DAN RATHER said last Wednesday that America was "trembling" in fear of Sen. Joe McCarthy in March of 1954, and that Edward R. Murrow's criticism of him that month did him in, or at least greatly helped do him in.
The Murrow broadcast was terrific, but if America ever trembled at Joe McCarthy, it was much earlier than 1954.
Joe McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who found a Red under every bed in Washington, beginning in 1948. He was so thoroughly irresponsible and loathsome that even so cautious, conservative and Republican-leaning a newspaper as The Sun of those days consistently and repeatedly criticized him sharply -- beginning four years before the Murrow broadcast.
For example, in March, 1950, this paper said that specific charges McCarthy had made were false. That June we accused him of "disgraceful demagoguery." By July we were referring to his behavior as "McCarthyism."
We kept it up, even when he criticized Harry Truman, whom the paper was against, and Adlai Stevenson, whose presidential candidacy we opposed in favor of Dwight Eisenhower's.
That was in 1952. Senator McCarthy was running for re-election that year. Like a lot of newspapers outside of Wisconsin, we took note, deploring the idea of his being re-elected. We summarized our view of his politics as "the reckless use of quotations out of context and the multiplication of innuendoes."
There could be no doubt on where this paper stood, and less conservative papers and individual newspaper columnists were even more outspoken in their condemnation of McCarthy and McCarthyism.
So were usually timid liberal organizations of academics. So were conservative anti-Communist Democrats, like Maryland's Sen. Millard Tydings (whose campaign for re-election McCarthy sabotaged), and like Arkansas' crusty Sen. John McClellan, among many others. In fact, as early as 1950 Democrats subjected McCarthy to a round-robin of criticism on the Senate floor that one reporter described as "savagery unprecedented in the memory of Washington correspondents."
Even some Republican criticized McCarthy in the years before 1954. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine called him a hatemonger as early as 1950. Others followed as the years rolled by. By March, 1954, before the Murrow broadcast, even the Republican vice president of the United States -- Richard Nixon!!!! -- publicly deplored his "reckless talk and questionable methods."
So this was not exactly a trembling nation on the eve of the Murrow broadcast, no sir. By then, taking on McCarthy was what another Senator McCarthy, Gene, liked to say editorial writers do best: come down from the hills after the battle and shoot the wounded.
As it happens, Murrow didn't even deliver the coup de grace. No journalist did. It was a lawyer.
Thursday: Joseph Nye Welch.