New episodes come out every Tuesday for free, with 1-week early access for Wondery+ subscribers.
Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.
Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.
Tue, 13 Apr 2021 09:00
Joseph McCarthy was one of the most consequential politicians in American history. He upended Washington, and even influenced foreign policy for years to come. In this interview, Lindsay chats with Larry Tye, the author of Demagogue, a biography of McCarthy. The two discuss the early stages of the Red Scare, which laid the foundation for McCarthy’s rise. Tye also reveals why McCarthy was able to grow so powerful—and so popular.
To learn more, check out Larry's book, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy here.
Listen to new episodes 1 week early and to all episodes ad free with Wondery+. Join Wondery+ for exclusives, binges, early access, and ad free listening. Available in the Wondery App https://wondery.app.link/americanscandal.
Support us by supporting our sponsors!
From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scandal. Today we're wrapping up our series on the Red Scare. In the aftermath of World War II, Americans grew increasingly afraid of communists and the Soviet Union. That paranoia reached a fever pitch in large part because of Joseph McCarthy, a United States Senator who would become one of the most controversial politicians in American history. McCarthy got his start in state politics in Wisconsin. He was first elected to the US Senate in 1946. By the early 1950s, McCarthy was able to seize power after he took control of an obscure committee in the Senate. Through that committee, McCarthy launched a wide reaching campaign to expose communists in the US government. His crusade ended careers and ruined lives. And McCarthy's hunt for Communists would have sweeping effects on life of average Americans throughout the United States. Today I'll speak with Larry Ty, a journalist and bestselling author of several books. He's written biographies that cover a broad range of subjects including Robert F. Kennedy and the comic book Hero Superman. His book, Demagog, published in 2020 tells the story of Joseph McCarthy and includes new details uncovered from McCarthy's personal records. We'll discuss the early stages of the Red Scare which laid the foundation for McCarthy's rise. We'll also look at what made the Senator so popular and how McCarthy had a long lasting impact on American life. That's next. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y Podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together and we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y Podcast on Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. Larry Ty, welcome to American Scandal. Great to be on with you, Lindsey. Our recent series looked at the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy. And for many people, McCarthy's name is synonymous with the Red Scare. But McCarthy's era wasn't the first Red Scare. Americans have been fearful of communists for years. Tell us a little bit about that early history. In this earlier era, Harry Truman launched his loyalty program and was zealously assuming that anybody who came to work for the federal government was guilty until proven innocent. And people had to go through these loyalty tests. There were also a dizzying series of measures to keep communists out of the country, as well as out of the government. Everything from the 1939 Hatch Act that denied federal jobs to anyone belonging to an organization advocating the overthrow of the government to seven years later, the so called MacKaren writer. They gave the Secretary of State the authority to fire anybody. He labeled a risk. And if I could summarize these, what really made this a scare was there was for the first time in modern American history, a notion that you could be punished for what you believed as opposed to what you actually did. Right. So we know what Americans were afraid of communism and labor unions and rising Bolshevism across the globe. But that's not the what, not the why. Why were Americans so afraid of communists? What were the real threats? Sure. So if I can take you back to early 1950 when Joe McCarthy launched his crusade against communism and give you a sense of what the tenor of thinking was in America and the tenor of fear. So it was in February of 1950 that McCarthy launched his crusade and it was exactly six months earlier the US spy planes had confirmed that Russia had an atomic bomb. Two months after that, Matsé Tong and his troops remade nationalist China into red China and exactly a month before Joe took to his podium in Wheeling West Virginia. Accused by Alger his was convicted of perjury. President Truman had defied his advisors and announced that he was going to build an H bomb. The atomic spies, the Rosenbergs were arrested and convicted of passing our atomic secrets onto the Soviets and were condemned to death. There was this very real sense that the Soviet Union posed a threat in terms of its military might and in terms of its ability to penetrate our government. And not long after McCarthy launched his crusade to me the most telling sign of all of just how afraid we were was the so called duck and cover campaign. And what that was for any of your listeners who might not be familiar with that 1950s history. We were teaching our school kids that in the event of the feared Soviet atomic attack all they had to do was put their hands over their head duck under their desks in their school room and they would be safe. We were actually training our kids because we were petrified and that was the kind of atmosphere that the earlier red scare people had played on and that Joe McCarthy knew how to play more effectively than anybody. So it seemed like there were real geopolitical concerns. The Soviet Union was exercising its military might, its economic might. It was the second global superpower and rightfully Americans were afraid of it. Then you mentioned also that they have successfully infiltrated the government and passed American secrets to the Soviets. This is obviously problematic and you indicate that the entirety of the American culture including our primary school classrooms are now feeling the effects of this fear. So it seems like a right moment for a man like McCarthy to seize it. It was the perfect moment for a man like McCarthy to seize it. He was like demagogues who came before and those who came after brilliant at playing on fears and offering what seemed like solutions but were in fact hollow solutions. And he knew just how to tap into that fear and he shows up in Wheeling, West Virginia in February of 1950 with a briefcase that what was in that briefcase suggested just what an opportunist he was. He comes there that night with two speeches in his briefcase and not sure until the last second which one he's going to deliver. One was a snoozer on national housing policy which was something he actually knew a bit about and had he delivered that speech that night. Lindsay 70 years later you and I wouldn't be here talking about Joe McCarthy but instead he reached deeper into his briefcase. He pulled out a chief of papers and he said I have in my hand a list of 205 spies in our own state department and they are why we are at risk. And if we root them out and if the president would only root them out that would help make America safe. Now what he had in his hand might have been his wife's grocery list it might have been a recycle list of names that Martin dies in a 20 years earlier had come up with but it sure as heck wasn't the list of 205 spies. And yet within two days Joe McCarthy was on page one of every newspaper in America and McCarthyism was born and he never turned back. So McCarthy came to wheeling with two speeches in his pocket and he decided to give the one about communism. How do McCarthy a light upon communism as the ideal topic that would rocket him to the front pages. We talked about tracing Joe McCarthy's roots back to the earlier red scare. I would say that it's even better if we really want to understand him to trace his roots back to earlier demagogues in American history people like the governor and senator and would be dictator from Louisiana named Huey Long people like the Jew baiting radio preacher father Charles Coglin the infamous anti Semite from Michigan. And these people and all of the demagogues going back to our earliest moments in American history were brilliant at conceiving some convenient scapegoat for a very real fear. And Joe McCarthy was nothing if not inventive what he was looking for was any issue and I mean truly anything that would put him on page one and make people pay attention to him. So I said he didn't know whether that issue might be housing. He had tried various other issues in his earlier career and it suddenly dawned on him because he was reading the newspapers and seeing that the fear of communism was number one among Americans worries in 1950. And I think he had no imagination that it would become the barn storm of an issue that it became that night and wheeling McCarthy was inventive he was slippery he was funny and charismatic and he was most of all an all American demagogue who would do anything it took to get noticed and to stay in the public's attention. Well the wheeling speech certainly made headlines and McCarthy became a pretty popular person I'm interested in you mentioned the reporters trying to dig further into his accusations of the 205 names what was the presses view of McCarthy's claims and how did the public's reaction maybe a line or differ. So the press then was like suppressed today in an any era of American history every newspaper reporter on the one hand had a measure of integrity and wanted to do the right thing and yet what they wanted more than anything was I think to stay on page one and Joe McCarthy put them there. So he knew exactly the rules that the press played by and it was no accident that he delivered that first moment of speech as a dinner speech in wheeling West Virginia because he knew that reporters in an outlying area like wheeling would have no idea who to call for comment in the state department or in the White House. And even if they knew who to call he knew that if he delivered it as a dinner speech and reporters were on deadline that they would print his charges on the next day's paper and it would take an extra day to have the other charges printed and throughout his career he was brilliant at manipulating the press he show up on page one the response would be next to the corset ads on page 24 a day later. And reporters generally accepted what he said with an extraordinary lack of follow up and the reporters who did go after him most famously the best red column this in America a guy named Andrew drew Pearson wrote a total of about 60 columns immediately after the wheeling speech and followed McCarthy and followed his slippery attack. Slippery attempts to try to evade any responsibility for coming up with the names and for his efforts McCarthy attacked him physically one night in the cloakroom of a fancy Washington supper club and would have beat him to a pulp had it not been for a famous Quakers peacemaker named Richard Nixon who step between the two a week later. McCarthy attacked Pearson from the floor of the Senate where he knew he couldn't be sued for libel he caused Pearson's radio sponsors to withdraw the sponsorship McCarthy knew how to play the press and when that didn't work he knew how to intimidate the press. So McCarthy is a master manipulator a demagogue and now a pugilist to how was he viewed by the public certainly the presses the conduit from McCarthy to the public but his popularity was well he could not have been popular why was he though so he was popular enough in Wisconsin to be overwhelmingly reelected and he was popular enough that by the time that the army McCarthy hearings were about to be held at the beginning of night. At the beginning of 1954 George gallop the polling pioneer told us that john McCarthy was the second most popular public figure in America with fully one in every two Americans thinking he was doing a great job and the answer as to why he was that popular is that people were afraid and they wanted an answer and he was giving them a dramatic and simple answer all we had to do was root out the spies in our own government. And the threat would be gone and that was clearly not true spies were generally gone the threat of the Soviet empire as we saw went on for another generation and yet Joe McCarthy was giving us an easy solution and as we have repeatedly in our history including very recently we love to buy into a demagogues easy answer and especially when they're a character like Joe McCarthy. Who is so compelling when he shows up on the radio or on TV or in the newspapers. If you're into true crime the generation why podcast is essential listening we started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders crimes and conspiracy theories together and we'd love for you to join us. Generation why is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there and we are still at it unraveling a new case every week we break down infamous cases like the evil genius bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game we cover every angle breaking down theories diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case and with over 450 episodes there's a little something for every true crime listener follow the generation. So you can listen to my podcast on Amazon music or every listen to podcasts or you can listen ad free by joining Wondery Plus in the Wondery app. So in 1952 McCarthy's popularity in Wisconsin got him reelected to the Senate. After that election he became chairman of a committee that gave him a lot of power. So now able to investigate government employees so who did McCarthy go after in these investigations initially. And when after several kinds of people he went after people who he said had communist ties and when you started looking the way that I didn't doing my book research at what those communist ties or alleged communist ties were they often went back to people's college days they were flirtations with leftist politics which were understandable in the immediate post war era. And generally been left behind they might have been involved in union activity but when you compared all the names that Joe McCarthy ever named with the most gold plated list of who true communist spies were there was almost nobody from McCarthy's list that qualified as a real spy and the handful of the ones that did had generally been outed by somebody else long before Joe McCarthy. So it was said jokingly of him back in those early 1950s by his critics that he could have been dropped into the middle of red square on Mayday and not known how to pick out a real communist and that was not far from the truth. It sounds like there was a national security apparatus governmental agencies that knew where the real communist spies were and how to deal with them. And that was they were reporting to politicians and senators and congressmen who who would also know but they didn't really come forward in any way against McCarthy so that's absolutely true and I want to just tell you quickly about two of them who I think are emblematic one was a senate majority leader named rubber taft from Ohio and taft was telling his friends that Joe McCarthy is a fraud and he's going to someday get us into trouble. And he was telling the public McCarthy is a good guy and we ought to be listening to what he said what taft realized was that he like politicians today are most determined to preserve the majority he had in the senate and he knew that it was a very slim majority and he knew he couldn't afford to give up a Republican colleague like McCarthy from Wisconsin. So he backed McCarthy even though he knew that it was absolutely not true the things that McCarthy was saying but much more responsible and what I call McCarthy's enabler in chief was a guy named Dwight Eisenhower who was our war hero president and from the moment Eisenhower took office his brother Milton was whispering in Dwight's ear saying take on the bully McCarthy. He's dangerous give up a bit of your popularity Eisenhower was the only public figure in America more popular than McCarthy he could have taken him on and taken him down early and instead he waited a year and a half until McCarthy went after the army to finally confront him and Eisenhower's logic was we've got to let McCarthy do himself in and that might have made sense on a battleground but in politics in America in the 1950s. It meant that while Eisenhower was waiting lives were being ruined the country was being distracted and Eisenhower knew all of this and yet he didn't act. Let's go to the typing character of the investigations of McCarthy instigated what was it like to be in one of McCarthy's hearings. So to be in McCarthy's hearings or to be in his crosshairs was a nightmare. It turns out that two thirds of his hearings were behind closed doors and we now know because after 50 years those transcripts were finally made public and I read through every one of 9,000 pages of them and we know a couple of things about those hearings. We know that any notion of the accused really having any rights went out the window when the press and public were kicked out of the hearing room and Joe McCarthy treated his targets and his witnesses as if they were guilty. We also know that in the afternoon that McCarthy showed at least a modicum of restraint in the morning but after he had his trademark lunch of the hamburger, a raw onion and lots of whiskey in the afternoon it was a disaster if you will call this a witness. McCarthy was sloshed and he basically any restraints were eliminated and he made his witnesses crumble and we also know that the witnesses that stood up to him effectively never showed up in the public hearings. It was only the ones that he knew would crumble that he called before the cameras when he went public. Crumbling before cameras broadcast to the public can't be a good feeling what effect did McCarthy's hearings have on these witnesses. I went back and looked at all of McCarthy's victims that I could find evidence of what happened to them after the fact and there is concrete and incontrovertible evidence that at least a half dozen and probably a lot more McCarthy's targets were so devastated that they took their own lives. And that included two prominent US senators who he went after we know that careers were ruined. We know that children and grandchildren, you know, generations later who I talked to said that that was devastating for their entire family life. This was not an innocent sense of a guy going after people who could stand up to him. This was Joe McCarthy's ruining lives. At the height of McCarthy's power, this was an era of paranoia. How did this paranoia and McCarthy's influence on politics affect the everyday American? So generally we would assume that what a US senator or what anybody in Washington says or does doesn't work its way into small town big city wherever all across America. And yet what Joe McCarthy said did and he did it in ways that it wasn't just the hearings that he was holding in Washington. In just about every community in America, there were witch hunts that mirrored what McCarthy was doing in Washington. In just about every community in America when there was an election, the question of whether somebody was sympathetic to the communist, whether they were a red came up. The all the red baiting questions that he was asking in Washington resonated and echoed in a way that touched just about every American, whether they were in a university, whether they were in a school, whether they were in a factory. These are things, the loyalty tests and all the rest of it worked its way into the fabric of American life. And that's why we call it a red scare and that's why it really was scary. You discussed two politicians, Robert Taft, the Senate Majority Leader in Dwight Eisenhower, the president who did not like McCarthy but did not stand up to him. What about his political enemies who did? So they watch what happened when somebody did stand up to him. It was a famous senator that stood up to Joe McCarthy and that was the only woman in the Senate back then Margaret Chase Smith. She watched what McCarthy was doing in terms of the press coverage of what happened in Wheeling and she tried to get him to give her the real evidence if there was any to substantiate her charges. And when he couldn't, she stood up in the US Senate and she with six fellow moderate Republicans delivered what she called the Declaration of Conscience saying that what McCarthy was doing was decidedly un American almost as soon as she did that McCarthy went after her. She called her Snow White and her six dwarfs referring to the six fellow moderates who signed that Declaration. He recruited a candidate to run against her and while that candidate didn't win, he managed to get her kicked off his subcommittee. He had talked about promoting her as a vice presidential candidate. He stopped doing that. He made her life miserable. Now that's the bad news and it was a disaster for Smith at the time. The good news is one of the only reasons 60 years later that we remember Margaret Chase Smith is because she had the backbone to stand up against Joe McCarthy. It's something that I would say to all those Republican or Democratic enablers of demagogues today, you will be remembered not for how you cave into the bullies but for whether you take them on and that if you care about your legacy, it doesn't matter more than anything. McCarthy's manipulation of the press and these circus hearings certainly earned him a lot of headlines and helped him gain his national platform. I'm curious about other politicians who might have looked at McCarthy and seen a playbook. Did anyone try to imitate him, his tactics or his message? So demagogues since the 1950s have all I think borrowed in part at least the McCarthy playbook and I'm talking about people like George Wallace, the anti integration senator from Alabama, people like David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan wizard from Louisiana, but I'm talking most of all about a guy who ran for president in one in 2016 Donald Trump. And if I could read you just two quotes that I think make the case of just how much Donald Trump echoed Joe McCarthy. One was maybe the most famous quote from the 2016 election where candidate Trump boasted to supporters and I quote I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters. And that quote was repeated on every broadcast and every newspaper in America, but most people don't know that exactly 62 years before polling pioneer George Gallup penned what I think was a chillingly similar prediction about Joe McCarthy's supporters. And here's what Gallup said he said, even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, his supporters would probably still go along with him. Trump understood just how effective Joe McCarthy was in finding scapegoats. And so for Trump, the scapegoats was not common as it was repacious immigrants pouring across the border from Mexico and other places south of our country. It was knowing how to charm the press and to attack the press. It was generally realizing that if you repeated something often enough, whether it was true or not, people would start believing it. And when one bombshell that you threw proved to be a dud, you threw another one in the next five minutes. History has not looked kindly upon Senator Joseph McCarthy, but I'm wondering he was an almost full two term senator. What if anything did he get right? So I think what he got right was that he was I presumed when I was starting this book that McCarthy as the most malevolent figure arguably an American history was a liar and everything that he did. And yet when I got access his widow, he left all of his personal and professional papers to his alma mater, Marquette University. And they were left with a provision that those papers would become public when their infant daughter said at some point in the future that they should become public when she died. And when I started my research from my book, she was younger and healthier than me. And she had said no for 60 years to everybody would come along. And for some reason she changed her mind maybe because I was enough of a pest that the only way to make me go away was to say yes. And she gave me access to the archives. And these were all of his personal and professional papers, everything, the truth and the lies and everything was there. And one of the things that I saw was that Joe McCarthy was caricatured during his career as tail gunner Joe is this fake hero who said that when he was in the South Pacific during World War II, he said that he had gone up as a tail gunner under enemy fire and was a hero. And he was actually awarded a dozen medals. And much of the public in Wisconsin came to believe that that was all part of Joe McCarthy's made up stories and tail gunner Joe was something that he dubbed himself. But in our long documentaries, the national meteor called him tail gunner Joe saying that this was the beginning of his lies. What I saw in those records was evidence from his comrades and arms in the South Pacific during World War II that while his official assignment was a land based intelligence officer he volunteered for duty as a tail gunner came under enemy fire and did all this in a way that he had the evidence and could have proven. And yet he was so convinced that he was a hero that he decided that if people didn't believe him so what and he wasn't going to show them the evidence that I could read in those records. And so I think what it says is if you lie often enough in the rare cases when you're telling the truth we're going to assume that those are lies. And I think what Joe McCarthy got right was he volunteered for duty during World War II when as a sitting judge he didn't have to he volunteered for perilous duty in a South Pacific Island when he didn't have to and he was in many ways a real hero. And yet what he did in his political career wiped away all of that and all we remember him today for was being the father of McCarthyism the father of the most scandalous form of American politics that we can imagine. Let's close this conversation with an investigation of how McCarthyism altered American politics and international relations post McCarthy he died in 1957 but that's right at the height of the cold war just before spot Nick I believe so tensions were still high and the Americans fear of communism were equally fraught. How did a McCarthy impact our foreign policy then and moving forward. It impacted it by basically having out there this fear that if you showed any sympathy at all for any leftist politics or if you didn't stand up and say I'm anti communist and I will prove it to you that you'd be accused of being a traitor or a coward or all the things that Joe McCarthy accused his enemies. And what that meant was that when we were involved in the early days of Vietnam Jack Kennedy and after him Lyndon Johnson were Democrats who didn't want to be accused the way McCarthy accused Democrats of an earlier era of having lost China to the communists so they got involved in a perilous and ill advised war in Vietnam. But it didn't end in the 1960s in the 2020 election when all across the country and in the national election when a Republican or a conservative wanted to attack their competitors they would simply say they were a socialist or a communist. The idea that you could taint somebody and falsely taint them by accusing them of being a socialist and a communist 70 years after Joe McCarthy is shocking to me and it often worked. But I'd like to end the conversation on an upbeat note that while my book was a book on this malevolent figure Joe McCarthy it was in fact I think a good news story. And the good news is throughout our long history of demagogues given the rope every one of them ended up doing themselves and they hung themselves and given the time while Americans too easily throughout our history by into demagogues given the time we see through them and we give them the book. Larry Ty, thank you so much for speaking with me on American scandal. Lindsay was great to be with you today. That was my conversation with Larry Ty, a journalist and author of several books including Demagog, a biography of Joseph McCarthy. From wondering this is episode five of five of Red Scare from American Scanel. In our next series in the late 1990s Lance Armstrong rose to the top of the world in professional cycling. He inspired millions after a beat cancer and began dominating the most competitive races. But allegations began to trickle out revealing that Armstrong was living online. American Scanel was hosted, edited and executed produced by me Lindsay Graham for airship audio editing by Molly Bach music by Lindsay Graham. Our senior producer is Gabe Riven, executive producer of our Steffi Gens, Jenny Lauer Bachman and her non Lopez for wandering.