Evaluation Of Whether Joseph Mccarthy’s Methods Were Justified

Section 1 - Identification & Evaluation of Sources 

The research question examined is: ‘Were the methods of the American senator Joseph McCarthy justified in his pursuit of protecting political stability during the Cold War Era of 1950-1954?’ Senator McCarthy’s policies garnered much controversy for the United States (hereafter the US) government at the time and has been almost universally criticized by historians and politicians in subsequent years.

The purpose of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s article, “McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare” written in 2015, is relevant to this investigation as it details not only the influences of communism in decades prior to the McCarthy era but also how its prevalence built up a strong anti-communist movement during the early 1950s and how the era was brought to an end as well. The origin of this source is valuable because Storrs is a professor for 20th Century U.S. Social and Political History at the University of Iowa, and has written extensive articles and books on McCarthyism, extrapolating connections to today’s politics as well, indicating her knowledge. A second value of the origin is the fact that it offers the benefit of hindsight, as the date of the publication was over fifty years after the original events had taken place. This gave her the opportunity to conduct a credible analysis with a range of primary and secondary sources, including government documents and transcripts along with fellow author’s analyses on McCarthyism. However, a limitation of the origin and the content was the fact that Storrs also placed much influence on her work regarding anti-feminism and linked much of it to the events of the Second Red Scare, which mars her writing with a lens that is not linked to this investigation and places inherent bias within her viewpoint. A second limitation is that the source offers a general overview of McCarthyism but lacks the necessary depth to discuss American political stability in the 1950s, as it reveals the effects of communism on minority groups and foreign influences instead. 

The purpose of John Peurifoy’s note to Senator McCarthy, on February 11, 1950, is relevant to this investigation as it develops awareness regarding the truthfulness of Senator McCarthy’s methods during the trials that he administered. This source’s origin has value as it was written by a high-ranking government official and diplomat, and therefore provides insight into the views of someone who worked closely with the Senator during the trials and with extensive legislative knowledge on the management of the Department of State. As a result this gives insight into whether or not the actions were truly justified. Another value of the purpose and the content is that it sets out information regarding the Senator’s flimsy methodologies and evidence during the trails. However, a limitation could be the fact that the source was not meant to be released to the public, and thus contains information with some lack of context. A second limitation is the persuasive tone of the source, thus limiting the reliability of all information.

Section 2 - Investigation 

Joseph McCarthy’s role during the Cold War era of 1950-1954 is often viewed by historians as one of the most brutal examples of judicial scapegoating in American history. The Second Red Scare was led from the top-down by senators such as Joseph McCarthy, who’s most famous tactic was to claim with subjective evidence that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the US State Department. Senator McCarthy was certain of his methods and beliefs stating in a speech in 1950 that those who had been selling out the US were not the less fortunate “but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on Earth has had to offer … this is glaringly true in the State Department.” However, with the rise of communist influences in the US for decades and the fact that Senator McCarthy was simply just a practitioner of tactics used by several politicians, this essay will determine whether the protection of political stability, as defined by the limitation of opportunities for a communist political upheaval in the US, justified his specific tactics.

It can be argued that the main reason behind Senator McCarthy’s methods during the early 1950s were due to decades of Communist influence in the US. The American Communist Party was founded in 1919 to support the foreign policy objectives of Soviet Russia, and following the Great Depression, the Communist party grew in large number and power, attracting those who had suffered the failures of capitalism. The larger tent of left-leaning Americans endorsed much of the Communist party for organizing support on behalf of industry and agriculture workers along with their denunciation of far-right extremism that was proliferating in Europe. With the rise of the New Deal, communist leaders adopted a strategy of cooperation with non-communists in a “Popular Front”, and the party grew to about 75 000 members in 1938. There was a significant increase in communist support, illustrating that support for communist ideals in the US was increasing. This Communist Party was not even a purely American objective; rather, the Soviets gave the party it’s unity, credibility, and much of its funding. Repayment was evident in 1938, when Josef Stalin abandoned his opposition to Hitler and signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. Instead of arguing against fascism, the party argued for ‘peace’, against US intervention in Europe and even turned against President Roosevelt as a war demagogue who had given them their first avenue into greater American society; turning many non-communist leftists and liberals against the party. Though this shift briefly halted when the Soviets became allies with the US, following the end of the war and the beginning of tensions between the USSR and the US, the Communist party strongly shifted to a stance of Soviet sympathy - denouncing capitalism and the policies of President Truman. Though there had been no explicit danger to the political stability of the US, the rise of communism in the United States was apparent and connections to a nation that was effectively at war spelt danger to said stability. Such beliefs were apparent with Senator McCarthy as evidenced in his letter to President Truman in which he even referenced the death of American citizens abroad as a result of communism in the 1950s. With spies such as the Rosenbergs being tried for providing secret information to Soviet Russia such as nuclear weapon designs in the climate of the war, McCarthy’s actions have a level of vindication, seeing that they could have prevented the Americans from losing a war to the Soviets. This fact was coupled with the knowledge that an additional twelve Soviet agents in the State Department being found, and also evidence that the spy-ring set up by Julius Rosenberg was still active. Such actions were reflected in the mood of the American people with 87.5% of Americans polled by GALLUP in August 1954 (the height of McCarthy’s power) revealing their distaste for Communism and for Soviet Russia. Senator McCarthy’s actions only reflected such actions, preserving the status quo against communism. Thus, for these many reasons there is no doubt justification to the point that McCarthy’s actions helped preserve political stability and prevented opportunities from arising for wings of the American communist party. 

However, Senator McCarthy’s methods were also immoral in many senses of the word. An example of this was when he used flimsy evidence, the Senator alleged that he had a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being not only members of the Communist party, but also that the State Department turned a blind eye to such ‘traitors.’[footnoteRef:18] This was not even a private accusation, rather, he made such an allegation to the press without publicly divulging all information, thus arousing questions regarding the validity of such a statement. Even when asked by a high-ranking member of the State Department who had even allied with Senator McCarthy to prosecute homosexuals later on during the trials, Joseph Peurifoy, to release such names to the Department, Senator McCarthy refused to firmly announce who the actual Communists were; choosing instead to damage their careers in judicial proceedings. Such actions only begged for the trials to be labelled as ‘witchhunts’ and thus, lessened the justification of the trials that Senator McCarthy ran. Of the 205 agents he accused, only twelve were actually found, thus indicating the untruths to his methods. Senator McCarthy also held hearings on alleged Communist influences in the State Department’s overseas library programs, causing a mass book-burning; increasing public hatred for himself. If any criticism was levelled at him, he would refer to the naysayers as ‘communists’ alluding to a mindset of someone deeply incorrect and afraid of admitting the heresy of such trials. As Senator McCarthy’s methodologies were often kept private as most government hearings, this also raises questions regarding the legitimacy of any political stability that he was protecting. This was evident in his loss of popularity following the public viewings of the Army-McCarthy trials, as his methods were revealed to have been flawed in the eyes of the public. Lastly, a few months after the end of McCarthy’s judicial reign, FBI informants such as Harvey Matusow revealed that Senator McCarthy had asked him to commit perjury by giving false information during the trials. Regardless of any political stability, the proliferation of lies, secrecy, and overall methods that Senator McCarthy used show an element to why his methods could not have been justified. Domestic factors also combined to spell the end of Senator McCarthy and his methods. When President Eisenhower was elected in 1952, the purely political motivation to attack a Democratic president for being on soft on communism decreased. This was coupled with the selection of new Supreme Court Justices who ruled against the mechanisms that Senator McCarthy had used to identify and punish communists, both legitimate and illegitimate.[footnoteRef:26] However, such changes can be attributed to the lessening strength of Communism that Senator McCarthy catalyzed through his actions. This shows that political stability was in fact preserved by the methods of the Senator. 

In conclusion, the methods of Senator McCarthy were justified in his pursuit of protecting political stability. The methodologies of the Senator were done without credible evidence in many ways and deservedly resulted in his own blacklisting from history. However, mainly because of the influences that communism had on the United States, how such influences materialized in threats to American security and how a fear of a communist political upheaval was both credible and feared across the country, there was without a doubt a justification for his methods. The context of the American culture at the time was also an important factor, as various domestic factors spelt his end.

Section 3 - Reflection 

This investigation allowed me to gain insight into some of the methods used by historians and the systematic limitations that historians face when they carry out such investigations. Firstly, when considering which evidence to include, I realized that historians carefully analyze their sources and ensure that they present different points of view on the same subject; otherwise a conclusion would not be fully met. I also did this with books by renowned historians, speeches and letters by those involved within McCarthyism and government documents being considered in order to come to a reasonable conclusion. All of these are methods often used by historians and can present them with great challenges, as it takes long periods to find sources that both fit these criteria and are also ‘reliable’.

When examining the evidence provided by various sources regarding the question at hand, it was very apparent to what challenges historians deal with. A major challenge many historians deal with are sources that were clearly meant to agree with a particular perspective. Though it was easy to find sources that disagreed with the research question considering the almost universal opinion of McCarthyism as a ‘witch-hunt’, sources that justified his actions were much harder to come by in an academic sense. Many sources that I came across were from far-right publications such as Breitbart News and thus possessed severe limitations that would negatively impact the conclusion of this paper. Thus, to find anything that justified the Senator’s actions, I had to look for exposition regarding the outbreak of Communism such as the works by Landon Storrs to have some form of justification. This issue was also seen with Adam Ferenz’s paper. Though Ferenz later came to a conclusion that perhaps Senator McCarthy was justified, he admitted early on that he was specifically trying to come to the opposite conclusion. This placed inherent bias and could have influenced his writing on the paper. 

Another obstacle I found was with finding primary sources related to the topic at hand. Many of the primary sources were lengthy government transcripts that would have taken hours to analyze and use for this paper; thus, more concise versions were used. For example, the former had trials on homosexuals and McCarthyism, while the latter focused on McCarthyism specifically. As a result, more complex nuances may have been missed. While these were both challenges, historians would have spent more time in the research process in order to find sources that wouldn’t pose such issues. 


  • Department of History.” Landon Storrs | History | College of Liberal Arts and Sciences | The University of Iowa, n.d. https://clas.uiowa.edu/history/people/landon-storrs.
  • Ferenz, Adam “Joseph McCarthy and the Loss of China: A Study in Fear & Panic” American Culture Faculty at the University of Michigan-Flint. University of Michigan-Flint, June 3, 2014
  • Have You No Sense of Decency’: The Army-McCarthy Hearings.” HISTORY MATTERS - The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, June 9, 1954. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6444/.
  • Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of Americas Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000.
  • John Emil Peurifoy.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, n.d. https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/peurifoy-john-emil.
  • McCarthy, Joseph. 1950. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=3633.
  • Peurifoy, John E. “The Deputy Under Secretary of State for Administration (Peurifoy) to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.” U.S. Department of State, February 11, 1950. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v01p2/d174.
  • Schrecker, Ellen W. Many Are The Crimes, 1998.
  • Smith, Tom “The Polls: American Attitudes Toward the Soviet Union and Communism” Columbia University, Summer 1983
  • Storrs, Landon R. Y. “McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Oxford University Press, July 2, 2015.
  • Von Hoffman, Nicholas. “WAS MCCARTHY RIGHT ABOUT THE LEFT?” The Washington Post, April 14, 1996.
16 December 2021
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