It’s 8:00 PM on September 27th, 1947, in the London Underground, in the early days of the Cold War.
A German-born British physicist, Klaus Fuchs, sits on a subway train, clutching a newspaper and sweating profusely. Klaus is nervous. He previously worked with American scientists on the Manhattan Project, and he has secrets pertaining to the creation of the Atom Bomb. Tonight, Klaus plans to pass those secrets to the Soviets.
After the train pulls into the station, Klaus quickly makes his way through the platform, climbs a flight of stairs, and emerges above ground on a street in the London suburb of Wood Green. Klaus looks over his shoulder to make sure he isn’t being followed.
The coast is clear, so Klaus keeps walking. The newspaper shakes in his hand as he crosses the street towards his destination: The Nag’s Head Pub.
Klaus steps inside and is greeted by the sound of laughter and the smell of cigar smoke. He takes a seat at the bar, orders a beer, and opens his newspaper, keeping his eye on the door.
And soon enough, Klaus sees a man entering the pub holding a red book. Klaus puts down his newspaper as the man slides next to him at the bar. After exchanging pleasantries, the man utters the secret password. Klaus nods his head in acknowledgment. He downs his beer, pays his bill, and heads for the door.
The man with the red book follows Klaus outside. There, on a discreet side street, Klaus pulls an envelope out of his jacket pocket. He hands it to the man, rushes across the street, and disappears back into the Underground.
In the late 1940s, the work of Russian spies like Klaus Fuchs helps accelerate Soviet production of their atomic bomb. On August 29th, 1949, the Soviets conduct their first successful test of a nuclear weapon. It astonishes the west and soon, rumors spread that prominent American and British scientists helped the Soviets achieve this foreboding milestone. Paranoia sweeps across the United States, and the government actively seeks to root out “communism” in all areas of society.
This hunt for communists gives rise to what will come to be known as the “Second Red Scare.” The man leading the crusade will be a junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy will wield his power to destroy the reputations of men and women, most often without cause, and all in the name of protecting the country. McCarthy’s brutal tactics will go unchallenged for years; until a journalist named Edward R. Murrow uses a nascent technology called television to fight back against “McCarthyism” on March 9th, 1954.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 9: Edward R. Murrow Attacks McCarthyism.
Act One: McCarthy’s first anti-communist speech
It’s February 1950 at a hotel in Wheeling, West Virginia.
United States Senator Joseph McCarthy steps into a meeting room that’s decorated in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s upcoming birthday anniversary. McCarthy smiles as he warmly greets his hosts: representatives from the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling. But deep down, McCarthy is frustrated.
He was elected to the senate in 1947, but the past three years have been disappointing for him. McCarthy has struggled to find a meaningful cause to seize upon, and he’s viewed by many as an inconsequential politician who spends his time giving meaningless speeches in small towns like Wheeling. So today, McCarthy decides to make this speech count.
McCarthy steps to the front of the room and surveys the crowd. He knows the audience expects him to give a standard speech celebrating the life of President Lincoln, but McCarthy goes in a completely different direction. He talks about the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. McCarthy’s voice rises as he creates an apocalyptic view of the world, saying, “We are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” McCarthy rails against what he sees as America's subservience to the Soviet premier, Joseph Stalin.
McCarthy goes on to speak of “enemies from within,” and claims the United States government is crawling with traitors. Then, McCarthy holds up a piece of paper waving it at his audience. He claims he’s holding a list of 205 names of known communists working in the U.S. state department right now. McCarthy looks out over the crowd and wraps up his speech. There is no list of names on the paper, but as McCarthy leaves the venue, he’s confident that no one will see him as inconsequential anymore.
And indeed, word of McCarthy’s speech spreads like wildfire, especially among members of the media. When the press asks about the number of communists in the state department, McCarthy waffles. His answer varies, from 205 to 57 and back up to 81, depending on the occasion. McCarthy doesn’t provide any evidence to substantiate his claims, either, but his repeated stories of communists in the government help spark a sense of paranoia across many parts of the United States.
In 1950, fear of communism is nothing new. America’s first “Red Scare” started around the time that World War I came to an end. This widespread fear grew more prevalent when the leftist, Russian Revolution added to the fears that left-wing anarchists were infiltrating America's workers’ unions. Years later, in the 1940s, Congress got involved. The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, went after supposed communists working in Hollywood. This led to the famed Hollywood Blacklist that kept alleged communists from working in film and television, and helped usher in the second “Red Scare.”
And now, McCarthy is ratcheting up the rhetoric. He gives speeches highlighting the news that spies working on American soil provided secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. McCarthy also points to China’s recent communist revolution as a harbinger of doom. Using these world events, McCarthy is able to whip the public into a frenzy and intensify the growing “Red Scare”. In the early 1950s, McCarthy becomes the face of America’s anti-communist movement, and he quickly gains power in the senate; power that McCarthy is eager to wheel.
In June of 1951, McCarthy takes the senate floor to attack a venerable American Hero: WWII veteran, Secretary of Defense, and author of the Marshall Plan that saved Europe, General George C. Marshall. McCarthy accuses Marshall of aiding the rise of communism. McCarthy even implies that Marshall is at the center of a vast conspiracy to serve the Kremlin. McCarthy hopes his attack on Marshall will demonstrate that no one is safe from his wrath or his growing political power.
Because in January of 1953, McCarthy is re-elected on the strength of his anti-communist stance. Soon, he is named Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. And with the help of his Chief Counsel, Roy Cohn, McCarthy uses his new post to bring alleged communists before the senate. Simply being accused of having communist sympathies by McCarthy’s senate subcommittee, or his house counterparts in HUAC proves enough to ruin many people’s lives. Over the span of just a few years, thousands of Americans will lose their jobs; hundreds more will be blacklisted or imprisoned. These citizens come from all walks of life and professions. But one of McCarthy’s most common targets are journalists.
In the fall of 1953, McCarthy and his allies threaten one popular media figure in particular; a reporter, radio host, and TV personality named Edward R. Murrow. But Murrow won’t be cowed. Instead, he will use the power of television to reach millions of people across the country and turn the tide against Joseph McCarthy.
Act Two: Murrow learns of McCarthy’s “dirt” on him
It’s November 17th, 1953 in the Senate Caucus Room in Washington, DC.
Journalist Joe Wershba is panicking. Joe works with Edward R. Murrow on his television show, See It Now. He’s here in the senate chamber today to cover FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s testimony before a senate subcommittee. But Joe is having audio issues with his equipment. So he rushes out of the room to search for his soundman. But instead, he comes face-to-face with a former FBI agent who now serves as one of Senator McCarthy’s lead investigators. The former agent looks angry, and he rips into Joe about a story, his boss, Murrow ran on a recent episode of See It Now.
In October, Murrow covered the story of a lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve who was discharged because his father and sister were said to be communist sympathizers. Murrow’s story focused on the fact that the lieutenant’s personal loyalty wasn’t in question, but was still losing his commission simply for being related to people only accused of consorting with communists. After Murrow’s broadcast, the public rallied around the lieutenant. The Air Force eventually dropped the case against him, and he was reinstated. But McCarthy is angry that Murrow had run the story at all, and today, the former FBI agent wants Joe Wershba to know it.
Joe tries to end the conversation. He walks past the agent and heads down the hall to resume his search for his soundman, but the former agent grabs him. Through clenched teeth, he says, “What if I told you Murrow was on the Soviet payroll in ‘34.” Joe is baffled. The former agent smirks and gestures for Joe to follow him. He leads Joe to his office, and hands him a 1930s newspaper with the headline, “American Professors, Trained by Soviet[s], Teach in U.S. Schools.” The former agent points to a name in the story: Edward R. Murrow, assistant director of the Institute of International Education.
The following day, Joe nervously shows Murrow the newspaper story. Murrow knows it's a mischaracterization of the truth, but he’s smart enough to understand that in the current climate, the words “Edward R. Murrow” and “communist” together in print could be enough to end his career. So Murrow decides to protect himself by going on the attack. He tells his See It Nowproducer, Fred Friendly, it’s time for them to take on Senator McCarthy.
Edward R. Murrow gained notoriety doing a series of live broadcasts from Europe during World War II. Murrow’s work made him one of the most trusted voices in news, and it signaled a coming of age for radio journalism. After the war, Murrow became the vice president in charge of news at CBS, and he returned to the airwaves himself in 1947 with a radio show called Hear It Now. He brought a version of the show to television in 1951 with See It Now. But Murrow’s move to TV was a double-edged sword. His fame grew, but some of Murrow’s colleagues suggested television turned him from a journalist into an entertainer. And while other reporters have been speaking out against “McCarthyism” in recent years, Murrow has remained relatively quiet. Until now.
In November of 1953, Murrow tells his staff that he thinks “McCarthyism” is poisoning America. He points out that the surfacing of the old newspaper story is not an accident. It’s a warning from Joseph McCarthy, who's telling Murrow to keep quiet and stay out of his way.
But Murrow has no intention of cowering before Joseph McCarthy. He believes deep down, McCarthy fears journalists like him. So Murrow sets out to use his platform and the power of television to challenge McCarthy, head-on.
Throughout the end of 1953 and the beginning of 1954, The See It Now staff works tirelessly to put together a program that will expose McCarthy for the liar, bully, and demagogue Murrow believes he is. Murrow’s editors work to create a film using McCarthy’s own words and actions against him, while Murrow and his writers put together a script that Murrow will recite live on air after they show the film.
But Murrow knows all of their work won’t be anything if they can’t get the episode on the air. And to do that, he needs CBS’ approval. In early 1954, Murrow and Fred Friendly meet with the network brass. It’s clear CBS is reluctant to go after McCarthy, but Murrow convinces them it’s the right thing to do. And in the end, the network gives them the green light.
But as the air date approaches, some of the staff worry attacking McCarthy will end Murrow’s career, and perhaps theirs, too. Murrow knows he and his staff are risking a lot, but if they do nothing, then in Murrow’s mind, they’re no better than accomplices to McCarthy’s actions. The staff members rally around their leader, and soon, they put the finishing touches on the episode. On March 9th, 1954, Edward R. Murrow will go on live television and lay the facts before the American people.
Act Three: Murrow attacks McCarthy
It’s March 9th, 1954 on the set of See It Nowin New York City.
Murrow sits behind his desk, reading over the script. He’s calm and confident in what he’s about to do, but he can’t stop sweating. Murrow looks up at the hot studio lights. He steps out from behind his desk and dabs his makeup with a cloth.
He spots Joe Wershba and complains about the heat. Joe tells him it’s going to be a lot hotter in millions of homes when Murrow goes on the air. Murrow smiles and returns to his desk. He looks out at his producer Fred Friendly who makes final preparations with the crew. Then, Murrow gets the signal.
He looks into the camera and speaks to the American people directly. He introduces film clips of McCarthy that show the senator’s disregard for truth and his bullying of witnesses. When the film ends, Murrow turns back to the camera and addresses his audience.
"MURROW: No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men..."
Murrow is calm as he calls on all those who oppose McCarthy to speak out. Then, he utters his iconic sign-off, telling everyone watching at home, “Goodnight and good luck.”
Days after the broadcast, McCarthy takes to the radio to refute Murrow and tell the world about the old newspaper article that supposedly connects Murrow to the Soviets back in 1934. But it's too late.
Almost immediately, Murrow’s broadcast turns public opinion against McCarthy, and the senator’s radio rants do little to win the public back. Then, a few months later, McCarthy loses the majority of Americans for good when he and Roy Cohn take aim at alleged communists in the United States Army.
The Army hires Boston attorney Joseph Welch to represent them before the senate. In a nationalized television committee hearing, McCarthy accuses a young lawyer who works for Welch of being a communist. In reaction, Welch gives his now famous reply, “At long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Americans and the senate itself decide the answer to that last question was “no.”
In December of 1954, McCarthy is censured in the United States Senate. The vote in favor of censure was 67 to 22. McCarthy’s hold on Congress, and his sway over the American people, is all but over. Three years later, McCarthy dies of acute hepatitis and liver failure at the age of 48.
Over time, the term “McCarthyism” will become synonymous with political witch-hunts that seek to destroy the innocent, but “McCarthyism” will also ensure the legacy of Edward R. Murrow. Murrow demonstrated the media’s ability to shape public opinion, and he made it clear that when Americans stand together for a righteous cause, they have the power to defeat tyranny; a fact Murrow made plain when he exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy - live on television - on March 9th, 1954.
Next on History Daily.March 10th, 1969. James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.