The name Joseph McCarthy has endured character assassination like few in American History, he even has a virtual psychological condition named after him … McCarthyism. There was even a historical event named on his behalf, the Red Scare. McCarthy was marginalized, maligned, railroaded and relegated to the dustbins of history for his outing of communists in the US government and administration.
But history has proven that McCarthy was right about Communism in the US government. The onslaught against him coming from the media, education system and government were a well coordinated smear campaign to silence McCarthy and keep buried the truths he had uncovered.
In addition, McCarthy was one of the most popular US politicians prior to his public outing of communism. And he was not as marginal a figure as it may seem. Joe McCarthy was very close with the Kennedy family, even dating two Jack and Robert Kennedy’s sisters.
Joseph Kennedy had befriended McCarthy because he found him to be a likable fellow Irish-Catholic who had all the right ideas on the domestic communist menace. These warm feelings were quickly transferred to the entire Kennedy family. JFK liked the fact that McCarthy went after the “elites” in the State Department whom JFK regarded with contempt. (13) Even before McCarthy made accusations against the State Department of subversion, JFK had already aligned himself with the militant anti-communists who blamed the Truman State Department for the “loss” of China. So JFK declared on the House floor in January 1949.
“The responsibility for the failure of our foreign policy in the Far East rests squarely with the White House and the Department of State.” (14)
Small wonder then, that at the same Harvard seminar where he cheered Nixon’s victory to the Senate, that JFK expressed the view that McCarthy “may have something” to his charges of domestic subversion that had by then become vocal. (15)
There were also other deep personal bonds between JFK and McCarthy by the time McCarthy reached the peak of his power in 1952 and 1953. Not only had McCarthy been a frequent guest at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, but McCarthy had also dated two Kenendy sisters, first Eunice (the mother of Maria Shriver) and then Pat (who later married actor Peter Lawford). McCarthy was invited to the wedding reception for Eunice and Sargent Shriver, and even presented Eunice with a silver cigarette case inscribed “To Eunice and Bob from one who lost.” (16)
The ties with Bobby were forged when he gave RFK a job as minority counsel to his Senate committee investigating domestic communism. Though RFK would later have an intense falling out with McCarthy’s other counsel Roy Cohn, the younger Kennedy brother would maintain a deep loyalty to a man he loved enough to make the godfather of his first child. In 1955, Bobby displayed his residual feelings of loyalty for McCarthy even after the Senator’s fall into disgrace at a dinner meeting described by the court historian of Camelot himself, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
“Still his Irish conception of loyalty turned him against some he felt had treated McCarthy unfairly. In January 1955, Edward R. Murrow [who had issued a famous anti-McCarthy telecast the previous year] spoke at the banquet honoring those, Kennedy among them, who had been selected by the Junior Chamber of Commerce as the Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1954. Kennedy grimly walked out.” (17)
JFK’s warmth for McCarthy was not as great as Bobby’s, but he still felt enough of McCarthy to have performed a similar act three years earlier at the 100th Anniversary of the Harvard Spree Club dinner. Robert Armory, who had been at the dinner and who later worked in the Kennedy Administration recalled in an oral history at the JFK Library that when a speaker had likened McCarthy to the convicted Soviet spy Alger Hiss, JFK rose to his feet and declared “How dare you couple the name of a great American patriot with that of a traitor!” and walked out. The incident has never been denied by anyone who was there, and is accepted by JFK biographers Herbert Parmet, Thomas Reeves and Chris Matthews.
McCarthy, likewise considered JFK a supporter.
When McCarthy’s support collapsed and the Senate took up a resolution of censure, JFK was absent from the debate, recuperating from back surgery. He would be the only Democratic Senator not to publicly declare support for McCarthy’s censure, even though he could easily have declared his feelings for the public record. JFK was quick to distance himself from the resolution’s assertion that McCarthy’s actions had harmed America’s image abroad, and also stressed the long period of support he had given to McCarthy and his cause.
“This issue involves neither the motives nor the sincerity of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. Many times I have voted with Senator McCarthy for the full appropriation of funds for his committee, for his amendment to reduce our assistance to nations trading with communists, and on other matters. I have not sought to end his investigations of communist subversion, nor is the pending measure related to either the desirability or continutation of those investigations.” (19)
Not until 1956, would JFK issue a public statement supporting McCarthy’s censure, and even then it was only because his political future dictated it. “Even my Dad is against McCarthy now,” he remarked in private, “And if he is, then McCarthy has nobody left.” (21)
JFK’s after-the-fact conversion to anti-McCarthyism did not impress the party liberals. Eleanor Roosevelt, the beloved symbol of the liberals openly berated JFK in 1956 at the Democratic Convention for not having taken a stand against McCarthy, and repeated her mistrust of JFK in an interview for Look magazine in 1958. The lingering image of JFK and the McCarthy connections was another reason why JFK was challenged from the left in 1960. (22)