Courtesy of YouTube, footage of Army attorney Joseph Welch’s famous denunciation of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), during the Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
June 9th marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most iconic moments in 20th Century American politics, the televised confrontation that marked both the beginning of the end of one of the controversial politicians in American history, as well as the instant when, in the words of author Robert Shogan, “television became the dominant force in American politics.” This was when a Boston lawyer named Joseph Welch would rebuke Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) with a phrase that would resonate in American culture down to the present day, defining for many the negative side of countersubversive anti-communism.
1. The Rise of Joe McCarthy
McCarthy, elected to the Senate in 1946 after serving as a Marine intelligence officer in World War II, would first make his name as a “red-hunter” in February 1950. That month, McCarthy gave a blockbuster speech in Wheeling, WV, alleging widespread communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department. The resulting firestorm of controversy made McCarthy a national figure, revered by many countersubversive anti-communists, but hated by many moderates and liberals.
McCarthy thrived on the notoriety. He would remain in the news by making numerous charges of communist sympathies and even Soviet espionage against current and former officials in the State and Defense departments. On June 14, 1951, McCarthy made his infamous “a conspiracy so immense” speech, in which he viciously attacked the former Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State George C. Marshall. “Without putting it in so many words,” as historian David M. Oshinsky put it, McCarthy “called the general a traitor to his country.” (Oshinsky, A Conspiracy so Immense, 200)
2. McCarthy vs. the Army
McCarthy would reach the pinnacle of his power in 1953. With Republicans winning a Senate majority in the 1952 congressional elections, McCarthy assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (SPSI). As Chair of SPSI, McCarthy now had an institutional platform from which to launch investigations of real and alleged communists in the U.S. government.
After investigating such agencies as the Voice of America and the Government Printing Office, McCarthy and SPSI soon focused on the U.S. Army as a suitable target. SPSI launched inquiries of suspected disloyalty among Army civilian workers, as well as among servicemen at the Army Signal Corps facility at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. These investigations led to an increasingly bitter confrontation between Senator McCarthy and the Army, punctuated by the Wisconsin senator’s angry grilling of Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker at a hearing in February 1954. In March, the Army demanded that McCarthy fire his lead counsel, Roy Cohn, or else they would release a dossier documenting Cohn’s demands that the Army grant favorable treatment to David Schine, a McCarthy staffer drafted into the Army the previous year. McCarthy refused, and the Army released the dossier on March 11, 1954. McCarthy responded by accusing the Army of trying to blackmail him and otherwise obstruct SPSI’s efforts to investigate Army security lapses.
3. The Army-McCarthy Hearings
In the wake of this controversy, Senator McCarthy stepped down as Chair of SPSI. The subcommittee decided to conduct its own, public investigation of the “charges and countercharges” between McCarthy and the Army. As a party to the controversy, McCarthy was not allowed to sit on the subcommittee, but was permitted to attend and cross-examine witnesses. The Army’s appointed counsel, a Boston lawyer named Joseph Nye Welch, was given the same privileges. The hearings, which were televised live, began on April 22, 1954.
Over the course of the hearings, McCarthy found himself increasingly frustrated by the seemingly mild-mannered Welch. In Shogan’s words, McCarthy “endured Welch’s well-bred, taunting voice, his cultured sarcasm, his grating fondness for self-deprecation. And all the while the senator saw his own reputation . . . slowly crumbling away.” McCarthy’s frustrations came to a head on June 9th. In the middle of Welch’s questioning of Roy Cohn, the senator from Wisconsin interjected to note that a young lawyer in Welch’s law firm, Fred Fisher, had once been a member of the communist-affiliated National Lawyers’ Guild. This despite the fact that Welch had made a deal with Roy Cohn not to bring up Fisher in return for not referring to Cohn’s draft deferrals, a deal that McCarthy had approved:
Senator MCCARTHY. Not exactly, Mr. Chairman, but in view of Mr. Welch’s request that the information be given once we know of anyone who might be performing any work for the Communist Party, I think we should tell him that he has in his law firm a young man named Fisher whom he recommended, incidentally, to do work on this committee, who has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh, years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party, an organization which always swings to the defense of anyone who dares to expose Communists. (Special Senate Investigation, pt. 59, 2426-2427)
Welch’s devastating response to McCarthy’s heavy-handed maneuver would become one of the most memorable quotes in American political history:
Let us not assassinate this lad further. Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency? (Special Senate Investigation, pt. 59, 2429)
This exchange has come to epitomize McCarthy’s brazenly confrontational style of public debate, what Oshinsky has described as “his windy speeches, his endless interruptions, his frightening outbursts. his crude personal attacks.” (Oshinsky, A Conspiracy so Immense, 464) It marked the culmination of a months-long decline in McCarthy’s popularity.
The Army-McCarthy hearings concluded on June 17, 1954. Their main impact was to deal an irreparable blow to McCarthy’s prestige and popularity. The Senate would vote to censure McCarthy in December, 1954, after which the senator from Wisconsin faded from the headlines until his death in 1957. His name would become a byword for all the excesses of the post WWII campaign against domestic communism.
Army Signal Corps – Subversion and Espionage. Hearings before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First (-Second) Session, pursuant to S. Res. 189. 1953-54, 11 pts. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.G 74/6: AR 5/)
Communist Infiltration Among Army Civilian Workers. Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session, pursuant to S. Res. 189. 1953. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.G 74/6: C 73/2)
Communist Infiltration in the Army. Hearings before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First (-Second) Session, pursuant to S. Res. 189. 1953-54, 4 pts. (Joyner Docs CWIS Y 4.G 74/6: C 73/3)
Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, 1953-54. 2003, 5 v. + index. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.G 74/9: S.PRT. 107-84/)
Hearings on S. Res. 301. Hearings before a Select Committee to Study Censure Charges, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, Second Session, pursuant to the order on S. Res. 301 and amendments. 1954, 2 pts. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.C 33/4: H 35)
Special Senate Investigation on Charges and Countercharges Involving: Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens, John G. Adams, H. Struve Hensel and Senator Joe McCarthy, Roy M. Cohn, and Francis P. Carr. Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, Second Session, pursuant to S. Res. 189. 1954, 71 pts. + index. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.G 74/6: ST 4/)
State Department Employee Loyalty Investigation. Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Eighty-First Congress, Second Session, pursuant to S. Res. 231. 1950, 3 pts. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.F 76/2: St2/2/)
Morgan, Ted. Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Random House, 2003. (Joyner Stacks: E743.5 .M578 2003)
Oshinsky, David M. A Conspiracy so Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Free Press, 1983. (Joyner Stacks: E748.M143 O73 1983)
Shogan, Robert. No Sense of Decency: The Army-McCarthy Hearings: A Demagogue Falls and Television Takes Charge of American Politics. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009. (Joyner Stacks: UB23 .S53 2009)