New PBS film ‘McCarthy’: Lessons unlearned
Sen. Joseph McCarthy conducting his anti-communist witch hunt.

Sharon Grimberg’s new PBS film McCarthy could not be more timely. Writer-director-producer Grimberg gives us a fine, understated look at what a genial, right-minded, homegrown elected-official terrorism looks like.

Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy thought he did all the right things for the right reasons. But his demagoguery inflicted considerable damage to the democratic institutions of the United States. It ruined people’s lives and threatened the country’s government. It exposed America’s easy vulnerability to fascism.

The McCarthy terrorism was not foreign born. It rose from the heartland, rooted in fear. Joe McCarthy seemed to exemplify the strength of American traditions. He was born in Appleton, Wis., November 14, 1908, into a working-class farm family. He was a self-made man, laboring long, hard hours milking cows and raising chickens. He graduated high school in a year, then put himself through college as a boxing coach and poker player.

His genial nature was made for politics. He ran for office as a Democrat, a man of the people. He outworked older entrenched opponents by visiting every constituent. But once in office, he put aside lofty, self-proclaimed ideals to inflate his own self-worth.

McCarthy came to think of himself as larger than his elected office. He had joined the Marines as a way to advance, turning himself into “Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy” by shooting his guns all the time to gain attention, caring little whether he hit targets. He claimed to have been wounded in the war. But actually his injury was incurred falling off a ladder during a celebration in what later looked like a drunken escapade.

The aspiring politician switched parties from Democrat to Republican, as he saw opportunity to exploit post-war political fears of Communism and big government. During the Great Depression and WWII’s combat against fascism, Marxism had provided both an explanation and organized form to fight injustice. But the newly minted Senator saw no need to understand the polarized economy, nor reason to strive for equal opportunity.

McCarthy characterized his opponents as different and un-American. Their agency of takeover, he claimed, was a big government riddled with Red agents. Meanwhile, he warned, their sympathizers in Hollywood were creating a culture that weakened American values of individualism and capitalism.

McCarthy had gained his Senate seat by upsetting Wisconsin’s popular progressive “Fighting Bob” La Follette. Instead of fighting for progress as had LaFollette, McCarthy settled into Washington’s bachelor life of parties, excessive gambling and heavy drinking. He took loans from lobbyists in exchange for political favors. He craved attention and the publicity needed to shore up his political base for the 1952 elections.

He didn’t have to look far for ideas. Richard Nixon had risen to prominence taking the House seat of liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas on a campaign of anti-Communism. Then, in a headline-grabbing attack, he Red-baited State Department official Alger Hiss.

Tail Gunner Joe was not to be left behind in this political war. In a series of histrionic speeches and accusations, McCarthy claimed to have lists of Communists within the government tasked with undermining the American way of life. When asked for details, McCarthy lied. When pressed for names, he smeared a prominent judge, Dorothy Kenyon, and the architect of U.S. Far Eastern policy, Owen Lattimore.

Opponents to McCarthy were branded un-American. Republicans knew they had a loose cannon. But they had no backup, nor saw any alternative. As long as they felt they had political gain, Republicans were complicit in his smear campaigns.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy. | Herbert K. White / AP

It wasn’t until McCarthy’s involvement with notorious right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn (later Donald Trump’s mentor) and his over-reaching battle against the United States Army that opposition was able to stop him. In a series of nationally televised hearings, McCarthy’s escalating rants claimed without evidence that officers were Communists and generals should be fired. Only when McCarthy’s fulminations caused embarrassment and problems for his own political party was he censured by the Senate.

By then the damage had been done. Lives had been ruined. The roots of nativism had been exposed. American institutions had been tested and found wanting.

Grimsberg’s film does a fine job building slowly toward this conclusion. She makes order of complex themes, builds character and steers plot through potentially convoluted pitfalls. One could have asked for more focus on the victims of McCarthyism and the right-wing organizations which supported and still support it. But she has given us an important reminder of the perils of home-grown terrorism, even as it again rears its ugly head again in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy premieres on PBS on Mon., Jan. 6, 2020, on American Experience. The trailer can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.