On this day in 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is firmly rebuffed and eventually finished by courtly U.S. Army general counsel Joseph Welch on national television, marking the truest end of McCarthy’s self-serving anti-communist crusade. In defense of a young Harvard attorney and Republican at his own law firm, who had been chosen as McCarthy’s newest victim, Welch elegantly turned on the brusque Senator, stating “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” With those words, the McCarthy spell was broken, as was his career.
The following December, McCarthy was censured by the the full Senate, a rare disciplinary rebuke which passed 67-22; less than three years after the incident, the disgraced McCarthy died of complications from hepatitis and alcoholism.
McCarthy was born in 1908 on a farm in the town of Grand Chute in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, the fifth of seven scrapping Irish children. Leaving junior high school at 14, McCarthy eventually graduated high school at 20, and somehow managed to earn a law degree from Marquette University.
Supplementing his lawyer’s income with gambling winnings, McCarthy unseated a 24-year sitting circuit judge by lying about the incumbent’s age and mental state. As to McCarthy’s own judicial career, noted historian Ted Morgan wrote “Pompous and condescending, he was disliked by lawyers. He had been reversed often by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and he was so inefficient that he had piled up a huge backlog of cases.”
In 1942 McCarthy joined the Marine Corps to further festoon his political career, and though he served as an intelligence officer, he volunteered for observer status for 12 missions in a dive-bomber squadron; this justified his self-styled moniker “Tail-Gunner Joe.” Years later as a sitting senator, the USMC knowingly awarded McCarthy two medals for his service based upon apocryphal evidence; one for a leg injury actually sustained in ship-board drunk-fest, and another from a forged letter ostensibly from Adm. Chester Nimitz.
McCarthy won his Senate seat in the 1946 primary by claiming incumbent Sen. Robert J. La Follette, Jr. (R-WI) was a draft-dodging chicken and a war profiteer (La Follette was 46 when Pearl Harbor was attacked). His first three years in the Senate being entirely unremarkable, McCarthy decided to again “shake things up.” On February 9, 1950, he gave a Lincoln Day speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, famously and falsely claiming “The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party.”
Planting poison trees on fertile, frightened ground, with plenty of manure from his own mouth, McCarthy railed against anything and anyone, building his own legend on the bones of the unwitting, often with the help of Trump-family consigliere Roy Cohn. However, he failed to relent in his scorched-earth tactics, and with an election crop featuring more rational Republicans, by 1953 McCarthy’s career finally began a decline. Even some moderate Republicans publicly withdrew their support from him because they felt he was harming the presidential administration. Despite this waning support, however, President Eisenhower refrained from publicly reprimanding McCarthy, as IKE did not want to “go to the gutter” with the Senator.
While the nadir of the demagogue’s career was so deftly delivered by Welch, the hearings were not the only components which destroyed McCarthy’s credibility. Earlier in 1954, journalist Edward R. Murrow had aired a documentary showing how McCarthy’s charges were groundless and how he had used bullying techniques to harass and destroy individuals. By June, the senator’s Gallup Poll ratings fell from 50% to 34%, showing that roughly 35% of the public is so thick they will buy nearly anything, from nearly anyone.
Though it sadly required the ruination of countless lives and careers, McCarthy went zombie; the press that had once recorded his every word now ignored him, and outside speaking engagements dwindled almost to nothing. Even Eisenhower, finally freed of McCarthy’s putrid pall, quipped to his cabinet that McCarthyism was now “McCarthywasm.”
And here the familiar lesson of bluster, bullies and improbity endeth.