Washington State Press Club members heckle Senator Joseph McCarthy on October 23, 1952.

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 1/22/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8886

On October 23, 1952, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, delivers the keynote speech for the Republican Party at the Washington State Press Club's fourth annual Gridiron dinner, held in Seattle. Misunderstanding the comical, lighthearted nature of the event, McCarthy gives a serious 15-minute speech on the dangers of Communism in America. He delivers his whole speech, but is heckled and booed.

From 1950 until 1954, McCarthy served as the controversial face of the domestic anti-Communist movement, a period which lasted roughly from the end of World War II until the 1960s. McCarthy claimed that Communism was a pervasive force in the United States government and that Soviet forces held a dangerous influence over American foreign and domestic policy. By October 1952, he was nationally famous for his investigations of the 1949 “loss of China” to Communism and of alleged Communists in President Harry S. Truman’s (1884-1972) State Department. McCarthy was best known, however, for his sensational accusations against so-called “known Communists” on the Senate floor and in the press.

The Washington State Press Club’s annual Gridiron Banquet held at the Norway Center (later The Mountaineers building) in Seattle was not what McCarthy had expected. McCarthy unhappily sat through the “Demopublican National Convention,” a mock political convention that featured facsimiles of “President Harry S. Truman” and vice-presidential nominee “Richard Nixon” (1913-1994). McCarthy reportedly said: “I didn’t travel 2,300 miles to be a funnyman. I want to make a speech about some serious things the American people should know” (Byron Fish). Though the Press Club allowed McCarthy to deliver any type of speech he wanted, the reporters did not tell McCarthy about the club’s tradition of heckling its speakers.

In his speech McCarthy stressed the importance of taking a tough stance against Communism, stating: “you can’t fight skunks with kid gloves and lace cuffs” (The Seattle Times). He also claimed that Communism caused nearly every problem America currently faced.  McCarthy became annoyed by the rising level of largely good-natured heckles. The heckling turned to booing however when McCarthy began to attack General George Marshall (1880-1959), who was highly regarded for his role in rebuilding post-war Europe with the Marshall Plan. McCarthy grew angry and responded to hecklers, saying “you can make your speech later” (Byron Fish). The Seattle Times reported that although the audience seemed evenly divided for and against McCarthy, the heckling got under the senator’s skin. After speaking for his allotted 15 minutes, McCarthy left before the end of the dinner in order to make an appearance on KING-TV -- an appearance that would end up being canceled.

Sources: Edwin R. Bayley, Joe McCarthy and the Press (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 102-103, 177-178; Ross Cunningham, “’Tough Luck’ Dogs McCarthy in Foray Here,” The Seattle Times, October 24, 1952, p. 16; Byron Fish, “Candidates Lampooned at Gridiron Banquet,” The Seattle Times, October 24, 1952, p. 16; “McCarthy, TV Script Row Cancels Talk,” The Washington Post, October 25, 1952, p. 2; Ellen Schrecker, Many Are Their Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998); “TV Station Defends Action on McCarthy,” The New York Times, October 25, 1952, p. 23.

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