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I have here in my hand.
Thursday afternoon was overcast, the temperature hovering just above freezing, when the black-haired, heavyset man carrying a bulging, battered tan briefcase boarded a Capital Airlines plane for the two hundred-seventeen-mile flight from Washington's National Airport to Wheeling, West Virginia. "Good afternoon, Senator McCarthy," he heard the stewardess say after he took his seat. He looked startled, then pleased, not realizing the stewardess had been waiting to greet him after noticing a senator's name on her passenger list. "Why, good afternoon," he replied, flashing a broad smile. "I'm glad somebody recognizes me."
There was no false modesty in his remark. On February 9, 1950, Joe McCarthy was neither a household name nor a recognizable public face. In four years as a freshman senator, a position he held by virtue of the 1946 Republican sweep of both houses of Congress, his record was so undistinguished that in a recent poll Washington correspondents had voted him America's worst senator.
As he boarded the plane, McCarthy's career was in shambles. In his home state of Wisconsin, critics were calling him the "Pepsi-Cola kid" because of reports that he had taken $10,000 from a manufacturer of prefabricated housing and obtained an unsecured loan of $20,000 from a lobbyist for Pepsi-Cola. Then it was disclosed that he recklessly lost the money speculating on soybean futures.
A year prior, McCarthy, a lawyer, had come close to being disbarred by the Wisconsin State Board of Ethics Examiners; he had run for the U.S. Senate while holding a state judicial office, a practice deemed both unethical and illegal. The board found that he had acted "in violation of the constitution and laws of Wisconsin," but dismissed a petition to discipline him by concluding that his infraction was "one in a class by itself which was not likely to be repeated."
McCarthy's reply was contemptuous. Paraphrasing the board's ruling, he mocked, "Joe was a naughty boy, but we don't think he'll do it again."
He was also in trouble in Washington.
In a clubbish Senate that relied on hoary tradition and deferential collegiality, on rigid seniority and elaborate courtesy, his repeated violations of Senate rules and customs had lost him the respect of influential colleagues in both parties and denied him a place among the players who would shape the legislative future. Already he had alienated both Republican and Democratic colleagues by lashing out during floor debates with false accusations against them. Once, in the spring of 1947, he so enraged two fellow Republicans, Ralph E. Flanders of Vermont and Charles W. Tobey of New Hampshire, that both arose in protest and, claiming personal privilege, accused McCarthy of having falsified their positions. This came after McCarthy told the Senate that both Flanders and Tobey had just informed him that they intended to introduce a "fictitious amendment" designed to "deceive the housewife" on a bill to extend wartime sugar controls for a year. So furious was Tobey that, red-faced and shouting, he accused McCarthy of lying and attempting to confuse the Senate.
As McCarthy was acutely aware, for these reasons and others his prospects for reelection in 1952 were imperiled. He had been consulting, in fact, his advisors about finding a cause to bolster his public standing and reverse his political slide. All this was about to change when his plane took off that February afternoon for West Virginia.
The way west is the most enduring of American legends, and in its time Wheeling, West Virginia, played a central role in that saga.
There, where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Fort Henry, a flood of pioneers and adventurers found their overland gateway west through Wheeling's gorges to claim free land beyond the Alleghenies in the Ohio River Valley. By the time Joe McCarthy's flight landed that February afternoon, Wheeling, once West Virginia's capital and leading city, had become a cultural and economic backwater. Its population had sunk to fifty-nine thousand from its peak of seventy thousand, and the exodus was accelerating. Wheeling was hardly the place for an obscure freshman senator to make his mark in history, especially at a political boilerplate event like the annual Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women's Club of Ohio County-in a state that had voted Democratic in the last five presidential elections, including Harry S. Truman's two years earlier.
As unlikely as the backdrop was, when Joe McCarthy flew into Wheeling, West Virginia, the stage for McCarthyism had already been set.
Each morning that week, citizens of Wheeling had awakened to find the pages of their newspaper filled with frightening reports of treachery, spies, Communists, terrible new nuclear weapons, and a Cold War turning hot. Everything pointed toward a war of incalculable destruction. There seemed no end to alarming news flashes. Typical was the eight-column banner headline spread across the Wheeling Intelligencer's front page, two days before McCarthy left for Wheeling:
FBI Hunts Fuchs' Aides in Atom Theft
The headline decks told the story, reported out of Washington:
Faces Trial Friday
For Betraying U.S.
Klaus Emil Fuchs, a British subject of German extraction who as a physicist had worked for three years in the United States on the ultrasecret atomic bomb project, had been arrested in London. Fuchs, "weedy, with a large head and narrow, rickety body," as the writer Rebecca West described him, was charged with transmitting to Soviet agents in the U.S. "all he knew" about America's A-bomb development. As the record revealed, Fuchs knew a lot.
Days after these shocking revelations, a federal jury found Alger Hiss, a top diplomatic aide to Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, guilty of perjury in a highly-publicized espionage trial. An ex-Communist named Whittaker Chambers had accused Hiss in House Un-American Activities Committee testimony of being a Soviet agent who passed him secret government documents. After Hiss's conviction, Secretary of State Dean Acheson drew protests for telling reporters, "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." Then Acheson made matters worse by invoking the words of a forgiving Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in connection with the case of a convicted traitor.
Coming on the heels of Fuchs's arrest, and Hiss's conviction, President Truman's announcement that the United States had begun work on the hydrogen bomb only intensified national anxiety. The hydrogen bomb was the deadliest weapon yet known to humankind. Albert Einstein, the father of the nuclear age, appeared on national television warning that "radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere and, hence, annihilation of any life on earth has been brought within the range of possibilities." Einstein's conclusion: "General annihilation beckons." In this context, one of the staunchest Republican anticommunists, Homer Capehart of Indiana, cried out on the Senate floor: "How much more are we going to take? Fuchs and Acheson and Hiss and hydrogen bombs threatening outside and New Dealism eating away the vitals of the nation. In the name of heaven, is this the best the nation can do?"
Copyright © 2005 by Haynes Johnson
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