brainwashed by the Liberal Media into making Joe McCarthy a bigger evil than he ever was (at the same time when we glorify the one man who put 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent into prison camps and thought "Uncle Joe"Stalin was a good guy-FDR)...Considering that new information coming out of Soviet files suggests that there were more spies in the FDR and Truman Administrations than most Democrats would care to admit,it's perhaps time to take a revisionist look at Joe McCarthy without the typical liberal hysterisism....

Rufus T. Firefly - 7/21/2003

"So why not come in from the cold and embrace reality. You were wrong, we were right. Say you're sorry and we might forgive."

I'm glad you're so open-minded and forgiving. A stint in a Republican re-education camp might be just what I need...

Ahhh. That's better. mccarthywasrightandliberalsaretraitors

I'm sorry for betraying my country when I was a liberal. Please forgive me. I'm healthy and well-adjusted now, so I won't do it again.

Bill Heuisler - 7/20/2003

Mr. Firefly,
You say the problem is that Conservatives, "demonize the opposition and stifle competing political viewpoints." Explain what you're trying to do on this web site by refusing engagement on specific points. "Dead nuts wrong" might make you feel cool and intelligent, but says nothing and contributes nothing.

Your myopic remarks about "extreme" conservatives are simplistic to the point of satire. Or perhaps you just haven't considered opening your mind since the Sixties. Explain what Teddy Kennedy tried to do to Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. How the House tried to destroy a decorated combat Marine and a President over a fanciful ploy called Boland to protect a tin-pot Communist Dictator. Explain how calling the President a liar and Lott and Thurmond racists while elevating Byrd to Senate President and lionizing the Clintons doesn't mock free exchange and celebrate hypocrisy. Liberals defended Alger Hiss for forty years and castigated McCarthy. The Venona Papers vindicate Joe McCarthy. So why not come in from the cold and embrace reality. You were wrong, we were right. Say you're sorry and we might forgive.

But competing viewpoints? Where? Tell me how repeating you're amazed anyone would defend McCarthy enriches anyone's knowledge or challenges a point of view. Are you stuck in reverse?
Bill Heuisler

Rufus T. Firefly - 7/20/2003

Free speech isn't the issue. You can write whatever you like. I'm just amazed that anyone would actually defend McCarthy.

And, yeah, I have read Treason, as well as Slander. She's a talented polemic writer: she does her damndest to make a case, but she's certainly no dispassionate seeker of the truth.

And she's dead-nuts wrong. Liberals are not the country's problem. Extreme conservatives who want to demonize the opposition and stifle competing political viewpoints are. And that is the true lesson of McCarthyism.

Bill Heuisler - 7/19/2003

Mr. Firefly,
Free Speech is a bitch isn't it? Instead of all your phony exclamations, why not address the issue? Set in your ways? Don't know the issue? Well read Treason and learn.
Bill Heuisler

Rufus T. Firefly - 7/19/2003

It's astounding and disturbing that anyone would actually DEFEND McCarthy today.

My God, what is this country coming to?!

NYGuy - 7/19/2003


You are spirited. Did not think that disqualified you for reasonable debate. Well you have the courage to stand and fight while others run away. Thanks.

I asked you about the "fifth column" but found a link on it.


"According to Britannica.com, a fifth column refers to any clandestine group or faction of subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation's solidarity.

Who came up with the phrase, and what's with the columns? Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), originally coined the term. As four of his army columns moved on Madrid, the general referred to his militant supporters within the capital as his "fifth column," intent on undermining the loyalist government from within.

So the fifth column is a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders. Recent conflicts have had their fifth columns: Iraqi insurgents in the Gulf War, Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs. Those columns didn't fare quite as well."

What most people don't know is that the communist used this technique to try to undermine or country.

In many ways I believe there are still "a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders."

That is why it is so important for them to emphasize the death count on American soldiers, to give comfort to the enemy and demoralize the people at home and get more soldiers killed.

Funny, we had 149 soldier deaths in Iraq. Last Wednesday, one 80 year old+ driver killed 14, almost 10% of the Iraqi situation, including a 2 year old girl. The people of California know the dangers of elderly driving but they are too busy telling Bush how to run the country that they can't take care of their own.

Are we to build our country on such ignorance?

Shannon - 7/19/2003

Bill - Thank you, you've expressed my thoughts far more eloquently than I ever could. I will seek out "McCarthy and His Enemies", it sounds like the book will open a few more doors of discovery and understanging for me.

Michael H. Burchett - 7/19/2003

You crossed the line with your "pathetic" comment, Mr. Heuisler. Your name-calling and semantic nit-picking are getting old. You clearly came to this site looking for a fight, as evidenced by your earlier knee-jerk attack on the gentleman who clearly agreed with you. If you want to fight, I suggest you go to the WWF site. This is a history forum.

This concludes our dialogue.

Bill Heuisler - 7/18/2003

Mr. Burchett,
You claim to be an historian, but your prolix ignorance about this subject is more and more appalling.

1) You cite, "overwhelming and indisputable documentary evidence" to support your interpretation of history, but cannot produce books or people who refute the Venona Papers.

2) You then call the Venona Papers, "a single mitigating piece of evidence (and the jury is still out on just how mitigating it is)". The Venona Papers are voluminous records of communications between the Soviet Union and US traitors over decades. No one has ever questioned the thousands and thousands of decoded messages, in fact, the Venona Papers have been confirmed by ex-KGB agents after the fact and by double-agents before the papers were declassified. Read Klahr's(sp?) book also, Mr. historian.

Ignorance? McCarthy was a Senator who chaired a Senate Subcommittee. HUAC was House Un-American Activities Committee. That the Senate and the House are two different bodies can be learned in most American history books, and HUAC has absolutely nothing to do with McCarthy, Mr. Historian.

Evidently your "years examining and weighing sources" overlooked a major source of information on this subject:William F. Buckley and L Brent Bozell wrote an exhaustive examination of this period, "McCarthy and His Enemies; The Record and its meaning." Any McCarthy historian or critic who has not bothered to read the Bozell, Buckley book can really only "call themselves historians" and pretend expertise...maybe among sophomores.

Arrogant? No, you and your pathetic colleague, Schwartz, are merely closed-minded poseurs.
Bill Heuisler

Michael H. Burchett - 7/18/2003

Most of us who "call ourselves historians" do so because we have spent years examining and weighing sources, distilling and discussing the scholarship of our colleagues past and present, and forming our own arguments based upon the evidence at our disposal. You may dismiss this as "liberal 're-education'" if you wish, but the fact is that during my years as a student, researcher, and educator, I have encountered my share of historians who approach history for a conservative viewpoint, and they have had as much of a role as have "liberals" in shaping my approach to historical scholarship. But I have yet to encounter a single one, conservative or liberal, that is willing or able to defend Joseph McCarthy or the actions of the HUAC during the 1950s.

The overwhelming consensus of the historical community is that McCarthyism was an ugly episode in American history. This consensus is supported by overwhelming and indisputable documentary evidence that is much too extensive to list here. Nevertheless, history is not responsible for discrediting McCarthy. His colleagues in Congress did that long before history ever got hold of him -- and ultimately, it was a bipartisan effort. Yet the person most responsible for discrediting McCarthy was McCarthy himself. Like all demagogues, his recklessness, hubris, and lack of self-control eventually got the best of him.

"Ann" and the rest of the right-wing rat pack can keep biting at the Verona traffic apple all they want. The presence of a single mitigating piece of evidence (and the jury is still out on just how mitigating it is), cannot obscure the mountain of evidence of the senseless damage that McCarthy did to individuals and to American society as a whole -- nor can it obscure the sinister aims of McCarthy apologists who wish to turn his actions into a precedent for similar witch hunts to be conducted in this country in the future.

Anyone who finds this position "arrogant" will likely not find solace on this website. You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to be "appalled" to find yourself in the minority.

Shannon - 7/18/2003

I, like thousands of students who went through liberal 're-edcuation' in the 70's, 80's and 90's, always assumed that what I was taught about Joe McCarthy was true. I have believed for years, without question, that he was a wicked and evil man who deserved to die. Now, Thanks to Ann, a spotlight has been placed on the topic of Joe McCarthy and the declassification of the Venona Project. This has given me pause to perhaps rethink my view of the man and take a closer look. Is this not a good thing? If so, why is it that liberals are so reluctant to face 'all' the facts regarding McCarthy and engage in a reasonable discussion about him?

I have just recently found this site and I am appalled at the arrogance of some that call themselves historians. I suppose I was naive in believing that of all the academic fields of study, historians would be the most open and least biased. What I see here are liberals who are licking their wounds after Ann's bite, and creating yet another platform for the boring rhetoric of anti-conservatism and obfuscation of the truth.

Michael H. Burchett - 7/18/2003

I don't need your advice on how to "dispute someone," Mr. Heuisler. A bibliography of evidence on the damage done by McCarthy would be too large to post here. Most of the relevant facts are common knowledge to scholars & need not be repeated for the benefit of you & your ilk. I suggest that you contact your local high school history teacher for a basic bibliography. As for the Verona traffic, a fine analysis by Stephen Schwartz was recently posted on this site.

I don't have the time or the inclination to engage in a pissing match with you, Mr. Heuisler. If you do not like my views, you are free to forward my name to the FBI. Otherwise, I have spent all the time and energy on this that I am going to spend.

Bill Heuisler - 7/17/2003

Mr. Burchett,
Your reasoning is rather odd. You state:
"...their arguments are presented with a total disregard for indesputable facts and sound logic. Citing recently-declassified evidence of communist infiltration in the State Department during the '40s and '50s as justification for McCarthy's rampage is analogous to citing the Volkswagen as a justification for Nazism."

No, it's like citing evidence as justification for indictment.
And you produce no argument, debate no fact, defend no one he accused. Declassified means open to the public, Mr. Burchett, It doesn't mean unknown. Yet the simple fact the Venona Papers were decoded beginning in 1945 doesn't strike you as important. When you dispute someone it helps to produce facts rather than rely on emotional tantrums about witch-hunts, accidental implications and liver disease.
Bill Heuisler

Bill Heuisler - 7/17/2003

Mr. Firefly,
Are you actually defending Edward R's carefully edited show?
His so-called current affairs show reflected his bias and rancor against McCarthy after a friend (Larry Duggan of the US State Dept.) dove out a sixteenth story window after being questioned by the FBI about KGB contacts. Haynes and Klehr read all about KGB-Operative-Duggan in the Venona Papers. So now we all know what McCarthy knew. Murrow's loyalty to a friend obviously does not make him a very good newsman.

Next you'll be defending Ted Koppel.
Bill Heuisler

Michael H. Burchett - 7/17/2003

Given the hard right turn that the country has taken in recent years, it does not surprise me that some pundits have taken up the task of rehabilitating Joseph McCarthy; nor is it surprising that their arguments are presented with a total disregard for indesputable facts and sound logic. Citing recently-declassified evidence of communist infiltration in the State Department during the '40s and '50s as justification for McCarthy's rampage is analogous to citing the Volkswagen as a justification for Nazism.

While evidence that McCarthy may somehow have been "right" in his reckless accusations remains debatable at best, a wealth of documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts speaks volumes concerning the numerous innocent lives that McCarthy's witch hunt ruined -- of the damaged reputations, the destroyed careers, the desperation and hopelessness that led some to suicide. The largely accidental implication of a handful of communist sympathizers and operatives -- most of whom, as anti-communist historian Stephen Schwartz has pointed out, were more interested in snuffing out Trotskyites than gathering intelligence on the U.S. Government -- is little justification for the swath of destruction that McCarthy, Hoover, and their henchmen cut through American society in the 1950s.

As for Kessler's "ad hominums" (sic), I find it curious that so-called "conservatives" who are quick to cite one puff from a joint as evidence of depravity and poor judgment in their political opponents would attempt to dismiss McCarthy's well-documented alcoholism as immaterial to his personal and professional integrity. In fact, an abundance of evidence suggests that McCarthy's alcoholism was so severe that it frequently afected his memory, judgment, and self-control. It most certainly was severe enough to bring about his early death of liver disease in 1957.

Moreover, I find it ironic that a supporter of Ann Coulter, whose works are replete with ad hominem attacks, would take exception to such alleged attacks when the shoe is on the other foot. Coulter's attempted rehabilitation of McCarthy may be refreshing to her right-wing readership, it does not stand the test of history.

NYGuy - 7/17/2003


It is a search for the truth, but evidently you have made your mind up, so you won't have to study this problem any longer. I guess you get most of your information from the movies and TV. But, you forgot this is a history site.

Hail Hail Pretoria, One of the greatest movies made. You always were my hero, but we have to disagree on this one.

Rufus T. Firefly - 7/17/2003

Are you actually DEFENDING McCarthy? My God, what is this world coming to?

I strongly suggest you locate and watch the Edward R. Murrow "See It Now" TV shows about McCarthy. They will give you an excellent look at how McCarthy used innuendo and guilt by association to smear opponents.

Bill Heuisler - 7/16/2003

My apologies. Those of us over the age of sixty think everyone knows details about McCarthy. Sometimes we forget our manners.
Buckley wrote an excellent account of those times, and you might also want to read Treason. She gets the main themes just right.
Bill Heuisler

Les - 7/15/2003

Sorry, I think that should have been "disingenuousness".

Les Milton - 7/15/2003

You've mistaken my ignorance for disingenuity. But thanks for the tips, I'll look into the documentary.

Bill Heuisler - 7/15/2003

Mr. Milton,
Those found guilty? Playing words and numbers games instead of addressing the HNN article is a little duplicitous isn't it? Particularly since you are aware that in his initial charges McCarthy named about a hundred loyalty risks in Government jobs who shouldn't be working for the US Government. Most of those people were quietly moved to less sensitive positions, but (you also know) few if any Americans were ever arrested merely for being members of the Communist Party. McCarthy's committee's job was to investigate how well Government Agencies (particularly the Army after the Rosenberg matter) dealt with security risks.

There are many books about the Venona Papers and there will be many more, but I urge you to watch the documentary "Point of Order", list those called before the committee and compare them and their testamony with names listed in the Venona Papers.

And as you well know, those "found guilty" were those exposed after the Venona Papers were declassified in 1995.
Bill Heuisler

Les Milton - 7/15/2003

Hello Mr. Heuisler,

You said, "...McCarthy was later proven right in nearly every individual he investigated."

Do you have at your disposal specific numbers of the accused and of those found to be guilty of spying or aiding the USSR? If not, I'd appreciate it if you could point me to a source.


Les Milton

Bill Heuisler - 7/14/2003

Mr. Kessler,
You unknowingly shatter your ugly motif by including this quote from Agent Lamphere at the end of the diatribe:
"There were a lot of spies in the government, but not all in the State Department," Lamphere said. "The problem was that McCarthy lied about his information...made charges against people that weren't true. McCarthyism harmed the counterintelligence effort against the Soviet threat because of the revulsion it caused. All along, Hoover was helping him."

Not ALL in the State Department? So McCarthy was right about his claim of "security risks in the State Department - the oversight of which was the duty of his subcommittee? You never deign to admit McCarthy was later proven right in nearly every individual he investigated. Your ad hominums about alcoholism and young girls are nasty and off subject. Why the negligence? The animus?

Your quoted admission that Hoover was helping McCarthy all along is (I'm sure inadvertantly) important because Hoover knew by 1950 who many security risks were. He read their names in decoded messages, Mr. Kessler. Colonel Carter Clarke broke the Soviet code before the end of WWll and Hoover had access to the names of Soviet agents (now known as the Venona Papers)long before Senator McCarthy made his charges in 1950. If Hoover was helping McCarthy all along, McCarthy must've been accurate.

Why the attempt to refute Ann Coulter, Mr. Kessler? I can't believe it's jealousy - one author to another - but no other motive would account for such sloppy, malicious dissembling.
Bill Heuisler