McCarthyism, Korea and the Cold War

After World War II, foreign affairs played an increasingly important role in the lives of American citizens. The United States and its allies competed with the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its allies for political and economic dominance around the world. Known as the Cold War, this rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union shaped almost every aspect of international politics, as well as many domestic concerns, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s.

In the late 1940s, people in Wisconsin were divided over issues such as the creation of the United Nations, support for European recovery, and the growing power of the Soviet Union. But when post-war Europe divided into communist and capitalist camps and China's communist revolution succeeded in 1949, public opinion generally shifted to support the protection of democracy and capitalism against communist expansion. That tension came to a head in Korea.

Overshadowed by WWII, the Korean War has often been called America's "forgotten war," though like Vietnam it was part of a larger Cold War struggle to extinguish communism. In 1950, North Korean communist troops invaded South Korea, which was an American ally. Seeking to protect South Korea and to prevent the spread of communism in Asia, President Harry Truman sent General Douglas MacArthur to command the United Nations forces. Lasting three years (1950-1953), the Korean conflict was dominated by politically motivated negotiations and stalemates that delayed the armistice and cost thousands of lives.

132,000 Wisconsin citizens served in Korea. For the first time in American history, military units were racially integrated. Mitchell Red Cloud, a Native American from Hatfield, was one of five men from Wisconsin to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea. Women were also involved, serving in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) as well as other divisions of the military. When hostilities ceased, Chinese armies remained on their side of the North Korean border and the North and South, separated by a wide "demilitarized zone," entered a long period of tense relations.

Because communism required tight restrictions on personal freedom and government ownership of business, it threatened the American ideals of individual liberty and free enterprise. Communist expansion in Eastern Europe and Korea fueled Americans' anxiety that their way of life was under attack and launched the career of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. After several uneventful years in the Senate, McCarthy made headlines when he announced in a 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he knew 205 communists were currently working in the State Department. Since American men and women were preparing to sacrifice their lives in combat against a communist enemy in Korea, this speech garnered great publicity. Capitalizing on people's fears of encroaching communism, McCarthy launched a public campaign aimed at eliminating the supposed communist infiltration of government and foreign policy. His pronouncements catapulted him to national prominence and provided a strong platform for his re-election.

Easily re-elected in 1952 and chosen chair of a Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, McCarthy took it upon himself to expose communists and their sympathizers in government but throughout all of American political and cultural life. Under his leadership, the Subcommittee interrogated more than 500 people. McCarthy's accusations were often unsubstantiated, but in a political and cultural climate filled with fear they gave him considerable power. Hiding behind the veil of national security, McCarthy and his staff often refused to reveal their sources of information at a time when simply being called before his committee could ruin an individual's career. Fearful of being named communist sympathizers themselves, many leaders of labor unions and professional organizations joined in the Red Scare hysteria of the early 1950s. Some intellectuals and activists did refuse to answer his questions or appear before his committee despite the threat to their personal well-being; several famous Hollywood producers and scriptwriters were among the best-known citizens "black-listed" by their employers for refusing to co-operate with the committee. McCarthy's accusation in 1953 that the military was harboring communists ultimately led to his downfall. TV commentator Edward R. Murrow successfully exposed his tactics and publicly denounced his actions as a threat to American's core democratic values. In December of 1954, the Senate officially rebuked McCarthy for "conduct unbecoming a senator."

Though only in power for a brief period, McCarthy attained world recognition and symbolized the frenetic anti-communism that gripped American foreign policy in the 1950s. The Cold War and the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, China, and Korea prompted the United States to increase its defense spending. As U.S. companies began to exploit foreign resources such as Mideast oil and to market their goods to Third World countries, a strong permanent military became increasingly important to the U.S. government. This led domestic companies to negotiate defense contracts that fueled a wave of domestic prosperity and led to the growth of the American middle class. But it also created an economic dependence on military expenditures, which prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to warn about the nation's growing "military-industrial complex" as he left office in 1960. William Proxmire, who succeeded McCarthy as senator from Wisconsin, made a reputation for closely scrutinizing defense contracts and opposing exhorbitant military contracts despite Cold War tensions.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Joseph McCarthy" Appleton History from the Appleton Public Library (online at; D.C. Everest Area Schools. Korean War Not Forgotten: Stories from Korean War Veterans. (Weston, Wis.: D.C. Everest Area School District Oral History Project, 2003)]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: McCarthy seeks support against "communist mouthpieces"McCarthy seeks support against "communist mouthpieces"
Link to article: An anti-McCarthy political flyer from the 1952 campaignAn anti-McCarthy political flyer from the 1952 campaign
Link to article: Judge Joe McCarthy runs for Senate in 1946Judge Joe McCarthy runs for Senate in 1946
Link to article: The Progressive Magazine takes on Senator McCarthy in 1954The Progressive Magazine takes on Senator McCarthy in 1954
Link to article: McCarthy is discredited on nationwide televisionMcCarthy is discredited on nationwide television
Link to article: Sen. William Proxmire Opposes the Military-Industrial ComplexSen. William Proxmire Opposes the Military-Industrial Complex
Link to artifacts: A patch from a historic meeting in space, 1975A patch from a historic meeting in space, 1975
Link to artifacts: Hope and fear in an atomic ageHope and fear in an atomic age
Link to artifacts: A Racine family equips their fallout shelter in 1960A Racine family equips their fallout shelter in 1960
Link to book: Two Korean War veterans describe their experiencesTwo Korean War veterans describe their experiences
Link to images: Photographs from the career of William ProxmirePhotographs from the career of William Proxmire
Link to manuscript: Sen. William Proxmire's Campaign Against GenocideSen. William Proxmire's Campaign Against Genocide