The Millionaire Who Took on McCarthy

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[Commentary] A melodramatic mix of half-truths, rants, and innuendoes made Wisconsin’s junior Senator Joseph P. McCarthy powerful and intimidating. By 1951, he had cowed some of the Senate’s all time all stars. The rare senator willing at that time to confront this “hit and run propagandist of the Soviet type” was a rookie senator from Connecticut. For introducing a resolution to expel this blathering bully, William Benton suffered McCarthyite blowback, including a $2 million libel suit. Many also believe Benton’s heroism lost him his Senate seat in 1952. Still, Benton insisted: “Somebody had to do this job.” Years later, as his legend grew, he would demur: “Well of course I like to think I did a lot of things that showed courage in the Senate.” But he admitted, it may have been “in part because of my political inexperience.”

This political amateur also had something his other colleagues lacked: a real life awaiting back home. As a millionaire adman, publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and owner of the Muzak Corporation, Benton could afford to be daring. Professional politicians, he would lament, “too often underestimate the long-range values of boldness and stubbornness in defense of an ideal.” As America’s new leaders take office, they should remember William Benton’s courage, deciding what ideals they will champion, no matter what.

[Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University.]


The Millionaire Who Took on McCarthy