Opposing McCarthyism: A Messenger archives story

Anne Marie Amacher
Pictured are two columns on McCarthyism written by Donald McDonald in The Catholic Messenger in the 1950s.

By Timothy Walch

“History does not repeat itself, but often it rhymes.” Attributed to Mark Twain, this witticism offers perspective on today’s political chaos. In fact, the acrimony and bitterness that is so common today is reminiscent of the conflict over communism that took place in the 1950s.

Believe it or not, The Cath­olic Messenger was caught up in that conflict in a small way. It started in the fall of 1951 when Donald McDonald, an editor at the Messenger, openly criticized Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin for making false accusations of disloyalty against his political opponents.

McCarthy was a controversial political figure. For some Americans, he was a bully who wrapped himself in the American flag and fabricated charges against numerous federal officials. Other Americans, including many Catholics, believed that McCarthy was a crusader who was tireless in his determination to root out communist threats to the federal government.


These two points of view clashed in the pages of the Messenger. “Senator Joseph McCarthy feels our government is infested with Communists,” wrote McDonald, “so he rushes from one end of the country to the other making his reckless — character assassinating — accusations without producing one iota of proof.”

Over the next year, McDonald kept up a steady drumbeat against McCarthy’s tactics. “Using every trick in the repertoire of the professional demagogue,” he wrote, “McCarthy has managed to identify himself as a ‘savior’ of America and as a fearless crusader against Communism.”

In a column titled “The Cruel Irony of McCarthyism,” McDonald zeroed in on the damage being done to the country. “It will be a dismal day for America,” he concluded, “if its people should ever resort to McCarthyism to save itself from internal or external peril. It will be more than dismal, it will be doomsday for by that time the wonderful idea of ‘America’ will be unrecognizable, and I doubt very much whether it will then be worth saving.”

McDonald called for readers of the Messenger to stand up against McCarthy’s fear mongering and mudslinging. He also accepted the fact that not all Catholics would agree with him. Dissenters were invited “to use these columns to express their opinions.”

Readers responded, many with letters of support. “Bravo, Donald McDonald,” wrote one reader, “for your moral courage in taking exception to the tactics and concepts of the junior Senator from Wisconsin.”

However, other Catholics challenged McDonald. “I never thought that a Catholic periodical would permit a staff writer to follow the Pravda [Communist] line and continue to write for the paper,” exclaimed one reader. Another reader suggested that the word “Catholic” should be stripped from the masthead!

One reader was steaming mad. “You would only be considered a termite by McCarthy,” wrote an angry correspondent. “You are Iowa’s prize SKUNK,” he added. “When I see your article in the paper, I burn it real quick to keep the odor out of the house.”

One defender of McCarthy did not attack McDonald. “May I respectfully suggest,” wrote Elizabeth Coughlin, “that before The Catholic Messenger prints such strongly worded articles to influence the opinion of its readers, perhaps a more complete search for the full truth should be made.”

Coughlin’s suggestion hit a chord with McDonald. In a note following her letter, he stressed that he was looking for “truth and justice” and he thanked Coughlin for her “temperate response” to his articles.

McDonald’s last McCarthy column appeared in the Messenger on Sept. 8, 1955. “Can American Catholics develop a loud, clear and intelligent voice in our society, the voice of reason in public opinion, the voice of wisdom and patience and charity?” he asked Messenger readers. Yes, they can, he wrote, but only if they root out McCarthyism — “the enemy alike of truth and goodness.”

The controversy ended quickly and quietly with the sudden death of the senator in 1957 and “McCarthyism” passed into the dictionary as a definition for unfair allegations and distortions. Today we use the term to describe the outrageous charges and accusations that have overwhelmed presidential politics.

The conflict that played out in the Messenger is a reminder that we are all on a journey to find truth and justice. As Coughlin suggested in her letter, we must be thorough in our search, thoughtful in our conclusions and temperate in our response to others. That’s good advice from the past.

(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the Board of Directors of The Catholic Messenger.)

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