Joseph Nye Welch of Waltham, MA served as the chief counsel for the United States Army when it came under attack by Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee on Investigations for alleged infiltration by Communists. He was a child of English immigrants, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a senior partner at Boston law firm Hale and Dorr. On June 9, 1954, the 30th day of the nationally-televised hearings, McCarthy accused Fred Fisher, a junior attorney at Welch’s law firm, of associating with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover accused of being a Communist front organization.
American fear of Communism reached a hysterical level in the aftermath of WWII. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed United States Executive Order 9835, under which millions of federal employees were interrogated by government loyalty boards about books and magazines they read, organizations to which they belonged, and their religious affiliations.
In 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy mounted an attack on President Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, claiming to have a list of 205 State Department employees who were members of the Communist Party. By this point Truman had come to despise McCarthy, and in response to a reporter’s question, replied, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.” In April, 1953, President Eisenhower revoked Executive Order 9835, but Senator McCarthy had no intention to stop his “Communist witch-hunt.”
Before a nationwide television audience, Joseph Welch attacked McCarthy with the following words:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”
When McCarthy tried to renew his attack, Welch interrupted 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?
When McCarthy attempted to ask Welch another question about Fisher, Welch interrupted:
“Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have seen fit to bring it out. And if there is a God in Heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further. I will not ask Mr. Cohn any more questions. You, Mr. Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.”
The confrontation between McCarthy and Joseph Welch is credited as a turning point in this sad period of American history. On March 9, 1954, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow exposed Joseph McCarthy with the following words:
“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 — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.
As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.
And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’”
On December 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate voted 65 to 22 to condemn Senator Joseph R. McCarthy for conduct unbecoming of a senator. He had destroyed the reputations and careers of many innocent government officials and civilians by charging them with being Communists or homosexuals.
Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, whose campaign had received contributions from McCarthy, was in the hospital at the time of the vote. Asked by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. why he avoided criticism of McCarthy, Kennedy replied, “Half my people in Massachusetts look on McCarthy as a hero.” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that when reporters asked him how he would have voted, he failed to express an opinion.
In the Congressional elections of November 1954, the Democrats regained control of the Senate. The Republican leadership stripped McCarthy of his committee chairmanship, and whenever McCarthy would enter a room, any other Senators present would leave. Joseph McCarthy remained in the Senate until his death in 1957, at the age of 48 of acute hepatitis exacerbated by alcoholism. Joseph Nye Welch went on to have an acting career, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Anatomy of A Murder. He died in 1960 of a heart attack at the age of 70.