Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Have You No Decency, Sir? The Senate Votes to Condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy

On December 2, 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was condemned by the Senate for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." Senator McCarthy had made a name for himself by arguing that there were communists within the State department and various branches of the federal government. On February 9, 1950, he gave a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia in which he held up a piece of paper and claimed it contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department. No audio recording survived of this meeting, so there is some dispute as to whether he said the list had 205 or 57 names. Either way, the press picked up the story and his “Wheeling speech” helped to propel him to greater fame.

While a member of the senate, McCarthy led committee investigations trying to rout out communism within the government. For the most part, he ended up isolating himself from the other senators (including those in his own party) and not providing much evidence for his claims. While the public may have entertained some of his claims out of fear, public opinion began to turn against him in 1954. The Journalist Edward R. Murrow ran two programs that were very critical of McCarthy and his message. In the conclusion of the first program, Murrow offered a strong rebuke to McCarthy and McCarthyism:

His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.

The Senate also began investigating McCarthy and called some of his actions into question. In the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Senate investigated to see whether McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, had pressured the army to favor a friend of Cohn’s serving as a private. In the course of the hearings, McCarthy had a famous exchange with Joseph Nye Welch, the army’s chief legal representative. Welch challenged Cohn to provide a list of names of communist sympathizers in defense plants “before the sun goes down.” Before Cohn could answer, McCarthy stepped in and told Welch if he was so concerned about the identities of those aiding the communist party, then he should check his own firm. He then accused Fred Fisher, a man in Welch’s firm of being a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which McCarthy said was sympathetic to communists. This led Welch to make an impassioned defense of Fisher and a strong rebuke of McCarthy asking, “have you no decency sir?”. The video of the exchange is posted below (cut into two parts).

Public opinion continued to turn against McCarthy and the Senate voted to condemn him on December 2, 1954, which effectively ended his political career. President Eisenhower was pleased to see the demise of McCarthy, as he had been a longtime opponent of his methods. He is said to have remarked to his aides, “McCarthyism is now McCarthywasm.”

[Image via tufts, wisconsinhistory, gordspoetryfactory]

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