McCarthyism: Populism and the Press
This eight-minute video contextualizes Joseph McCarthy’s rapid ascent during the early stages of the Cold War, and the early years of television. The video explores the roots of McCarthy’s anti-communist rhetoric and is useful for lessons showcasing McCarthy’s populist political style, demonstrating the domestic fallout of the Cold War or for setting up a student discussion of the tension between populism and representative democracy and the impact of the news media.
This video was featured in an online class on The Cold War in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute’s History School and Joe Welch, a 2018 Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year and Master Teacher.
- How the initial stages of the Cold War, and the rise of communism around the world, contributed to the political context from which Senator Joseph McCarthy emerged.
- How McCarthy’s version of populist anti-communism undermined the norms of American political institutions.
- How the new medium of television contributed to McCarthy’s rise to power before facilitating his downfall.
- Media/News Literacy
- Civics & Government
- U.S. History
- Red Scare
- 1950s America
- America as a World Power
- Cold War
- The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
- U.S. Foreign Policy
- Joseph McCarthy
By the end of the 1940s, Americans were growing increasingly unsettled by Cold War events. The Soviets had developed their own A-bomb. Nationalist China had fallen to the Communists. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee aimed to root out Communist subversion in the United States.
So when the junior U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, gave a speech at Wheeling, W. Va., on Feb. 9, 1950, he found a ready audience for his message: America was being betrayed by government officials who had sold out their country to the Communists.
Overnight, McCarthy became a populist hero. He deftly waged his battles in print and on camera against “traitors” in government he said were aiding the spread of international communism.
Along the way, McCarthy subverted Constitutional protections by interrogating his opponents using unnamed sources, casting their political leanings as criminal activity and treating their right not to answer his questions as an admission of guilt. He perfected the art of the smear: attacking suspects and foes with innuendo, rumor, outright lies.
He created a climate of fear called McCarthyism that would ultimately ruin thousands of lives. The movement seemed terrifying and unstoppable for years because many politicians felt they couldn’t take a public stand against him.
But in 1954, after several newspapers had begun to question McCarthy’s methods, the intrepid CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow broadcast a devastating indictment of the Wisconsin senator and won resounding support among viewers.
McCarthy’s problems only worsened that summer when he was singled out during a nationally televised Senate hearing for trying to turn his smear tactics against members of the U.S. Army.
The media attention that had fed McCarthy’s rise to power, now opened the door to his demise. By the end of the year, McCarthy’s behavior led the Senate to censure him. He died three years later at the age of 48.
- In 1950, what recent events had caused many Americans to grow increasingly frightened of communism?
- How did Joseph McCarthy present himself to the American people? How did his rhetoric rely upon an “us against them” mentality?
- What role did television play in McCarthy’s rise? How did he use the new medium of television to advance his career?
- What role did television play in McCarthy’s downfall?
- What do you see as the difference between McCarthy’s version of populism as described in the video and Constitutional democracy? If democracy is supposed to represent the opinions of the people, why is populism sometimes viewed as dangerous to democracy?
- Television played a large role in McCarthy’s rise to power, as well as his fall. In today’s world, do you think the internet is responsible for helping or hurting populist leaders seeking to gain power?
- Populism relies heavily on “us against them” rhetoric. Why do you think this kind of rhetoric is so powerful? Do you ever find yourself falling into “us against them” thinking about political issues? How does fear contribute to this kind of thinking? Does all political rhetoric require an element of “us against them”? What makes McCarthy’s rhetoric different from standard political rhetoric?
- Based on your knowledge of American history, what are some parallels to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s? What are other situations in American history when fear of a real or perceived enemy gave rise to oppression or demagogues? Are there other situations when a similar context has produced similar effects?
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem
Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.