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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: A U.S. Senator’s Assault on Our Democracy

By Tom Morrow

If you think today’s Congressional hearings have been contentious, for those of us who witnessed the Army-McCarthy in the early ‘50s, present-day investigative hearings are child’s play compared to the Communist “witch-hunt” hearings of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.

During the early days of the “Cold War” there was a lethal force disguised as a warrior for good, but in reality, was one of our history’s most dangerous characters. The chaos created by Senator McCarthy cast an atmosphere of unwarranted suspicion, ruining the lives and reputation of hundreds of government officials and citizens. It was a period known as “McCarthyism.”

Joseph McCarthy, born Nov. 14, 1908, alleged large numbers of Soviet spies and Communist sympathizers were inside the federal government. In February 1950, after three largely undistinguished years in the Senate, McCarthy rose suddenly to national attention when he made a speech asserting he had a list of “members of the Communist Party and a spy ring” who were employed in the State Department. In succeeding years, McCarthy made additional accusations of Communist infiltration into the State Department, the administration of President Truman, the Voice of America, and the U.S. Army.

In autumn 1953, McCarthy’s committee began its ill-fated inquiry into the United States Army. He garnered some headlines with stories of a dangerous spy ring among the Army researchers, but after weeks of hearings, nothing came of his investigations.

Early in 1954, the U.S. Army accused McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, of improperly pressuring the Army to give favorable treatment of a former aide to McCarthy and a friend of Cohn’s. McCarthy claimed the accusation was made in bad faith, in retaliation for his questioning of a senior officer. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, usually chaired by McCarthy himself, was given the task of adjudicating these conflicting charges. The Army-McCarthy hearings convened on April 22, 1954.

The most famous incident in the hearings, which was the beginning of McCarthy’s downfall, was an exchange between McCarthy and the Army’s chief legal representative, Joseph Welch. On June 9, the 30th day of the hearings, Welch challenged Roy Cohn to provide U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. with McCarthy’s list of 130 Communists or subversives in defense plants “before the sun goes down.” McCarthy stepped in and said that if Welch was so concerned about persons aiding the Communist Party, he should check on a man in his Boston law office named Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive lawyers association.

In an impassioned defense of Fisher, Welch responded, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness ...” When McCarthy resumed his attack, Welch interrupted him: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” When McCarthy once again persisted, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman “call the next witness.” At that point, the gallery erupted in applause and a recess was called.

The hearings lasted for 36 days, all broadcast on live television with an estimated 20 million viewers. After hearing 32 witnesses and 2 million words of testimony, the committee concluded that McCarthy himself had not exercised any improper influence on the soldier’s behalf. Of far greater importance to McCarthy than the committee’s inconclusive final report was the negative effect the extensive exposure had on his popularity.

In 1954, McCarthy’s support and popularity faded. On Dec. 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure Senator McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22, making him one of the few senators ever to be disciplined in this fashion. President Eisenhower, who didn’t like McCarthy, quipped to his Cabinet that “McCarthyism” was now “McCarthywasm.”

McCarthy died in Bethesda Naval Hospital on May 2, 1957, at the age of 48. The official cause of his death was listed as acute hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. It was hinted in the press that he died of alcoholism, an estimation that is now accepted by contemporary biographers.

As a footnote: Decades after McCarthy’s death, the Venona project — which decrypted Soviet messages, Soviet espionage data now opened to the West, and newly released transcripts of closed hearings before McCarthy’s subcommittee — partially vindicated McCarthy by showing that many of his identifications of Communists were correct, and the scale of Soviet espionage activity in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s was larger than many suspected.