Joseph McCarthy was hardly the first or last person to whip an audience into a frenzy with baseless claims about underlying dangers. From the 17th century Salem witch trials to modern cries of “Fake news,” inflammatory rhetoric rules the day, and a well-placed phrase or repeated accusation can set a neutral crowd aflame with righteous indignation. While McCarthy’s quotes aren’t made for the inspiration wall, they remind — and warn — us how easily we can turn against each other in uncertain times.
On February 9, 1950, the junior senator from Wisconsin delivered a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. The incendiary address would later become known as the “Enemies From Within” speech in which Joseph McCarthy would claim (without evidence) that many top-ranking government officials were part of an international communist spy ring. The famous (or infamous) speech is one of the clearest examples of McCarthy’s rhetorical manipulation, but it’s not the only one.
“If this fight against Communism is made a fight against America's two great political parties, the American people know that one of these parties will be destroyed — and the republic cannot endure very long as a one-party system.” - “See It Now,” CBS, 1954
“The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” - “Enemies from Within,” 1950
“Our job as Americans and as Republicans is to dislodge the traitors from every place where they've been sent to do their traitorous work.” - Republican National Convention speech, 1952
“I assume you did not, Mr. Welch, because I get the impression that while you are quite an actor, you play for a laugh, I don't think you have any conception of the danger of the Communist Party. I don't think you, yourself, would ever knowingly aid the Communist cause. I think you're unknowingly aiding it when you try to burlesque this hearing in which we're attempting to bring out the facts, however.” - Army-McCarthy Hearings, 1954
“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” - “Enemies from Within,” 1950
“Now, Mr. Murrow said on this program — and I quote — he said: ‘The actions the Junior Senator from Wisconsin had given considerable comfort to the enemy.’ That is the language of our statute of treason, rather strong language. If I am giving comfort to our enemies I ought not to be in the Senate. If, on the other hand, Mr. Murrow is giving comfort to our enemies he ought not to be brought into the homes of millions of Americans by the Columbia Broadcasting System.” - “See It Now,” CBS, 1954
“At war's end, we were physically the strongest nation on earth and, at least potentially, the most powerful intellectually and morally. Ours could have been the honor of being a beacon on the desert of destruction, a shining living proof that civilization was not yet ready to destroy itself. Unfortunately, we have failed miserably and tragically to arise to the opportunity.” - “Enemies from Within,” 1950
“The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer — the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give.” - “Enemies from Within,” 1950
“McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.” Campaign slogan, 1952
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Spoken by Joseph Welch in 1954, these immortal words echoed his (and our) horror at Joseph McCarthy’s political rancor. Welch wasn’t alone in his disgust for the senator, who managed to make two political enemies for every supporter he gained.
“What sets me apart from Sen. McCarthy is my devotion to the principles upon which this nation rests — justice, freedom and fairness.” - Edward Murrow
“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but In ourselves.’” - Edward Murrow
“[He is] our modern Grand Inquisitor … a dangerous, clever and ruthless demagogue.” - Agnes Meyer
“This is the first time in my experience, and I was ten years in the Senate, that I ever heard of a Senator trying to discredit his own Government before the world.… Your telegram is not only not true and an insolent approach to a situation that should have been worked out between man and man but it shows conclusively that you are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the Government of the United States.” - President Harry S.Truman
“I will not get in the gutter with that guy.” - President Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict. But when the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.” - Ray Bradbury, The Nation, 1953
Joseph McCarthy holds a distinct position in American history as one who tried to uphold American values while simultaneously eroding them. It’s tempting to erase his influence in the history books, but if that happens, the same mistakes will repeat again. For more ways to arm yourself against propaganda, check out: