McCarthyism, Korea and the Cold War | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

McCarthyism, Korea and the Cold War

How a Senator From Wisconsin Created the Red Scare

McCarthyism, Korea and the Cold War | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeBlack and white image of infantry troops boarding helicopters for Korea via the 6th Transportation Helicopter Company.

Helicopters in Korea, 1953

Infantry troops board helicopters for Korea via the 6th Transportation Helicopter Company, the first Army cargo helicopter unit in the combat zone. The 6th was called up in November 1952 and arrived in Korea with their H-19C helicopters in January, 1953. The armistice was signed, several months later, on July 27. For Joseph R. McCarthy and the conservative Republicans the ceasefire meant that there were be no victory over Communism in Korea. View the original source document: WHI 12139

After World War II, foreign affairs began to play a more important role than ever in the lives of American citizens. The United States and its allies competed with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its allies for political and economic control of the world. Known as the Cold War, this rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union shaped almost every aspect of international politics, as well as many domestic concerns. The Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s.

In the late 1940s, people in Wisconsin were divided over issues such as the United Nations, support for European recovery, and the growing power of the Soviet Union. But when post-war Europe divided into Communist and Capitalist camps and China's communist revolution succeeded in 1949, public opinion shifted to support democracy and capitalism against communist expansion. That tension reached a climax in Korea.


Overshadowed by WWII, the Korean War has often been called America's "forgotten war," though like Vietnam it was part of a larger Cold War struggle to extinguish communism. In 1950, North Korean communist troops invaded South Korea, which was an American ally. Seeking to protect South Korea and to prevent the spread of communism in Asia, President Harry Truman sent General Douglas MacArthur to command the United Nations forces. Lasting three years (1950-1953), the Korean conflict was dominated by politically motivated negotiations and stalemates that delayed the armistice and cost thousands of lives.

132,000 Wisconsin citizens served in Korea. For the first time in American history, military units were racially integrated. Mitchell Red Cloud, a Ho Chunk from Hatfield, was one of five men from Wisconsin to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor in Korea. Women were also involved, serving as nurses, in the Woman’s Army Corps (WAC), Women in the Air Force (WAF), Navy Women’s Reserves and Women Marines. When hostilities ceased, Chinese armies remained on their side of the North Korean border and the North and South, separated by a wide "demilitarized zone," entered a long period of tense relations.


EnlargeJoseph McCarthy speaking in front of multiple microphones about the clash between himself and President Eisenhower.

McCarthy and Eisenhower, 1954.

District of Columbia. During the first months of his administration, President Dwight Eisenhower handled Joseph R. McCarthy by publicly ignoring him. However, after the abuse that General Zwicker received from Senator McCarthy's committee in January, 1954, Eisenhower felt compelled to comment. At a press conference on March 3, 1954, he was mildly critical of McCarthy's lack of fair play, but he emphatically stated that dealing with employees of t View the original source document: WHI 49052

Because communism required tight restrictions on personal freedom and government ownership of business, it threatened the American ideals of individual liberty and free enterprise. Communist expansion in Eastern Europe and Korea fueled Americans' anxiety that their way of life was under attack and launched the career of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy.

After several uneventful years in the Senate, McCarthy made headlines when he announced in a 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he knew 205 communists were currently working in the State Department. Since American men and women were preparing to sacrifice their lives in combat against a communist enemy in Korea, this speech garnered great publicity. Capitalizing on people's fears of encroaching communism, McCarthy launched a public campaign aimed at eliminating the supposed communist infiltration of government and foreign policy. His pronouncements catapulted him to national prominence and provided a strong platform for his re-election.

The Black List

McCarthy was re-elected in 1952 and chosen as chair of a Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee. He exposed communists and their sympathizers in government and in every facet of American life. Under his leadership, the Subcommittee interrogated more than 500 people. McCarthy's accusations were often unsubstantiated, but in a climate dominated by fear he grew in popularity anyway. McCarthy and his staff often refused to reveal their sources of information. Simply being called before his committee could ruin a person's career. Afraid of being called communist sympathizers, many leaders of labor unions and professional organizations joined the Red Scare hysteria of the early 1950s. Some intellectuals and activists refused to answer his questions or appear before his committee despite the threat to their personal well-being. Several famous Hollywood producers and scriptwriters were "black-listed" by their employers for refusing to co-operate with the committee. Despite his massive popularity, McCarthy's accusation in 1953 that the military was harboring communists led to his downfall. TV commentator Edward R. Murrow exposed his tactics and publicly denounced his actions as a threat to American's core democratic values. In December, 1954, the Senate officially rebuked McCarthy for "conduct unbecoming a senator."

The Military Industrial Complex

Though only in power for a brief period, McCarthy attained world recognition and symbolized the frenetic anti-communism that gripped American foreign policy in the 1950s. The Cold War and the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, China, and Korea prompted the United States to increase its defense spending. As U.S. companies began to exploit foreign resources such as Mideast oil and to market their goods to Third World countries, a strong permanent military became increasingly important to the U.S. government. This led domestic companies to negotiate defense contracts that fueled a wave of domestic prosperity and led to the growth of the American middle class. But it also created an economic dependence on military expenditures, which prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to warn about the nation's growing "military-industrial complex" as he left office in 1960. William Proxmire, who succeeded McCarthy as senator from Wisconsin, made a reputation for closely scrutinizing defense contracts and opposing exorbitant military contracts despite Cold War tensions.

Learn More

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Joseph McCarthy" Appleton History from the Appleton Public Library; D.C. Everest Area Schools. Korean War Not Forgotten: Stories from Korean War Veterans. (Weston, Wis.: D.C. Everest Area School District Oral History Project, 2003)]

Revised 5/20/2024