Author Explores Wheeling’s Role in Sen. McCarthy’s Rise
Editor’s Note: Author Larry Tye will speak during the Ohio County Public Library’s “Lunch With Books” livestream from noon to 1 p.m. Aug. 11. For more information or to watch the video, go to the library’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ohiocountylibrary.
WHEELING — Few Americans complete high school without becoming familiar with Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator from Wisconsin who spearheaded a campaign against supposed communist spies in the federal government in the 1950s.
However, some Wheeling residents may be surprised to learn the role the city played in McCarthy’s rise to infamy.
In his newest book “Demagogue,” which was released on July 7, author and reporter Larry Tye explores a fateful day in the Friendly City that changed the course of McCarthy’s life and American politics. On Feb. 9, 1950, at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Wheeling, McCarthy claimed for the first time to have intimate knowledge of communism infiltrating the government, Tye explained.
“I have here in my hand a list of 205 … a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department,” McCarthy reportedly said that night.
The Intelligencer was the first newspaper to run a story on McCarthy’s bold claim under the headline “McCarthy Charges Reds Holding US Offices,” writes Tye. McCarthy was primarily interested in a hot-button issue to boost his career and put him in the spotlight, and The Intelligencer’s initial story provided him that, he said.
Newspapers around the country were quick to follow as McCarthy continued to make similar speeches for a growing audience of Americans. The story quickly caught national attention, said Tye, because it was the first notable instance of a U.S. senator actually counting spies in the American government and saying he could name them all. There had been claims about communism infiltrating the government before, he said, but none so bold and confident.
Reporters flocked to Wheeling to try to get the full picture of McCarthy’s fiery accusation, but it was difficult to completely capture that night, said Tye. The only audio recording of his speech had been routinely erased after it was aired by WWCA, the local radio station at the time.
Either way, McCarthy’s speech “put Wheeling front and center for a really long time in this whole debate,” Tye said.
However, Wheeling’s moment in the national spotlight almost never happened, Tye explained.
“He had two speeches in his briefcase that night,” said Tye. “One was a snoozer on national housing policy, which he actually knew something about, and the other was the speech about communists in the State Department.”
However, Tye said that his speech in Wheeling was very likely more show than substance.
“We’ll never know what was actually on that paper,” Tye said, but he remains unconvinced that McCarthy ever had a physical list of names.
Even the number of names kept changing in subsequent speeches, sometimes to as low as 57, and McCarthy never actually gave all these supposed names to the press, he explained. When he did provide names, they were often recycled from reports and accusations put together years before, Tye said.
On the whole, Tye wrote his newest book as an exploration not only of McCarthy’s life but America’s “long-standing love affair with bullies.” He originally planned to pen a biography of Barack Obama, but following the 2016 election and the new era of American politics it seemed to usher in, Tye decided McCarthy was a more relevant and compelling subject.
Tye gained access to thousands of McCarthy’s private records during the writing process-wartime diaries, love letters, cloak-and-dagger office files, his medical and military records, and financial and academic transcripts. These documents, which were under lock and key before Tye gained access to them, allowed him to paint a much more accurate picture of McCarthy than ever before.
To fully understand the rise and fall of McCarthy is to better understand a host of other American political figures, including President Donald Trump, Tye explained.
“Everything Trump is doing today reminds me of what McCarthy was doing 70 years ago,” Tye said.
Ultimately, he explained, “Demagogue” represents a classic story of a powerful bully, but one was a “good news ending.”
“Every demagogue in American history has fallen as fast as they rose once America sees through them,” Tye said. “Given the rope, most demagogues hang themselves.”
“Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” can be purchased on Amazon and at various retailers. Tye started his writing career as a journalist and was an award-winning reporter for the Boston Globe from 1986 to 2001. He has published eight historical works.