As I mentioned in these pages earlier this month, my birthday is the 9th of February. I must admit that I don’t hold that day in as complete a fondness as I did when I was a kid. Years later, I learned that the 9th of February was the same calendar date on which a monster was born that claimed innocent lives and in some pockets of America is still worshiped.
We are approaching another anniversary, the 9th of March, on which that monster was largely crippled.
That monster is generally known as McCarthyism, after its most prominent perpetrator, Joseph Raymond McCarthy. Known among his constituents as Tail Gunner Joe (he’d been one during World War II), it was on the 9th of February, 1950, that this junior Senator from Wisconsin addressed a Republican Party group in Wheeling, West Virginia, and claimed he was holding a list of the names of dozens upon dozens of Communists who had somehow infiltrated the United States Government and disrupting it on orders from Josef Stalin, then dictator of the Soviet Union.
In fact, there was no such list. An early clue to there being no such list was the fact that McCarthy kept changing the number of names he claimed was on it. In Wheeling, he appears to have claimed 205; when entering the speech into the Congressional Record, he said 57, a discrepancy later satirized in the classic 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate. In the end, he “caught” no such actual Communist saboteurs, but for four years he built upon this lie and grabbed for himself an incredible mass of political power, while simultaneously destroying the careers of thousands of innocent people who merely disagreed with him.
Among McCarthy’s most frequent targets were homosexuals. According to the book Out Of All Time by Dr. Terry Boughner of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (and my former editor and publisher at the Wisconsin Light), when the early Gay civil rights group The Mattachine Society was formed, McCarthy declared it to be a front for Communist subversion and a “Homintern” taking its orders directly from The Kremlin. In 1953, the (Eisenhower Republican) State Department published a report claiming that 531 “perverts” had been fired from its ranks. President Dwight Eisenhower shortly afterwards issued an Executive Order banning “all persons guilty of sexual perversion” from holding government jobs.
McCarthy’s anti-Gay hysteria had a tremendous impact throughout the United States. Boughner’s book points out the fact that in Boise, Idaho, a city of about 100,000 people at the time, at least 1,472 people were arrested for merely being suspected of engaging in homosexual activity.
The most tragic element of all this may be the fact that McCarthy and his chief counsel, New York attorney Roy Cohn, were gay. In McCarthy’s case, the Milwaukee Journal – yes, the same Journal whose company now owns KGUN-TV/9 “On Your Side” and KQTH, radio home to rabid homophobes like “Jon Justice” and “Michael Savage” – was given extensive evidence of McCarthy’s homosexuality, in large part from his sexual partners themselves. The Journal, displaying a cowardice that has repeatedly come up in its company’s history, refused to print the information. As a result, McCarthy was able to continue calling for the extermination of “homos” – while being homosexual himself. Columnist Drew Pearson had hinted at McCarthy’s true sexual orientation in a 1952 piece, but nobody else dared stand up to him, let alone out him.
It was on the 9th of March, 1954, that Edward R. Murrow devoted his weekly CBS-TV program “See It Now” to McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaigning, the program being made up of film clips of McCarthy himself, with a brief closing commentary by Murrow. It was the high point of Murrow’s television career. Tellingly, the CBS affiliate serving McCarthy’s home town of Appleton, Wisconsin, refused to broadcast the program; WBAY-TV/2 Green Bay ran a DuMont network professional wrestling show from Chicago instead. The one Wisconsin station that did air the Murrow broadcast, WCAN-TV/25 in Milwaukee, went dark the following year.
Murrow’s broadcast was followed up with a series of Senate hearings between March and June 1954, televised by the ABC (live) and DuMont (on film) networks nationwide, pitting McCarthy and Cohn against Army Secretary Robert Stevens over an Army draftee, Pvt. G. David Schine, who had previously been on McCarthy and Cohn’s staff. Stevens claimed McCarthy and Cohn had tried to pressure the Army into giving Schine special treatment during his Army hitch, with Cohn telling Stevens “We’ll wreck the Army” if they didn’t.
The Army was represented at these hearings by a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch. After some shenanigans regarding homosexuals in the U.S. Military, including slurs from both sides, McCarthy brought up a young attorney in Welch’s firm, Fred Fisher, who he then attempted to smear as being a one-time member of a Communist “front” organization. Welch was rightly outraged, as Fisher was actually a Republican and had no involvement in the hearings. (Twenty years after the hearings, Fisher became President of the Massachusetts Bar Association.) Welch’s response contained a phrase that is still repeated today in similar circumstances: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues the following autumn. He died, still in the Senate, in 1957 from “acute hepatitis, cause unknown.” The Outagamie County Courthouse in Appleton, Wisconsin, still displays a bust of McCarthy, and he is buried in an Appleton cemetery.
I grew up, in part, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where my father’s family was from, only a 10-minute drive from Appleton on U.S. Highway 41. That proximity to McCarthy’s grave, and the continuing reverence many of that area’s residents have for McCarthyism, make me very glad I’m several states away and have no intention of ever going back.
An unrelated postscript: many thanks to the friend who shipped me a 1924 design Kansas City Monarchs cap, which I received just in time to be wearing it while writing these words. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has four other designs on their website – nlbm.com/ -- and I’m open to receiving any of those (especially the one with the big red “KC” lettering that Jackie Robinson wore when he was with the team). Hell, if the bankers can have floating birthday bonuses, why can’t I get floating birthday presents?
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