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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Army-McCarthy Hearings, April 22, 1954

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Today in 1954, what came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings began in Washington, DC. The hearings are important to us today because they were the first Congressional hearings to be televised from beginning to end and they marked the beginning of the demise of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the man who lent his name to the term "McCarthyism".

By 1950, the Cold War was well under way. In the United States, talk of potential Soviet domination in Europe and elsewhere was constant and pervasive. Thus was the mindset of the nation when, in February 1950, Senator McCarthy charged that there were over 200 known communists working in the US State Department. The accusation shook the nation and thrust McCarthy to the center of the national stage. Over the next four years, he made many more such accusations against groups and individuals. While some of the people he accused of being communists were probably guilty of the charge, his methods and manner were crude and sloppy. But he was useful to the Republican Party as long as a Democrat, in this case Harry Truman, was in the White House.

The elections of November, 1952 brought Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, to the Oval Office. McCarthy's accusations, once useful, were now an embarrassment. Despite this, and despite advice to the contrary, the Senator prepared a new investigation, this time aimed at the Army. The incident that prompted the investigation was the drafting of a McCarthy consultant, David Schine, into the Army in November, 1953. It's important to keep in mind that an active military draft existed in the United States from the 1940 until 1973, so it was not at all unusual for an adult male of draft age to be called up for duty. What made Schine different was that he work for McCarthy.

Roy Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel, contacted personnel throughout the Army chain of command in an attempt to secure Schine what would later be called "special privileges". In March, 1954, the Army released a document which chronicled Cohn's actions on behalf of Schine, a move that caused McCarthy to respond by claiming that Schine was being held hostage by the military so as to prevent his committee from investigating communists in the ranks. In order to break the deadlock between the Army and McCarthy, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was chaired by McCarthy, voted to investigate. They also agreed to something that McCarthy would later regret: TV cameras would be allowed into the hearing. So he could be both a contestant and a witness, McCarthy relinquished the chairmanship of the committee to Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota.

The hearings lasted 36 days. Two of the four television networks in existence in 1954 covered every moment, totaling more than 188 hours. It didn't take long for the American people to become familiar with the main characters of the political play. There was Senator McCarthy, who came across as boorish and disorganized and his counsel Roy Cohn, who often looked tired. On the other side was Joseph Welch, a Boston attorney hired by the Army to serve as that branch's special counsel. Welch was from a different era; he was calm, disarming, even fatherly. He only lost his composure one time during the hearings, that being on June 9, 1954 when McCarthy insinuated that one of the lawyers working at Welch's legal firm was a communist sympathizer. Welch defended the young man with a monologue nearly six minutes long, ending in these famous lines:

"Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness....Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

Even though the hearing continued, for the American people it ended that day in June. The Army hearings ended a few weeks later with no grand pronouncements and no stunning conclusions. No charges were filed against anyone in the Army, either soldier or civilian. McCarthy had struck out for the last time. In December, 1954 the Senate voted to censure him for his conduct; while his career continued, his power was gone. Joseph McCarthy died from the complications of alcoholism on May 2, 1957.

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