THE CAUSE THAT WOULD SALVAGE his political career and ignite a home front holy war came to Joe McCarthy like a bolt of lightning. He was on his way to that dreaded Republican sacrament, the Lincoln Day Dinner, before a hotel ballroom packed with moneyed matrons and mine operators, in a Democratic stronghold that McCarthy aides called Wheeling, West-by-God Virginia. But Democrat or Republican, Wheeling, Waco, or Walla Walla, America was in a tizzy that winter of 1950. Six months earlier, US spy planes had confirmed that Russia, too, had an atomic bomb. Two months after that, Mao Tse-tung and his troops remade Nationalist China into Red China. A month before Joe took to the podium in West Virginia, accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury; nine days before, President Truman defied his advisers and announced he’d build the H-bomb; and a week before, officers from Scotland Yard arrested atomic espionage agent Klaus Fuchs. The morning of his Wheeling speech, part five of a ten-day series in the Chicago Daily Tribune laid out the threat from the godless, ruthless Soviet empire and, creepier still, from pinkos lurking behind every pillar in our own out-of-touch State Department.

Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy