February 9, 1950
"Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down—they are truly down."
On February 9, 1950, the junior senator from Wisconsin thundered this warning in a Lincoln's birthday address to the Women's Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia.
Joseph R. McCarthy had come to the Senate three years earlier after unseating 22-year incumbent Robert La Follette, Jr., who had devoted more energies to passage of his landmark 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act than to that year's Republican senatorial primary.
The Saturday Evening Post heralded McCarthy's arrival with an article entitled "The Senate's Remarkable Upstart." For the next three years, McCarthy searched for an issue that would substantiate his remarkability. As one of his many biographers has observed, McCarthy's initial years in the Senate were characterized by his impatient disregard of the body's rules, customs, and procedures. Another scholar noted the ease with which he rearranged the truth to serve his purposes. "Once he got going, logic and decorum gave way to threats, personal attacks, and multiple distortions."
In the Wheeling speech, among the most significant in American political history, McCarthy's recklessness finally merged with his search for a propelling issue. He explained that homegrown traitors were causing America to lose the cold war. "While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205." Until his Senate censure four years later, Joseph R. McCarthy would be that body's most controversial member. In Robert C. Byrd's assessment, "There was never quite anyone like McCarthy in the Senate, before or after; nor has this chamber ever gone through a more painful period."