Why did McCarthyism succeed at first, but fall out of favor later?
McCarthyism found initial success because it made politically-charged, front-page-worthy allegations. It eventually fizzled and died as it was exposed to be an overhyped, outdated witch-hunt.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, in 1950, claimed to have a list of 205 names of Communists operating within the US State Department. This was in the days of the Cold War’s infancy. Communism wasn’t just seen as an economic philosophy, it was synonymous with being un-American. To hear such people could have infiltrated the federal government to such an extent captured the nation’s attention.
As McCarthy pursued investigations of Communism within the US government, an interesting fact surfaced. McCarthy’s top-secret list of 205 names was really a list of 57 names that had been made public record in the 1940s. Also, it was not a list of 57 devout Communists; it was a list of un-American people in general that had characteristics (that were viewed as deviant, at the time) such as homosexuality, fascism and alcoholism.
Hundreds were investigated, called before a Congressional committee, blacklisted and/or jailed due to McCarthy’s flimsy accusations—McCarthyism. As McCarthy’s “cleansing” of the government continued, it because more and more clear that his momentum was based in sensational rhetoric, not hard evidence.