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Joseph McCarthy’s Search for Communists in the American Government
Joseph McCarthy was an unexceptional junior congressman from Wisconsin. He grew up brawling in the streets, playing cards, and embellishing his stories. Then, during a Lincoln Day address in 1950, Joseph McCarthy told an audience that he had a list of 205 communists working in the government. Within days, he was a household name.
McCarthy started “investigating” suspected communists in the American government, focusing on the US State Department. Along the way, he brought in a young lawyer named Roy Cohn. Cohn was already known for his work sending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. Now, he and McCarthy bullied and cajoled during private hearings. Being labeled a communist, or even a suspected communist could ruin a person’s career. People committed suicide rather than face their scrutiny.
Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s Mentor
Their reign lasted four years, ending in the televised broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings in which a lawyer asked if McCarthy had any decency. That was pretty much it for McCarthy. But Roy Cohn went on to have a well-connected career, providing legal services for the mob and Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News. He also became a mentor to a young real estate mogul named Donald Trump. Famous people like Andy Warhol attended his birthday party at Studio 54. Cohn died of AIDS, something that was killing gay men rapidly in the 1980s, though he denied he ever had it.
This is the story of two men allowed to prey on the fears of the American people for their own gain. One fell hard, the other found himself fighting against his own people.
Larry Tye, author of “Demagogue”
In this episode, Chris interviews Larry Tye, author of the book “Demagogue”. He’s also the author of “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend” and “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon”.
- “Demagogue” by Larry Tye
- Helpful article about the Rosenbergs
- Article about Klaus Fuchs
- McCarthy’s speech in Wheeling, WV
- New York Times, February 23, 1954. Pages 16-17 “Transcript of General Zwicker’s Testimony Before the McCarthy Senate Subcommittee”
- Video from Army-McCarthy hearings (forward to the last 20 minutes if you want to jump to the stuff I used)
- The guest list for Roy Cohn’s birthday at Studio 54
- Why do we love demagogues?
- Who are other demagogues in American history?
- The threat of communists in the government in the 1950s is sometimes downplayed. Do you think it was a real concern?
- McCarthy ran for Congress in an illegal way while still in the Marines. How do you feel about that?
- Roy Cohn sometimes went against his own people, claiming that gay people did not deserve equal rights. What might have been his motivation?
- Do you see any crossover between McCarthy, Cohn, and Donald Trump?
- Cohn died of AIDs in the 1980s when the disease was at its peak. Why might he have wanted to keep his illness a secret?