McCarthy returns to Appleton in museum exhibit

Ceilidh Mar

1952 America was a very different place than the America of today. Though phrases like “cold war,” “red scare,” and “McCarthyism” seem relics of decades long past, the Outagamie County Historical Museum will seek to take us back to those days of fear and suspicion with the exhibit: Joseph McCarthy: A Modern Tragedy. Although the decade following World War II was hailed as a “return to normalcy” by many, and was characterized by prosperity for a growing middle class America, it was also a decade of mass conformity, where the growing discontent of millions demanding social and political change would lay the foundation for the tumultuous 1960s.

But back to 1952. America was in the middle of the “red scare,” a nation-wide hunt for anyone connected to the Communist Party. A large percentage of Hollywood had been blacklisted for connections in Europe and the American government was divided, seeking to root out traitors and spies within its very walls. McCarthy, a key player in the advancement of the public’s fear of communism infiltration in the United States, was, beyond the man responsible for nation-wide communist witch-hunts, an area native.

McCarthy’s story started in this area. McCarthy was born in 1908 at a small farmhouse not far from Appleton, and attended school until the eighth grade, when he left school to help on said family farm. Later, after returning to high school and completing four years of education in one, McCarthy was accepted to Marquette University, where he studied law. He graduated in 1935 and set up a law practice in Waupaca.

Four years later his popularity won him the judgeship for the tenth district of Wisconsin’s Circuit Court. After a brief stint in the Marines, McCarthy was elected a junior senator for Wisconsin in a remarkably close election, with the Labor Party votes pulling him through. Ironically, McCarthy would later take many stands against the fundamental beliefs of the Labor Party.

Shortly thereafter, McCarthy capitalized on the political and international turmoil of the times, and began making demagogic appeals to the American public to search out the supposed communists lurking in their midst. The country, already aware of a few cases of communistic espionage including the recent conviction of spy Alger Hiss, was caught up in the call to discover and rid our nation of the spies.

In 1950, at a meeting in West Virginia, McCarthy made his first claim in a series of speeches that he had a list of “known communists” in the employ of the State Department. Later that month he presented to the Senate a list of cases of “individuals who appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party.” These announcements sparked national concern, although McCarthy himself was never able to produce enough evidence to convict any of the accused.

From 1950-1954, McCarthy dominated the headlines with his public rousing tactics for discovering the hidden communists. Suspicion and fear gripped the nation when anti-communist checks ran through Hollywood, labor unions, and universities.

McCarthy’s world began to crumble only after scores of people had been imprisoned on false charges. In May of 1954, after a series of military accusations, the United States Army charged McCarthy of seeking by improper means to obtain special treatment for a former consultant. The hearings were held by the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, of which, during his time in office, McCarthy had become the chairman.

Over the next 36 days the hearing was televised for the public to see. After 187 hours of airtime, and 2 million words of testimony, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy for conduct contrary to senatorial traditions.

McCarthy died on May 2, 1957 of peripheral neuritis, a liver ailment, and was buried in Appleton, WI, seven miles from his birthplace.

The museum exhibit will open on Jan. 19 and run through Jan. 4, 2004. The museum plans to run concurrent with the exhibit a book and film series dealing with McCarthy. The first movie in the series will be presented on Feb. 8 at 7:00 p.m. Admission to the film series is free and refreshments will be available. Admission to the exhibit runs $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors, $2 child (age 5-17), and $10 for a family. Future events will be announced and the dates and information can be found at