On this day in 1954, one of our nation’s most infamous demagogues had his career come to a symbolic end. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose name has now become synonymous with political persecution, rose from a relatively unremarkable junior Senator to a national figure by claiming to have knowledge of widespread Communist infiltration in the US government. However, McCarthy’s quick rise to acclaim was met with an even swifter fall. In January 1954, 50% of Americans had a positive opinion of McCarthy. By June of that same year, only 34% did.
What happened? Popular histories of the rise and fall of the Wisconsin fearmonger attribute this to a single event. Like most major shifts, there were probably multiple factors in play, but this moment has burned a mark into our historic conscience.
While McCarthy had been claiming Communist infiltration in the government, in 1954 the US Army accused McCarthy of asking for special favors for a former aide and friend. In true McCarthy style, McCarthy claimed the accusation was part of a plot to retaliate against him for investigating communism in the military.
A three-month series of hearings (“the Army-McCarthy hearings”) ensued. These hearings were broadcast live “gavel to gavel” on TV, a first for any Congressional hearing, with an estimated audience of twenty million Americans.
The moment that is most remembered is when McCarthy began badgering the Boston-based attorney Joseph Welch, who was acting as counsel for the army. Welch knew what McCarthy was going to do—bring up that a young associate in his law firm had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild while a student at Harvard Law School*. When McCarthy brought this up, Welch said, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.”
When McCarthy tried to raise the issue again, Welch said, with McCarthy repeatedly interrupting him,
Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers’ Guild[….] 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?
McCarthy, not knowing when to quit, tried to launch into the issue a third time, receiving yet another passionate retort from Welch. When Welch said “ Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you […] I will not discuss it further. I will not ask, Mr. Cohn, any more witnesses. You, Mr. Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.” The gallery erupted in applause.
The line “have you no sense of decency” has come to be identified as the moment that ended McCarthy’s career once and for all.
It important to remember though, that while McCarthyism has become the term used to describe the climate of political repression during the Second Red Scare (and now political repression generally), McCarthyism did not begin nor end with McCarthy. The climate of political intimidation and fear was already in place, based on reckless claims that Communists had infiltrated the State Department and other government positions. McCarthy was merely tapping into these fears.
After McCarthy, McCarthyism most often brings to mind the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), despite McCarthy having no direct involvement with the committee. HUAC was founded in 1938 and abolished in 1975.
While McCarthy went after alleged communist infiltrators in the government, HUAC more broadly felt the need to police the political ideologies of private citizens, such as when it undertook an investigation into individuals employed in Hollywood who were members of the Communist Party or investigated the peace group “Women Strike for Peace.”
Before HUAC, there was J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Hoover got his start as head of the Department of Justice’s “Radical Division,” which infamously was behind the Palmer Raids. When the Radical Division became the FBI they continued to make it one of their top priorities to police dissent. This included both the FBI’s “Security Index,” which ran from 1938 to 1978 and its infamous COINTELPRO which ran from 1956 to 1971. And, of course, while Hoover is dead the FBI still exists today and still policies dissent.