"No Sense of Decency" Welch v. McCarthy: A Smear Undone

Fifty-five years ago, on June 9, 1954, in one of the most famous moments in Cold War history, Joseph N. Welch, an attorney representing the US Army, confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy during a televised hearing, with the memorable question:

Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

The dramatic moment marked a turning point in the so-called McCarthy Era. It came during one of the first nationally televised Senate hearings, known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy had told a women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he held, "here in my hand," a list of men in the State Department named as members of the Communist Party who were part of a spy ring. The numbers changed from day to day, and even McCarthy wasn't sure where he had gotten them. In the following days, the emptiness of McCarthy's "evidence" should have ended his Senate career. But it didn't work out that way. In 1950, America was more than ready to believe what Senator McCarthy had to say. He became one of the most powerful and feared men in Washington as the hunt for Communists in government and the media consumed the country.

In 1954, McCarthy took up a battle that turned against him when he challenged the U.S. Army to purge supposed Communists from the Pentagon. With the assistance of Roy Cohn, a young attorney whom McCarthy had earlier dispatched overseas to eradicate "communistic books" from U.S. International Information Administration libraries, McCarthy had begun to attack certain army officers as Communists. Once again he captivated the public imagination with his charges. But this time he overreached. The Army was President Eisenhower's turf. Eisenhower and the army started to hit back, first by investigating David Schine, Roy Cohn's wealthy companion on his book-purge trip, who, having subsequently been drafted into the army, had used McCarthy's influence to win soft military assignments. Cohn denied rumors that he and Schine were anything more than friends.

During the thirty-six days of the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy came undone. The hearings dissolved as Joseph Welch, the respected lawyer representing the Army, turned the tables on McCarthy and routed him in public. In March 1954, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow produced his "Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy," further damaging McCarthy. (Murrow's battle with McCarthy is recounted in the film Good Night and Good Luck.) By the end of 1954, McCarthy was condemned by his peers, and his public support eroded.

His hold on the Senate and the public gone, McCarthy spiraled downward in a drunken tailspin. He died in May 1957 of health problems brought on by alcoholism. Joseph Welch died in 1960. Roy Cohn died of complications from AIDS in 1986.

Read more about the Cold War and the McCarthy era in Don't Know Much About History