The West Virginia Speech that Sparked Nationwide Hysteria
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one powerful man spewing falsehoods can damage a country immeasurably.
It was an unusual place for a history-making movement to launch — and for one of the darkest chapters in American life to begin. But if you were a time-traveling do-gooder bent on ironing out a particularly rough patch in our history, then touching down in Wheeling, West Virginia, more than six decades ago is perhaps as good as any a place to start.
There, on the evening of Feb. 9, 1950, a balding 40-year-old U.S. senator with an undistinguished political record but big ambitions entered the McLure Hotel to deliver a Lincoln Day address at an event organized by the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club. The crowd of about 275 West Virginia Republicans was treated to what was by all accounts an intimate, folksy speech by a charming politician with an Irish wit and a toothy grin. But the words they would hear Joseph McCarthy utter in what became known as his “Enemies Within” speech would vault the junior senator from Wisconsin to prominence, shake the corridors of power in America and spark a nationwide hysteria that changed the course of history.
It was a different time in America and in Wheeling, a town at the northern tip of the state. As tensions mounted between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, anti-communism had already taken root, says Wendy L. Wall, a history professor at Binghamton University, but several developments at the end of the decade helped make some Americans unusually receptive to what would become known as McCarthyism. In late 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, and communists triumphed in China’s civil war. Three weeks before McCarthy’s speech, Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and alleged communist spy, was convicted of perjury, and one week earlier, a Manhattan Project physicist named Klaus Fuchs had been arrested in Britain and charged with spying for the Soviets.
Holding up a piece of paper, McCarthy made the claim that changed history.
For his part, McCarthy, a bright first-term senator with a photographic memory but a tendency toward mendacity, was focused on a closer horizon. He was facing reelection in 1952 and needed a dramatic issue to run on. “There is little evidence that McCarthy was a rabid anti-communist before he gave his Wheeling speech,” Wall tells OZY.
The locals in Wheeling were expecting a salutary speech on aid for the elderly, but what they heard instead was talk of a great ideological war between good and evil, between a “Western Christian” world and an “atheistic communist” one. And then, holding up a piece of paper, McCarthy made the claim that changed history. “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [State Department employees],” he claimed, according to Wheeling’sThe Intelligencer, “that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”
The Associated Press picked up the story, but it got little traction at first. The next day, in Denver, McCarthy told reporters he had a list of 207 names. The following day, in Salt Lake City, he revised the number down to 48. Later, it changed to 57, then 81. “He was always changing the number, because he had no list,” Wheeling historian Margaret Brennan observes in a 2014 interview with C-SPAN. “He had no names. It was all a big lie.”
But McCarthy had seized on an issue that resonated with voters, and, despite the inconsistencies, his conspiracy theory took flight, and he played Americans with a trial-and-error demagoguery that predated Twitter by half a century. “[W]hen he saw what his audience liked, he gave them more of it,” Edwin R. Bayley argues in Joe McCarthy and the Press. “If they were bored, he shifted to something more exciting. When he learned something he thought he could use, he used it as soon as possible, often without checking at all.”
McCarthy’s shadow still looms over Wheeling.
In 1952, McCarthy was reelected and the Senate swung to the Republicans, making him chair of an important subcommittee on government investigations, a pedestal he used to pursue one of the most daring political witch hunts in U.S. history. A scared American populace responded to McCarthy’s fearmongering, but when he took his increasingly controversial show on national television in 1954 for 36 days of congressional hearings, public support waned and, ultimately, says Brennan, not a single card-carrying communist was found.
The GOP lost the Senate later that year, McCarthy was censored by his colleagues and, just like that — a mere four years after launching a firebomb in Wheeling — it was over. Torn from the spotlight he craved, McCarthy started drinking heavily and died from liver disease at the age of 48. But McCarthy’s shadow still looms over Wheeling. “I wish it hadn’t started here,” Brennan laments, “because that’s one of the things we’re known for — that McCarthyism started in this city.”