Daily readings about people, places, and events in American history.
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February 9th
McCarthyism
On February 9, 1950, during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin waved a piece of paper in the air and claimed that he had a list of Communists who had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. It was a time of heightened Cold War tensions. Communism had robbed millions around the world of their freedom. McCarthy’s shocking claim hit a nerve with the American people.

Over the next few years, the opportunistic McCarthy accused hundreds of Americans of Communist activities. He usually had little evidence, but that didn’t stop him. He hauled public officials and others before his Congressional subcommittee and tried to browbeat them into acknowledging Communist affiliations. The accusations and investigations spread. Thousands of people, from librarians to actors to clergymen, fell under suspicion. McCarthy’s reckless tactics trampled rights and ruined reputations.

There were many who recognized the dangers of “McCarthyism.” The Senate’s only woman, Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith, stood tall. The Constitution, she told fellow senators, speaks of “trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.” Veteran newsman Edward R. Murrow reminded Americans that “we cannot defend freedom by deserting it at home.” In one hearing, Boston attorney Joseph Welch skewered McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The more Americans saw of McCarthy’s bullying, the less they liked him. Behind the scenes, President Eisenhower successfully urged the Senate to censure him, and McCarthy fell into disrepute.

Decades later, we now know that the Soviet Union did, in fact, recruit Americans to be spies during the Cold War. One of the tragedies of McCarthy’s tactics was that he undermined legitimate efforts to counter Communism. Ronald Reagan would later say that he used a shotgun where a rifle was called for. The episode is a reminder that threats to liberty deserve serious responses, not showmanship.

American History Parade
1773
William Henry Harrison, the ninth U.S. president, is born in Charles City County, Virginia.

1825
The House of Representatives elects John Quincy Adams president after no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes.

1942
Daylight saving time (then called “war time”) goes into effect to conserve fuel during World War II.

1943
American troops recapture Guadalcanal in the southwest Pacific.

1950
Sen. Joseph McCarthy charges that Communists have infiltrated the State Department.
This content is courtesy of The American Patriot's Almanac
© 2008, 2010 by William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb
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