An often overlooked cause for the rise of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was the Presidential Election of 1948. The Democrats won that year with President Truman pulling a stunning upset. In those days, or at least until 1980, Republicans were a loose coalition with the Eastern Liberal Establishment vs the Western Conservatives.
As might be expected, this is an overall grouping only. There was a smattering of Conservatives in the East and Liberals in the west. Pittsburgh was the vertical divide of the two Republican Wings. Conservatives, for 1940, 1944, and 1948, generally agreed on their candidate-Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio.
Taft was conservative with some streaks of Liberalism. He was one of great Senators in the history of our country. Taft took stands on every issue based on his conscience rather than pubic opinion or PACs. If there was a conflict between his positions and the voters of Ohio, Robert A Taft followed his own conscience. He made many trips across Ohio, often facing hostile crowds, to explain his own vote.
I will detail some of his votes later but, for now, let’s consider the the Taft-Heartly Act of 1948. This law, passed over the veto of President Truman, was to curb abuses in the power of labor unions. Due to the manpower shortages during the WWII, labor unions pretty much had their own way. There was a series of crippling strikes which increased the cost of fuel in the post war period.
Senator Taft could have gone to Cincinnati and virtually any other city in Western Ohio. They would have roundly applauded him and the media would have shown how popular he was. This is what Ronald Reagan did during his eight years as President. Instead Senator Taft prepared and preferred to face hostile crowds in the Eastern Ohio cities of Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and Steubenville. There were death threats and his staff and friends urged him not to make any trips but to use indoor town meetings and radio to get his messages across.
Here Senator Robert A. Taft endured heckling and ridicule. He remained calm and just wanted to be heard and to answer their arguments. I don’t know if Taft convinced anybody but there was no doubt of his courage and candor.
Senator Taft, the leader of the Western conservatives lost the nomination to Wendell Wilke in 1940 and to Thomas E. Dewey in both 1944 and 1948. Let’s look at the 1948 election to see how it helped the the rise of Joe McCarthy.