Joseph McCarthy was born on November 15, 1908 in the town of Appleton, Wisconsin. His parents were farmers and he attended classes at a one room schoolhouse through the eighth grade. As a teenager, he started a chicken business only to have disease wipe out the entire flock. He was left broke and forced to get a job at a local grocery store, where he was given the position of manager.
Within a year, he was transferred to the town of Manawa, where he was to manage a new grocery store. There, he attended high school, despite being twenty-one years old, and completed the curriculum in only nine months. Since he had earned excellent grades, he was accepted into Marquette University of Milwaukee in 1930, where he pursued a degree in law. While there, he coached the boxing team and was elected president of his law class.
In 1935, he earned his law degree and opened a law office in Waupaca. He left this position for an opening at a law firm in Shawano, where he was made a partner in 1937. In 1936, he made a run for the position of district attorney on the democratic ticket, but failed to win. In 1939, he made another political attempt to become a judge and managed to defeat the existing judge, who had served for 24 years. He was only thirty years old and became the youngest circuit judge ever elected in the state.
After winning the election, he moved back to his hometown of Appleton and began his judicial career. He was known as hard working, but was criticized for destroying court records and violating ethical codes. In 1942, he left his position to become a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He was placed in an intelligence unit in the Pacific, where he participated mainly in bombing runs.
After returning from World War 2, he sought nomination by the republican party for a position in the senate, but failed. A year later, he campaigned for his old position of judge and easily regained his office. Never one to accept defeat, he immediately formed plans for a 1946 campaign for the senate.
Despite facing a strong opponent, Robert La Follette (a senator of 21 years), McCarthy managed to win the republican nomination by a very small margin. In the general election, he defeated the democratic candidate with ease and was sent to Washington D.C.
During his early years in the senate, McCarthy worked on housing legislation and decreasing rationing. However, the main issue in the government at the time was fears of communist infiltration and McCarthy quickly joined the anti-communist movement. In 1950, he began his campaign of suspicion during a speech, accusing Secretary of State of knowing 205 communists in the state department.
McCarthy's accusations exploded on capitol hill, triggering the formation of a new investigative committee, headed by Senator Millard Tydings. The hearings first began on March 8, 1950 and McCarthy was not able to name any actual employee of the state department. On July 17, 1950, the committee reported that McCarthy's charges were unfounded, but McCarthy continued to accuse more people of being communist or knowing communist supporters.
Many people despised what they termed McCarthy's "witch hunt", but the anti-communist atmosphere at the time allowed him to continue throughout the early 1950s. He was investigated by a senate panel in 1952, which found unethical behavior in his political campaigning and tax filings, but no evidence that would hold up for prosecution. In spite of the report, he was reelected in 1952 with 54% of the votes.
In 1953, McCarthy became chairman of the Committee on Government Operations. His behavior in that post managed to anger everyone from fellow senators to the president after accusing the Eisenhower administration of sheltering communists. Eisenhower never publicly refuted the claims, but attempted to turn people away from McCarthy. That same year, McCarthy investigated the Army Signal Corps, but was unable to prove that an espionage ring existed there. He treated General Ralph Zwicker brutally during the investigation, causing many of his supporters to turn against his investigations.
In 1954, CBS broadcast a program that harshly criticized McCarthy's investigations and behavior. The army later released a report accusing McCarthy of pressuring the army to giving favored treatment to his former aide that had been drafted. In turn, he accused the army of holding the man as a hostage in order to put pressure on him and his investigations. The dispute was aired on television for several months and his behavior during the trials caused huge declines in his approval ratings. During the trials, he constantly interrupted people, calling for a point of order, which fueled parodies in opinion articles and cartoons.
After the trial ended, a committee in the senate investigated McCarthy and released a report referring to him as reprehensible, vulgar, insulting, and inexcusable. On December 2, 1954, the senate passed a resolution condemning McCarthy for abusing his power as senator, making the rest of his short senate career a quiet one.
McCarthy was a heavy drinker, which caused severe damage to his liver. In April of 1957, he was hospitalized for liver problems and died of hepatitis on May 2, 1957.