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November|December 2003
Judge Joe By Ted Morgan
Immigration by Shibboleth By Michael Erard
Falling on Deaf Ears By Lawrence M. Solan and Peter M. Tiersma

Judge Joe

How the youngest judge in Wisconsin's history became the country's most notorious senator.

By Ted Morgan

AN EARLY SETTLER DESCRIBED WISCONSIN as "a young buffalo, who roams over his beautiful prairies and reclines in its pleasant groves with all the buoyant feelings of an American freeman." He might have been describing Joe McCarthy, born in 1908 and the only one of seven siblings to shed the halters of his immigrant grandparents and break away from his cramped Wisconsin upbringing to embark on a larger life.

The Underhill Country School, a mile away from the McCarthy farm, was the proverbial one-room schoolhouse where all eight grades studied together. The McCarthy children were not expected to go on to high school. Joe graduated at 14, already thick in the chest, but clean-cut, with none of the jowly, predatory look of his adult years. In the stern McCarthy clan, Joe was like a vein of quicksilver in a block of granite—voluble, restless, independent, entrepreneurial. He launched his own chicken business at the age of 15 and soon had 2,000 laying hens. He bought a truck and drove his eggs and broilers to the Chicago market, even though he was not old enough to drive. He persisted for four years, until he was bedridden with pneumonia and his entire flock died.

Part of the entrepreneurial spirit is the imperative of success, which must be maintained in one's mind at least. In June 1942, when Joe McCarthy applied for a commission in the Marine Corps, he wrote the recruiting officer in Milwaukee, Major Saxon Holt: "I did not immediately enter high school. I worked for a farmer about 10 months and saved enough money and entered the poultry business in a small way. I continued until 18 years of age in the poultry business, at which time I had a flock of approximately 8,000 chickens."

In May 1929, Joe found a job as manager of a Cash-Way grocery store in the town of Manawa. Joe was by now 20 years old, and the moment of his final break from family tradition came when the Cash-Way job began to seem like a dead end. He made the mortifying decision to go to high school, where he would be in class with 13- and 14-year-olds. At Little Wolf High in Manawa, he found a sympathetic principal, Leo Hershberger. Joe arrived in September 1929 for the opening day of classes and sat with the 43 freshmen. "I would have sold out for two cents on the dollar," he later said. But he was driven, and accustomed to working dawn to dusk. By Thanksgiving he was a sophomore, by midyear a junior, and in March 1930 Hershberger announced that he would graduate in June. As Joe wrote Major Holt: "I completed the four-year high school course in one year and graduated on the Honor Roll with an average of slightly over 90." Even when the achievement was genuine, there was the compulsion to embellish. He was on the Honor Roll, but poor grades in Latin brought his average below 90. Principal Hershberger wrote on his report card: "Joe graduated in one year. He waded through and actually covered the work by will power, unusual ability and concentrated work!!" The weekly newspaper, The Manawa Advocate, reported the activities of this prodigy. His fame spread when he was written up by The Milwaukee Journal.

When Joe McCarthy applied to Marquette University in Milwaukee, he answered yes to the question on the application: "Did you attend four years of high school?" In a concentrated way, he had, and Hershberger helped him complete the form. Joe spent five years at Marquette, two in the engineering school (1930-1932) and three in the law school (1932-1935). When Joe graduated from law school in June 1935, he hung out his shingle on Main Street in Waupaca, a town of 5,000 and a county seat, about 30 miles west of Appleton. He stayed there only eight months, for in Shawano, a larger town 40 miles north of Appleton, Michael Eberlein was looking for a partner. An established lawyer, Eberlein had run as a Republican for state attorney general in 1930 and would run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1940.

In 1936, Joe was a Democrat, pro-FDR and pro-New Deal. Wisconsin had a three-cornered political system, thanks to the Progressive Party, founded by the La Follette political dynasty. Robert M. "Old Bob" La Follette was a U.S. senator from 1905 until his death in 1925. In 1936, one of his sons, "Young Bob," was a U.S. senator and his other son, Phil, was governor. Wisconsin politics came down to battles between conservative Republicans and La Follette Progressives, with the Democrats running a poor third. But Joe announced in July for district attorney on the Democratic ticket. He won only 577 votes in the September primary, trailing Progressive Louis Cattau and Republican Ed Aschenbrenner. On the campaign trail Joe gave 14 speeches in two days in October, praising President Roosevelt and cursing his opponent, Alf Landon, whom he called "William Randolph Hearst's puppet from Kansas . . . hare-brained, illogical, and senseless."

In his campaign for district attorney, McCarthy charged that the incumbent, Louis Cattau, held a second job in violation of a county ordinance. Cattau said that Joe had misstated the facts. His other job as secretary of the Shawano County Fair, he claimed, did not violate the spirit of the ordinance. Cattau did, however, hold a salaried outside job, even if it took up little time. McCarthy put Cattau on the defensive, and did much better in the election, with 6,175 votes for Cattau, 3,422 for Joe, and 2,842 for Aschenbrenner. The lesson was that the politics of personal attack worked. The media had printed his statements verbatim without checking the facts. For example, he'd told the local paper in Shawano that he had several years' experience with the Milwaukee law firm of Brennan, Lucas, & McDonough. That was the second lesson: He could lie and get away with it. The third lesson was that he would get nowhere as a Democrat. He dropped out of party activities.

It was not in Joe McCarthy's nature to long remain as second fiddle to Eberlein. Thoughts of a judgeship may have been inspired by FDR's 1937 plea for younger judges in the midst of his vain plan to pack the Supreme Court with justices sympathetic to the New Deal. Looking around for a vulnerable incumbent, McCarthy found Edgar V. Werner, the circuit judge for the 10th District, which consisted of three counties, Shawano, Langlade, and Outagamie. Werner was 66 and had been riding the circuit for 24 years. Pompous and condescending, he was disliked by lawyers. He had been reversed often by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and was so inefficient that he had piled up a huge backlog of cases.

The 10th Judicial District was largely rural, and McCarthy, in his three-month campaign in 1939, visited farmers and their families. He knew how to talk to them about crops and climate. He sent out thousands of postcards showing a little boy holding a baseball bat, captioned: "Let's Play Ball." But more potent than these Currier & Ives methods was his attack on Werner's weak spot. The standard biographical source for lawyers, the Martindale-Hubbell directory, listed Werner's date of birth as 1866, which would have made him 73. As a candidate in 1916, Werner had added seven years to his age in order to seem more mature. But now the deception, repeated in edition after edition, backfired. Joe ran ads in the local papers accusing Werner of lying about his age. Werner produced a birth certificate that showed he was born on July 24, 1872, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, which made him 66 in February 1939. But he was not as effective in broadcasting his defense as McCarthy was in attacking him. Shortly before the election, Joe ran an ad under the headline: "What About This Age Question?" In April 1939, McCarthy won, by 15,164 votes to Werner's 11,219. Once again, the lesson was: Dirty tricks work. At 30, Joe McCarthy was the youngest man ever elected a circuit judge in Wisconsin.

In recently opened McCarthy papers at the Marquette University archives, Joe comes across as a fair-minded and compassionate judge who was alert to mitigating circumstances, though he had a tendency to shoot from the hip. At the same time, he was laying the groundwork for a political career by cultivating lawyers and officeholders, and gaining name recognition by giving speeches. A review of some of McCarthy's divorce cases reveal him as a caring judge who took the time to relieve the hardships caused to the children, a sharp contrast to the prevailing view that he was a specialist in quickie divorces. In the case of Wollenberg v. Wollenberg, Mrs. Wollenberg was on relief and the two children were with her parents. One was anemic and needed medical attention, and McCarthy wrote Mr. Wollenberg's lawyer to obtain some child support from him. In case after case, McCarthy kept the interests of the children uppermost.

In July 1940, Joe went to some trouble to get a man released whom he had sent to Waupun state prison for drunken driving. When he learned that the man, Clifford Brandt, was working in a tavern, McCarthy sent him a compassionate reprimand, perhaps because he was a drinker himself, perhaps because, as a good Catholic, he believed in the possibility of redemption. "If we could keep you away from drink you would turn out to be a damn good man," he wrote. "I do wish you would not make it any more difficult for yourself and everyone concerned by working in a tavern where you certainly will do considerable drinking unless you are a superman."

MCCARTHY ALSO CULTIVATED MEMBERS OF THE PRESS, among them John Wyngaard, a syndicated columnist based in Madison. Wyngaard wrote the occasional speech for him but balked in November 1941 when the judge asked for an antiwar harangue. Wyngaard suggested that Joe write to the isolationist America First Committee, and "they'll send you a truckload of nonsense." In early December 1941, Joe and Wyngaard spent a week in Washington, seeing the sights and paying calls on Wisconsin congressmen. This was McCarthy's first visit to the capital, and a reporter for several Wisconsin newspapers, Virginia Imlay, interviewed the judge on his impressions.

The interview took place just before Pearl Harbor. According to the notes of John Wyngaard, who was present, McCarthy delivered an isolationist tirade against the war. "My contact with the would-be greats has merely confirmed and crystallized the thoughts which I have long held," he told Imlay. "I was appalled at the rapidly increasing momentum of our march toward war. . . . One of our Wisconsin congressmen said 'my voters know how I feel, so why should I worry?' If we get into war, the fault will lie with the administration and it will perhaps mean the end of the Democratic party." McCarthy also disparaged the arguments of the Wisconsin congressmen, which he said were based on their opinions of Hitler and Hirohito and their political theories. Only once had he heard "a careful weighing of the advantage of a British victory against the cost in human lives and political and social upheaval. One of course does not feel that our representatives are evil or dishonest men, but merely weak men ... who lack either the force of character or the intelligence to assume even a semblance of leadership—men who are weather-cocks swaying in the breeze of public opinion." McCarthy was playing to the isolationist sentiments of Wisconsin's German population, but the interview, which ran on December 6 in The Shawano Evening News, The Appleton Press-Gazette, and The Green Bay Press-Gazette, could not have come at a worse time. On the heels of his antiwar diatribe came Pearl Harbor, and America was at war. In addition, he had smeared the Wisconsin congressmen who had befriended him in Washington, and his remarks were published in their districts.

Instead of accepting the responsibility for his fatuous remarks, McCarthy blamed the messenger for the message. He complained to Virginia Imlay that "what was given as a general observation of official Washington was distorted into a vicious condemnation of our Wisconsin representatives. For the life of me . . . I can't understand why you . . . dressed up my statement. Mr. Murray informs me that I have credited him with some brainless statement in regard to war. . . . The only comment I made about Mr. Murray was that I was rather amazed at the way he had made himself into an authority on agricultural questions during the short time he was in Washington." But Wyngaard's notes, which he kept and which can now be found in the Marquette archives, show that Imlay's article was substantially accurate.

But now that the war was on, McCarthy began to consider military service as a helpful career move, even though state and federal judges were exempt from the draft. Carl Zeidler, the "boy wonder" mayor of Milwaukee, made front-page news when he joined the Navy. But Joe was already planning to run for the U.S. Senate and he did not want merely to enlist as a buck private. He thought he should have an assignment commensurate with his high station. In March 1942, he applied to the legal division of the War Production Board, thinking that a wartime alphabet agency could employ his talents, without the risk of combat. He got a letter back saying that his application had been received, but there were no vacancies. The legal division consisted of fewer than 60 lawyers, and already it had 900 applications on file.

While he was considering his options, McCarthy, who was accident-prone, crashed into the back of the car of a drunk driver he had pursued so he could take the man's car keys. During his recovery from injuries to his shoulder and back, McCarthy ordered from the Doubleday One Dollar Book Club The Imperial Soviets, the first sign of an interest in Communism.

Joe's close friend, Urban Van Susteren, a lawyer whom he had named divorce counsel for Shawano County, applied for active duty in the Army Air Force in early 1942. He told Joe, "Be a hero—join the Marines." When Joe seemed hesitant, Van Susteren asked: "You got shit in your blood?" On June 2, 1942, McCarthy sent his application to Major Holt in Milwaukee, giving his qualifications for a commission. With his customary bragging humor, he wrote his brother Billy: "If I can get in now, I can clear the whole mess up rather quickly." On June 4, he went to the recruiting office to meet Major Holt and gave an impromptu press conference in which he said that he wanted to enlist "as a private, an officer, or anything else. . . . I want to join for the duration." Major Holt told The Milwaukee Journal: "Sure, here was a fellow who was ready to give up $8,000 a year to work for us at $21 a month."

McCarthy was in the Marines for 30 months, from August 1942 to February 1945. When he enlisted, he was 33 years old. From August until December 1942, he was in boot camp in Quantico, huffing and puffing over the obstacle course alongside 18- and 19-year-olds in an echo of his high school ordeal. "That first week's training at Quantico I thought I'd die," he later said. From December 1942 to April 1943 he was stationed in El Centro, Calif., as intelligence officer for a Marine Scout Bomber Squadron. On March 31, the squadron left for Pearl Harbor for more training, then embarked on June 12 for the South Pacific aboard the seaplane tender Chandeleur. Onboard ship, much of Joe's time was devoted to drinking and playing poker. On June 22, during a hazing ritual, McCarthy was injured. As one of Joe's shipmates recorded the incident in his diary, "McCarthy . . . was going down a ladder with a bucket fastened to his foot when he slipped. His other foot caught on a lower rung—an iron pipe, a few inches from the steel bulkhead—and he fell backward, injuring his foot. . . . Three bones were broken and I watched them put a cast on his foot." When the cast was removed with acetic acid, Joe's left leg was burned, which left an ugly scar.

As intelligence officer, Joe had a desk job, quizzing the returning pilots on the success of their missions. But McCarthy had learned to fire the twin machine guns on the dive bombers and sometimes went on missions as tail gunner, or with a camera to take aerial photographs. Penn Kimball, the P.R. officer on Guadalcanal, was supposed to get stories into hometown newspapers, and wrote one on Joe's six missions. The stories were slugged "an advance Marine base," so when the Wisconsin papers used them, Joe sounded like quite a hero, though all he'd done was go along for the ride. McCarthy got so much play that he came up to Kimball waving a sheaf of clippings and said "this is worth 50,000 votes." He made no secret of his plan to run for the Senate and had painted "McCarthy for Senator" on the side of a truck. These so-called missions, Kimball recalled, were actually against the rules, for Joe was not "in a flight status." "To my knowledge," Kimball said, "he never fired a shot in anger."

In October 1943, Joe wrote to one of his friends, Judge Arnold F. Murphy, asking him to look into whether an officer in the Marines could be a candidate for public office. Murphy replied that "the Milwaukee papers have kept the general public pretty well informed as to your doings. . . . Your friends are legion and they are all very proud of you." He was looking into the eligibility question.

The supposed number of McCarthy's combat flights varied as widely as the number of Communists in the State Department he later named. In 1944, in his failed Senate campaign, he said 14. In 1946, in his successful Senate campaign, he said 17. In 1951, he said 32. Major Glenn A. Todd, his executive officer, later said that McCarthy could not possibly have flown 32 missions. Todd himself had flown only 14 and Major Everett E. Munn, a squadron section leader, fewer than 20.

Somehow, Joe got Munn to recommend him for a citation. Munn's letter noted that "On 22 June 1943 Captain McCarthy suffered a broken and burned foot and leg. He however refused to be hospitalized and continued doing an excellent job as Intelligence Officer, working on crutches. Captain McCarthy has flown numerous combat missions over targets defended by intense anti-aircraft fire, and acted as a rear seat gunner in a dive bomber, performing the duties of an aerial photographer and observer, and taking excellent pictures of enemy emplacements, thereby gaining valuable information and contributing to the success of subsequent strikes."

June 22 was the date of the hazing aboard the Chandeleur, but Munn's letter made it sound as if Joe had broken his foot as the result of a combat mission. It's amazing that Munn would write such a letter, since he knew that the squadron had not arrived at its Pacific station until July 3. But it's also possible that Joe had written the letter himself, for as Major Todd, the squadron's executive officer, wrote the author Thomas C. Reeves in 1977: "Intelligence officers had very little work to do so we gave them all sorts of odd jobs. They wrote citations for awards." Munn's letter, forwarded to Chester A. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific fleet, resulted in a citation signed by Nimitz in the spring of 1944 for "meritorious and efficient performance of duty as an observer and rear gunner of a dive-bomber . . . in the Solomon Islands area from February 1 to December 31, 1943." Such citations were pro forma, and Nimitz signed thousands of them during the war without checking on their accuracy. But it was valuable for McCarthy, for whenever doubts were raised regarding his combat record and battle wounds (Why had he not received a Purple Heart?), he could refer to the citation, even though the Pentagon later confirmed that he was never wounded.

IN APRIL 1944, JOE FILED BY MAIL to run in the Wisconsin Republican primary in August for U.S. senator, against the Republican incumbent Alexander Wiley, a popular senator in office since 1938. McCarthy had been assured by his friends back home that he was eligible, though he would not be allowed to discuss political issues while in uniform. He wangled a leave back to America in July, pleading, as he told all and sundry, his leg injury, and was on the West Coast on July 13.

McCarthy had a month before the August 15 Republican primary, where he was entered in a field of four. Wiley, running for a second term, was heavily favored. McCarthy was the gallant interloper, representing service to the nation rather than partisan politics. Resplendent in his Marine uniform with little stars and ribbons, he crisscrossed the state with his usual manic energy, apologizing that regulations barred him from discussing issues. He would in fact have been hard-pressed to discuss postwar monetary and foreign policy or domestic issues such as labor agitation and demobilization.

He told the Milwaukee League of Women Voters on August 3: "I wish I could discuss the importance of maintaining a strong Army and Navy ... but I may not do so because I am in the same position as the boy who wrote home that censorship prevented him from saying it was raining and he was in a foxhole." As he spoke, some of the worst fighting of the war was going on in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but gallant Joe was thousands of miles away, running on the myth of his war record: the exploits of Tail Gunner Joe, the dive-bombing judge.

Senator Wiley won with 153,570 votes, but Joe came in second with 79,380, which wasn't bad for a novice. After the primary, McCarthy, now a captain, returned briefly to Marine barracks at the air station in El Toro, resigned his commission, and was released in February 1945. On February 9, he wrote Colonel Robert Richards in El Toro that "when I have a few free moments I start to get lonesome for the Marines. . . . The local papers were quite generous upon my return . . . generally conceding that I might have had some little help in winning the war in the Pacific. . . . My friends marvel at the fact that there has been no noticable [sic] slow-up in the Pacific theater since my return."

NINETEEN FORTY-SIX WAS A YEAR OF TRIUMPH for McCarthy. It brought him to the national scene as the destroyer of the La Follette dynasty and the Progressive Party, returning Wisconsin to two-party politics, and it brought him to Washington as a senator. Young Bob La Follette was not so young anymore, having served in the Senate since 1925. He seldom came to Wisconsin, where he was known as "the senator from Virginia," having once owned a house there, though he now lived in Washington. Young Bob was in poor health from a streptococcal infection, suffered from depression, and drank too much. He approached the 1946 election without enthusiasm. The Progressives were now a minority third party and conservative Republicans controlled the state GOP.

In January 1946, McCarthy jumped into murky political waters when he challenged La Follette for the Republican nomination for U.S. senator. McCarthy felt he could count on the votes of those who saw Young Bob as an absentee senator as well as the isolationist vote. His mail brought more encouragement. He heard from A. J. Langholfe, president of the Lutheran Altenheim Society of Wisconsin: "It will be my utmost desire to help defeat the Champion Faker La Follette from Fairfax [C]ounty, Virginia. How can any American of German extraction support a senator who toyed with the New Dealers to remake America according to the Moscow-Finkelstein pattern?" McCarthy could count on the German vote, with its anti-Semitic leanings. He also had the veterans groups behind him.

IN THE THREE MONTHS BEFORE THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY, McCarthy crisscrossed the state, whereas La Follette remained in Washington until shortly before the election. Joe often wore khaki Marine Corps shirts to save wear and tear on his other clothing, as he put it. He'd come to a town and walk up and down Main Street, drawing a crowd, and hit the bank, the barber shop, the drugstore, and the hotel. He had an amazing ability to remember names and to suit his remarks to his audience. To young Republicans in Eau Claire he blasted American appeasement in foreign affairs, and to a blue-collar audience in Milwaukee he said, "I do not subscribe to the theory that a war with Russia is inevitable." On the courthouse steps in La Crosse, he said union activities would have to be curtailed, while in factory towns he showed up in overalls and told the workers he was one of them.

Ten days before the primary, Young Bob La Follette arrived in Wisconsin as if the nomination was his by birthright. He didn't seem to care whether he won reelection or not. When McCarthy asked for a debate, Young Bob ignored him. Nationally known reporters who disdained to take a close look at the primary took it for granted that La Follette would win. James Reston of The New York Times wrote on election eve that Young Bob "is expected to prove tomorrow . . . that a man can bolt the Republican party and get away with it." But in La Follette's absence, 1,000 Young Republican volunteers, who called themselves "the Flying Badgers," had distributed McCarthy campaign literature to every town in Wisconsin of more than 500, blanketing the state in 200 cars and three airplanes.

McCarthy won the primary by the thin margin of 207,935 to 202,557. Young Bob's defeat was blamed on labor's defection, for he was beaten in the labor strongholds of Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine, dotted with big factories like Allis-Chalmers and employing many foreign-born workers. The story was floated that CIO Communists helped elect the arch anti-Communist McCarthy, but the CIO News ignored both La Follette and McCarthy. The Flying Badgers and La Follette's flabby campaign were more to the point.

McCarthy was now a national figure, receiving congratulations from the conservatives pleased he had vanquished Young Bob. After the primary, McCarthy's campaign against Howard J. McMurray, McCarthy's Democratic opponent in the Senate race, was an anticlimax. Joe referred to him as "a nobody" and predicted he would win by 250,000 votes. McMurray was a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin who had served one term in Congress. Aldric Revell, the Madison Capital Times columnist, wrote that he was a pompous egghead who "couldn't pass a mirror without gazing into it with soulful love." In a debate with McCarthy, McMurray said: "I am a university professor, with a doctor of philosophy degree from our state university, the highest degree the university can give." Joe deflated him with his reply: "I'm no professor—just a farm boy."

It was in his campaign against McMurray that McCarthy first came to grips with the issue he would make his own: communism. He called his opponent "communistically inclined" and a "little megaphone" of the "Communist-controlled CIO-Political Action Committee." He was not going any further than conservative newspapers such as The Appleton Post-Crescent, which wrote in an editorial in October: "The Democratic Party has made love to these commies, sloppily kissed them in public."

McCarthy was the Republican candidate in a Republican state in a Republican year, and won by the impressive margin of 620,430 to 378,777. At the age of 38, Joe was going to Washington, where he would be the youngest member of the Senate. Not only had he won the election, he had manufactured a legend, as the farm boy, chicken farmer, and grocery store manager who had made it through law school. As the youngest circuit judge ever elected. As the patriot who resigned his draft-deferring judgeship to enlist in the Marines as a buck private. As a tail gunner in a dive bomber who took part in 32 strikes in the South Pacific and was seriously wounded in combat. As the intrepid campaigner who toppled the La Follette dynasty, a task that no other Republican was willing to undertake. As a manly, never-give-up, fist-banging, don't-tread-on-me, 100 percent American, with no airs about him, who pressed his pants under the mattress at night and sharpened his razor on the callused palm of his hand when he got up in the morning. Though he turned out to be more like a character in an Elizabethan tragedy, a modern Dr. Faustus, he came across as a Frank Capra hero, a Mr. Deeds or a Mr. Smith.

Ted Morgan, who has won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, is the author of Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, recently published by Random House, from which this article was adapted.

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