The History Thread Has No Sense of Decency

Today’s History Thread marks the anniversary of Joseph McCarthy’s humiliation at the Army-McCarthy hearings. The present author has written about the Red Scare several times in the past, but has only glancingly touched on Tailgunner Joe. McCarthy enjoyed a four year reign of terror as America’s premiere demagogue. McCarthy’s ability to dominate the press, captivate the public and terrorize his enemies far outpaced his actual achivements.

Once the embarrassing junior senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy initially did little to inspire confidence. He received kickbacks from sugar companies (earning him the nickname the Pepsi-Cola Kid) and falsely accused the Army of torturing German SS officers accused of the Malmedy Massacre, a mass murder of 84 American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge. “An innocent man will scream about as loudly as a guilty man if you are kicking him in the testicles,” McCarthy screamed at one witness, before accusing the Army of “act[ing] with the utmost malice” towards the poor, persecuted Nazis. Such antics earned McCarthy the contempt of fellow senators and the press, who voted him “Worst Senator” in an informal poll.

His early adventures in Red-hunting weren’t inspiring, either. His Wheeling speech, despite the explosive charges of 205 security risks in government, initially captured little attention, save ridicule for its lack of substance (most of those named had long since been cleared, or else resigned) and that he’d plagiarized an earlier speech by Richard Nixon and a State Department report from 1946. Reporters noted how McCarthy changed the number from 205 to 57 and again to 81; that he variously identified these as Communists, spies and the more nebulous category of “security risks” (one was labeled such because he was “a heavy drinker and promiscuous”). Initially, McCarthy seemed like another demagogue exploiting the Red Menace, and not particularly well.


But in politics, as elsewhere, timing is everything. Within a few months of McCarthy’s speech, North Korea invaded South Korea; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested for funneling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union; American troops in Korea not only battled North Koreans but the Chinese army, a confrontation General Douglas MacArthur threatened to escalate into nuclear war. Suddenly McCarthy’s warnings about “a conspiracy so immense…as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man” seemed much more plausible. And McCarthy, for all his shortcomings, had an undisputed flare for publicity.

McCarthy’s antics inspired admiration and disgust in equal measure. He leveled sensational charges against everyone from Protestant priests (it helped that McCarthy was Catholic) to George Marshall, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. His rants about the “powder-puffs” and “perverts” corroding Washington triggered the Lavender Scare, the purge of thousands of gay and lesbian bureaucrats from the Federal government. He scandalized Washington with public drunkenness, boorish treatment of women and violent outbursts; in December 1950 he kicked columnist Drew Pearson in the testicles at the Sulgrave Club, with dozens of journalists and politicians (including Richard Nixon, who implored McCarthy to “let a Quaker stop this fight”) looking on.

However reckless his charges and disgusting his behavior, McCarthy commanded a huge base of support. The Republican Party, with noble exceptions like Margaret Chase Smith and Ralph Flanders, embraced him as an electoral battering ram; Dwight Eisenhower campaigned with McCarthy in 1952, muting his reservations to woo conservative Republicans who’d preferred Robert Taft to him. The press handed McCarthy a megaphone; Walter Lippmann insisted that “McCarthy’s charges…are news which cannot be suppressed or ignored,” regardless of their veracity. Such deference enabled McCarthy to command a 50 percent approval rating nationwide by early 1954.

Eisenhower and McCarthy

McCarthy was hardly the first Red-baiter in American politics; he certainly wasn’t the most effective (Nixon, whose fame began with his investigation of Alger Hiss, and Nevada’s Patrick McCarran, author of bills requiring registration of Communists and increased immigration restrictions, eclipsed him, not to mention J. Edgar Hoover) or even the crudest (that title goes to HUAC’s vile John Rankin). Many of the Red Scare’s worst abuses, like the Smith Act trials of 1949 and the Hollywood blacklist, predated his rise to prominence. As historian Ted Morgan notes, “Until 1953, McCarthy had made explosive speeches, but had not conducted a single investigation.” And those investigations were so poorly conducted that they brought about his downfall.

With Republicans capturing Congress (and the White House) in 1952, McCarthy became head of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations. Specifically, he took a hands-on role in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, receiving a $200,000 budget and leeway to investigate subversion. One of his first acts was to hire Roy Cohn, the twenty-five year old attorney who’d made a name prosecuting both the Rosenbergs and William Remington, a left-wing government economist convicted of perjury and later murdered in prison. McCarthy told Cohn that “I fought this Red issue…I won the election on it, and I don’t see anyone else who intends to take it on…I want you to help me.”

Robert Kennedy, who briefly joined McCarthy’s staff, complained that “no real research was done…Most of the investigations were instituted on the basis of some pre-conceived notion by the chief counsel.” Kennedy, who quit after a shouting match with Cohn, wasn’t the only one appalled by their unseriousness. Most committee hearings consisted of McCarthy ranting incoherently about the Red Menace, or Cohn grilling government officials about their sexuality in sessions as humiliating as they were hypocritical. These hearings so embarrassed McCarthy’s colleagues that many boycotted the sessions, which in turn only served to focus attention on him.

Roy Cohn


So McCarthy’s investigations raged on. His months-long investigation of the Voice of America caused the firing of dozens of employees and the suicide of one broadcaster, Ray Kaplan. He browbeat Annie Lee Moss, an African-American clerk at the Pentagon, for alleged espionage (in reality, historians consider her at most a “casual recruit to the Communist Party” who left before McCarthy’s subpoena) in an encounter that soured even his supporters. Even when he found a genuine security threat, like “librarian spy” Mary Jane Keeney, his inability to present actual evidence prevented their conviction.

McCarthy’s most ill-advised target was the United States Army. He spent months hounding the Army over the promotion of Irving Peress, an Army dentist who had been promoted to Major despite lying about his past membership in the American Labor Party. As David Oshinsky notes, McCarthy for once made a reasonable criticism, showing “that the Army lacked…a clear and consistent policy on the handling of security cases and…the ability to track them…[in] the Pentagon’s swollen bureaucracy.” Peress wasn’t the issue, then, but the Army’s handling of his promotion.

But McCarthy had learned nothing from the Malmedy incident, and didn’t concern himself with the fact that the President had once been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. He berated Peress in a humiliating public hearing and attacked his commanding officer as “a tremendous disgrace to the Army” with “the brains of a five year old child.” When Army Secretary Robert Stevens warned McCarthy to drop the investigation, McCarthy threatened to “kick the brains out of anyone who protects Communists.” For good measure he threatened Eisenhower, adding that he’d amend the “twenty years of treason” under Roosevelt to Truman to “twenty-one years of treason.”

Robert Stevens (center) with officers of the 2nd Armored Division

Eisenhower, who’d previously vowed not to “get in the gutter with that guy,” gingerly asserted his power. He issued a public statement that McCarthy exhibited “disregard of the standards of fair play” in his investigations, and authorized Vice President Nixon to warn McCarthy that “when you go out to shoot rats, you have to shoot straight.” Attempts to gently persuade McCarthy in private led the Senator to conclude that Eisenhower was “asking my advice.” So he continued his crusade against the Army, triggering investigation of civilians working at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, a crusade made even more suspect as most of those questioned were Jewish.

McCarthy’s dislike of the Army paired perfectly with his assistant’s preoccupation. Soon after his hiring, Roy Cohn had hired an aide named David Schine, scion of the Schine Hotel Corporation. Ted Morgan aptly dubbed Schine “Cohn’s dumb blonde,” a callow playboy whose role on the staff was unclear; his only qualification, it appeared, was penning a semi-literate pamphlet on Communism which managed to mangle Lenin’s first name and incorrectly date the Russian Revolution. On the other hand, his good looks and intimacy with Cohn (the two traveled to Europe on committee funds, carrying on like “rowdy fraternity brothers” in hotels and restaurants) led many to conclude that they were lovers.

Regardless of its precise nature, Cohn and Schine’s relationship certainly exceeded the bounds of professional behavior. In November 1953, Schine was drafted into the US Army as a Private and stationed at Fort Dix. Cohn sought preferential treatment for Schine, allowing him passes to leave the base for “committee work.” Schine abused the privilege by regularly traveling to New York with Cohn. The Army tolerated this, but not Cohn’s efforts to earn Schine an officer’s commission. Cohn directly confronted Secretary Stevens, threatening to “wreck the army” if he did not comply.

From left to right: David Schine, McCarthy, Cohn

This time, McCarthy and Cohn overreached. In March 1954 their own subcommittee (with Eisenhower’s blessing) initiated an investigation of their conduct, fueled by a report from Army counsel John G. Adams listing McCarthy’s behavior and Cohn’s improprieties. Cohn accused the Army of “trying to use Dave as a hostage to…stop our hearings,” further claiming that Secretary Stevens tried to bribe him; McCarthy more bluntly stated that “I don’t answer charges, I make them.” McCarthy, already badly wounded by Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now expose of his committee, relished a fight that he knew would determine his future.

The hearings began on April 22, 1954. On the first day of the hearings, McCarthy told a nonplussed Karl Mundt (R-ND) that he wasn’t attacking the Army, merely the “Pentagon politicians” who’d sullied its good name. He abused his senatorial privilege to badger witnesses, insult his enemies and rant about his mistreatment by Stevens and others. At one point, an exasperated Stuart Symington (D-MO) called one of McCarthy’s interjections “out of order.” McCarthy told Symington to “be quiet,” to which Symington snapped that “I haven’t the slightest intention of being quiet.”

Perhaps McCarthy interrupted because he sensed how poorly the hearings reflected on him. Despite his insults, the committee witnesses laid out a damning account of Cohn’s threats and improper behavior. Worse for McCarthy, the hearings were televised. “There was something about these hearings that seemed to affect the public like a habit forming drug,” Army counsel Joseph N. Welch observed, and it didn’t help the Senator. Tens of millions of Americans, many of them previously McCarthy’s supporters, found the experience of watching his sweaty, self-justifying bloviating at length intolerable.

Joseph Welch

Welch, the bow-tie wearing Army counsel, emerged as McCarthy’s foil. A seasoned attorney from Boston, told an aide that “a million dollars couldn’t buy all [this] publicity!” and played his role to the hilt. His tone of wry amusement contrasted beautifully against McCarthy’s snarling vindictiveness, eliciting laughter from the committee’s audience. Questioning Cohn about a photograph featuring Secretary Stevens, Schine and a Colonel Bradley, he remarked that “if Bradley is feeling good about a steak dinner, Schine must be considering a whole haunch of beef.” Cohn’s evasiveness led McCarthy to proclaim his aide “the worst witness I ever heard in my life.”

In their direct clashes, Welch almost invariably won the day. At one point, he jokingly asked a witness whether “a pixie” had reproduced a key document. “Will counsel for my benefit please define – I think he might be an expert on that – what a pixie is?” McCarthy asked. Without missing a beat, Welch replied that “a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” This exercise in mutual gay-baiting didn’t reflect well on either man, but Welch’s remark earned laughter while McCarthy could only sputter in his own defense.

fisher - Edited
Frederick Fisher

The climax came in early June. Welch had hired two principal assistants from his law firm, James St. Clair (who, decades later, represented Richard Nixon during his impeachment hearings) and Frederick Fisher. Fisher had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which had once been named a subversive organization by the Attorney General. After discussing it with Welch and St. Clair, Fisher agreed to “return to Boston as soon as possible,” leaving his place on Welch’s staff back in April. Someone, probably the FBI, fed this story to McCarthy, who threatened to reveal Fisher’s “subversive” past.

Welch approached Roy Cohn on June 7th. According to Cohn, Welch threatened to reveal Cohn’s efforts to avoid military service in World War II; the two attorneys worked out a deal where neither Cohn nor McCarthy would mention Fisher’s association with the Guild, so long as Welch kept a lid on Cohn’s draft dodging. Cohn later recalled that he gave McCarthy “a full account of my conversation with Welch and the agreement into which I had entered.” McCarthy, by Cohn’s account at least, “approved the trade.”

McCarthy being McCarthy

This agreement lasted two days. During another heated exchange between Cohn and Welch, the Army counsel pressed Cohn about his inaction over the perceived subversive threat at Fort Monmouth. “If I told you now that we had a bad situation at Monmouth,” Welch pressed, “you would want to cure it by sundown, if you could, wouldn’t you?” A nonplussed Cohn responded, “what I would like to do and what can be done are two different things. Welch, David Oshinsky notes, “had a way of squeezing these things to death” and the exchange dragged on interminably. To television viewers, it seemed like nothing more than another joust between two men thoroughly sick of each other.

When Welch facetiously asked Cohn if he knew about Communists anywhere in government, “will you tell somebody quick?” Senator McCarthy leaped in. Between insulting Welch as “an actor” trying to “burlesque this hearing,” he asserted that Welch “has in his law firm a young man whom he recommended…to do work on this committee, who has been for a number of years which was named…as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party.”

Now Welch asked for a point of privilege (which Karl Mundt, appalled by McCarthy’s outburst, granted). Barely containing his emotion, Welch told McCarthy that “until this moment…I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” He tearfully recapitulated his discussions with Fisher and the latter’s decision to leave the hearings. “Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do injury to that lad,” Welch complained. “If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I am gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”


McCarthy, who hadn’t even pretended to listen to Welch’s speech (he spent much of it chatting with a reporter and loudly shuffling his papers), rounded on the counsel. “Mr. Welch talks about this being reckless and cruel!” he scoffed, accusing him of “baiting Mr. Cohn for hours.” About this, at least, McCarthy wasn’t entirely wrong (Cohn, who realized that “the Senator had played squarely into Joe Welch’s hands,” could only shake his head in silence) but his abusive tone overrode his criticism. Certainly McCarthy wasn’t clever enough to realize what was happening, for he tried to resume his denunciation of Fisher.

That did it. Welch, tears streaming down his face, implored McCarthy to “drop this” and insisted he meant “no personal injury” to Cohn. Then he turned back to McCarthy, with an admonition that echoed through the ages. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator…Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?”

Amazingly, McCarthy regrouped for another round. He ignored a note from Cohn saying that “this is not going to do any good” and insisted that “I would like to finish this,” ranting that Welch had tried to “foist [Fisher] on this committee.” This time, Karl Mundt interjected, insisting that “he does not believe Mr. Welch recommended Mr. Fisher as counsel for this committee.” Finally, Welch silenced McCarthy a final admonishment that “I will not discuss this further with you.”

welch bowtie

The effect was almost instantaneous. The onlookers, astonished by the histrionics they’d just witnessed, burst into thunderous applause, leaving McCarthy baffled and Welch overwhelmed. After Mundt declared a recess, a flabbergasted McCarthy wandered into the hall, asking “What did I do?” to no one in particular. Welch better appreciated what had happened. Another attorney encountered him soon afterwards: “without changing expression, the tears still streaming down his cheeks, [Welch] asked, ‘Well, how did it go?'”

The hearings continued for a few more days; McCarthy himself appeared on the stand the following day. His ramblings about Communism added little to what came before, though the hearing had its own oddities. Ralph Flanders, the Vermont Senator who’d been an early opponent of McCarthy, materialized during the hearing with a letter, notifying McCarthy of an upcoming speech criticizing him. McCarthy, unable to control himself, insisted that Flanders remain in committee and testify under oath – about what, no one was clear.

Roy Cohn, furious over his boss’s unraveling, took out his frustrations another way. After McCarthy’s testimony, he encountered Bobby Kennedy, now working for Democratic Senator Scoop Jackson. “Tell Jackson that we’re going to get him on Monday,” Cohn sneered, alluding to “letters he wrote…on behalf of two known Communists.” Kennedy snapped, “You’ve got a fucking nerve threatening me.” The two men nearly came to blows until colleagues separated them; Cohn and Kennedy remained enemies until Kennedy’s death fourteen years later.

cohn kennedy
McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy

Soon afterwards, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy; the public abandoned him, and McCarthy slipped into drunken, self-destructive oblivion. When McCarthy died on May 2nd, 1957 he’d become completely irrelevant; his public self-destruction remained his legacy. Joseph Welch became a liberal hero after the hearings, culminating in an appearance in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1958), a tribute as much to his histrionics as his legal skill. David Schine took over his father’s hotel business; his most notable achievement, post-McCarthy, was executive producing The French Connection (1971). Roy Cohn left public service, moved to New York and spent the next three decades as an attorney to that city’s rich, powerful and crooked.

The Army-McCarthy hearings, as they became known, were immortalized in Emile de Antonio’s 1964 documentary Point of Order; they were also fictionalized in a 1977 television film, Tail Gunner Joe, featuring Peter Boyle as McCarthy and Burgess Meredith as Welch. It’s possible to make too much of them, as with McCarthy himself; the hearings helped end McCarthy’s career, but did little to reverse the damage and other Red-baiters had wrought, the repercussions of which remain with us. Undoubtedly, though, there are few moments in modern American history with the same dramatic power and formal neatness; history rendered as morality play.

mccarthy welch

Sources and Further Reading:

This article draws upon Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth Century America (2003); David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (1983); and Robert Shogan, No Sense of Decency: The Army-McCarthy Hearings, a Demagogue Falls and Television Takes Charge of American Politics (2009).