October 14, 2014
Documents that Changed the World: Joseph McCarthy’s ‘list,’ 1950
Sometimes a document can be devastating — can ruin lives and change history — even if it doesn’t really exist.
Such is the case with the subject of University of Washington Information School Professor Joe Janes’ latest entry in his Documents that Changed the World podcast series: Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his infamous “list” supposedly naming communists who had infiltrated the heart of the United States government.
In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. UW News and Information presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.
Documents that Changed the World:
It was on Feb. 9, 1950, that McCarthy — who had dubbed himself “Tailgunner Joe” for acts of World War II bravery he did not in fact commit — told a crowd of 275 at the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club that the U.S. State Department was “thoroughly infested with communists” and brandished papers he claimed were a list of 57 such subversives.
No such list quite existed, but as Janes says in the podcast, that didn’t matter “since the seeds were sown, in ground that was made fertile by serious and possibly justified concerns about the growing influence and power of communism on the world stage and possibly at home as well.”
History records what resulted — investigations, witch hunts, blacklists, bullying from the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Army-McCarthy hearings in the Senate and an atmosphere of fear that lasted for years. (Sadly, even the UW itself was not immune.)
“My primary interest here was this as an example of a document that didn’t actually exist, and which yet still had great impact,” Janes said when discussing the podcast. “So far as we can tell, for all McCarthy’s bluster, his ‘list(s)’ were mainly numbers either taken from other sources or misremembered or just made up, and yet people believed them, and acted as a result of what he said he had.
“The times were right, and the Wisconsin senator and others were allowed to go on scapegoating and fear-mongering for several years.”
Though echoes of “McCarthyism” resounded in American culture for years (and are said by some to continue even now), the tide seemed to fully turn against Tailgunner Joe on June 9, 1954, when he was confronted by the gentle-speaking but fed-up Joseph N. Welsh, head counsel for the Army.
“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last?” he demanded of McCarthy, who gazed down at his notes. Welch then added: “If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good.” It was as if a nation’s fever had finally broken.
But of course “we’re all smarter now,” Janes says in the podcast, “more experienced at critical thinking and separating truth from fiction. So it couldn’t happen again. We’ve all learned from our mistakes, and know better than to trust any person, or organization, or government, that claims to have a list of bad people or bad ideas. If only.”
- The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, with more than 175,000 downloads there so far.
Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series
- Series introduction/President Obama’s Birth Certificate
- The Nineteenth Amendment
- John Snow’s cholera map, 1854
- Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’
- The Internet Protocol, 1981
- The AIDS Memorial Quilt
- An 18 1/2-minute presidential mystery
- Gutenberg indulgence, 1454
- ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’
- The fraudulent ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’
- A papal resignation
- The ‘Casablanca’ letters of transit
- ‘What is the Third Estate?’ 1789
- Alfred Binet’s IQ test, 1905
- Einstein’s letter to FDR, 1939
- The Riot Act, 1714
- The Rosetta Stone
- The Zapruder film, Nov. 22, 1963
- The Book of Mormon
- The DSM, 1952.
- Airline ‘black box’ flight data recorder, 1958
- Alaska Purchase Check, 1868
- Zimmerman Telegram, 1917
- Rules of Association Football (Soccer), 1863
- The Star Spangled Banner, 1814