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Historically Speaking: Tail Gunner Joe

The Boogie Man of the Fifties

By Tom Morrow

During the late forties and early fifties the great “Red Scare” paralyzed much of the nation. The House Un-American Activities Committee and then what became known as the U.S. Senate “Army-McCarthy Hearings sent shivers from Washington to Hollywood giving the notion there was a Communist around every corner. If you were a Federal official, elected or appointed, you had every reason to be afraid – very afraid because many were falsely accused of not being a loyal American.

The biggest scare was perpetated by one man: Joseph Raymond “Joe” McCarthy. Born on Nov. 14, 1908, McCarthy was a U.S. Senator who represented the state of Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. Beginning in 1950, McCarthy became the most visible public face after World War II in which Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union fueled fears of widespread Communist subversion.

He was noted for making claims there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere. Ultimately, his tactics and inability to substantiate his claims led him to be censured by the United States Senate.

The term “McCarthyism,” coined in 1950 in reference to the senator’s reckless practices, was soon applied to similar anti-communist activities. Today, the term is used more generally in reference to demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.

During World War II, the 33-year-old McCarthy, an attorney, volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps. Among his Marine comrades, he gained the nicknames of: “Tailgunner Joe,” and “Low-Blow Joe” for his flamboyance behavior.mcarthy

After the war, McCarthy successfully ran for the United States Senate in 1946, defeating Robert M. La Follette Jr. After three largely undistinguished years in the Senate, McCarthy rose suddenly to national fame in February 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of “members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring” who were employed in the Federal government. His accusations set Washington, D.C. on its ear.

After his 1950 speech, McCarthy continued to make additional accusations of Communist infiltration into the State Department, the administration of President Harry S. Truman, the Voice of America, and the U.S. Army. He also used various charges of Communism, Communist sympathies, disloyalty, or homosexuality to attack a number of politicians and other individuals inside and outside the government.

McCarthy made various attempts to intimidate, and expel from government positions, persons whom he accused, or threatened to publicly expose officials of homosexuality. Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson has written, “The so-called ‘Red Scare’ has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element, and one that harmed far more people was the “Lavender Scare,” a witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals.” With the highly-publicized “Army-McCarthy” hearings of 1954, and following the suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester C. Hunt that same year, McCarthy’s support and popularity faded. His bogus crusade became unraveled with fierce questioning of McCarthy by newscaster Edward R. Murrow via live television

On Dec. 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure Senator McCarthy by a vote of 67-22, making him one of the few senators ever to be disciplined in this fashion.

McCarthy died at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland on May 2, 1957, at the age of 48. The official cause of death was acute hepatitis, but it is widely accepted that this was caused, or exacerbated by, alcoholism. For the hundreds of Federal officials who lived through those uncertain times, it was one of the nation’s saddest periods because of McCarthy’s false rumors and unfounded accusations. Hundreds of lives and careers were ruined by “Tailgunner Joe.”