President Trump’s critique of Khizr and Ghazala Khan back in 2016 was supposed to be it—our “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” moment. More recently, the last straw was supposed to be when Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to answer CNN’s Brian Karem after he asked whether she had any “empathy” for separated immigrant families. Then it was supposed to be FBI agent Peter Strzok “destroying” the House Judiciary and Oversight committees. Every day, we yearn for this kind of release—for an upright man to ride into town and deal the dragon a killing blow, to the general jubilation of the populace. But we’re not going to get that moment, and it’s not just because, as James Traub wrote in the Atlantic after the Strzok hearing, our present-day partisan split has rendered the GOP shameless. It’s also because that moment isn’t quite what we remember.
During the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in June 1954, Army counsel Joseph Welch famously asked that question of Sen. Joseph McCarthy after McCarthy brought up the details of a young lawyer’s past membership in a left-wing professional association accused of communism. We tend to recall the query as a narrative coup de grâce coming out of nowhere. But the “no sense of decency” line worked because most of McCarthy’s party, at that point, was finally done with him. The Army-McCarthy hearings were a product of President Eisenhower’s decision to try to curb McCarthy’s power. Bringing McCarthy down required the leveraging of moderate Republican distaste for McCarthy’s personality and methods, the novelty of the televised hearings, and a little bit of sexual panic. In the course of the proceedings, the senator’s enemies used Cold War homophobia—which McCarthy had gleefully amplified in his own crusades—against him, making insinuations about relationships between members of his staff. That’s a factor that makes Welch’s takedown, powerful though it was, look a little less righteous.
The end of McCarthy, which we remember as so satisfyingly final, did not actually mean the end of McCarthyism. Anti-Communist crusading began before McCarthy took it up, and it persisted in various forms, perpetrated by politicians of both parties, long after he was censured in December 1954 and died in 1957. And if you look at some of McCarthy’s other populist political tools—his twisting of the truth, his hatred for “elitist” intellectualism, his insider-outsider “true American” rhetoric—it becomes clear that we’ve still got plenty of McCarthyism with us today.
Historians have tried very hard to convince us that McCarthy’s witch hunting was not that much of an aberration and that we shouldn’t smash all of 20th-century anti-communism into a McCarthyism box. The first Red Scare, after World War I, had culminated in Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer rounding up leftists and radicals and deporting some, all while McCarthy was still a kid on his parents’ farm in Wisconsin. By the time Sen. McCarthy gave his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950, claiming to have the names of hundreds of Communists working in the State Department, “the Second Red Scare was well under way,” historian David Oshinksy writes in his biography of the senator. “It had become the focal point for Republican attacks upon Democrats, conservative attacks upon liberals, and congressional assaults upon the Executive branch.” For most of his opponents in the establishment, McCarthy’s project was fine; his style and methods were the problem. As historian Ellen Schrecker puts it in her book on McCarthyism, “in the eyes of many of the nation’s political elites, the Wisconsin senator was bad, but he wasn’t wrong.”
In March 1950, a month after the Wheeling speech, the Senate established a Foreign Relations Subcommittee to follow up on McCarthy’s accusations about the State Department. Starting in December of that year, McCarthy worked with the Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada, a Democrat and anti-Communist who proved to be an ally. During these early years of McCarthy’s crusade, when Harry Truman was still in the White House, his Republican colleagues in the Senate were ambivalent about McCarthyism. “There was a good deal of silent opposition, centered largely in the party’s moderate Eastern wing,” Oshinsky writes. But a general feeling that the Cold War was going poorly in the wake of the Communist Party’s 1949 takeover in China, coupled with a real belief that the government was full of security risks, contributed to a certain degree of tolerance for McCarthy’s methods. Robert Taft of Ohio, the leading Republican in the Senate, was, as historian Heather Cox Richardson writes in her history of the Republican Party, “the one man who might have toned down McCarthy’s extremism.” Taft privately expressed distaste for McCarthy and preferred not to be associated with him in public, yet found his antics a useful tool in waging Taft’s own personal war against Truman’s State Department.
Only a few months after McCarthy’s Wheeling speech, freshman Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a moderate Republican from Maine, gave a speech condemning McCarthy’s methods, which she called the “Declaration of Conscience.” This was the first public anti-McCarthy proclamation by a politician, one that could have been the “no sense of decency” moment but wasn’t—because the party wasn’t ready. Smith penned what we might now call an “epic takedown” of McCarthy without ever mentioning him by name. “The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents,” Smith wrote. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America.”
McCarthy called Smith and the senators who co-sponsored her declaration “Snow White and the Six Dwarves”—a gendered insult to his colleagues’ power and self-determination that was typical of the way he spoke. Millard Tydings, the conservative Democrat who had publicly opposed McCarthy after his subcommittee found that the senator’s first accusations of the State Department were unsubstantiated, got called a “Commiecrat” and an “egg-sucking liberal” for his trouble. McCarthy accused the State Department of practicing “powder puff diplomacy” and said that “Communists and queers … have the American people in a hypnotic trance.” His opponents were always dupes and weaklings, while he was the “real man” who knew the score.
And his opponents found it difficult to stand against this onslaught. Smith’s co-sponsors, six moderate senators, drifted away one by one after her “Declaration of Conscience” (all except Wayne Morse of Oregon), and she eventually backed down from her opposition to McCarthy’s methods. Tydings lost his election in 1950, after McCarthy’s people smeared him by distributing a composite image suggesting he was an ally of American Communist Party leader Earl Browder.
Another missed chance at a “no sense of decency” moment came in 1951. Throughout the four years of his influence, the press struggled to cover McCarthy’s outlandish accusations without spreading them further. Five months after he took up the anti-Communist cause, McCarthy was famous, on the cover of Newsweek and Time, and all over the front pages of newspapers. Standards of objectivity and relevance demanded that outlets cover McCarthy, and reporters loved him; “he was bizarre, unpredictable, entertaining, and always newsworthy,” Oshinsky writes.
But there were some early journalistic attempts to puncture his power. In October 1951, McCarthy was on the cover of Time with the cover line “Demagogue McCarthy.” Time-Life chairman Henry Luce—“a ferocious anti-Communist” himself, Oshinsky writes—hated McCarthy’s methods and thought that the time was ripe to attempt a takedown. McCarthy retaliated to the negative coverage by writing letters to corporations telling them that Time was “pro-Communist” and asking whether they wanted to do business with such a publication.
After Republicans took the White House in a landslide in 1952, McCarthy, who had campaigned with an uneasy Dwight Eisenhower, carried right on investigating government officials. You might assume that a switch from a Democratic to a Republican White House would drastically change McCarthy’s approach, since he had aligned himself against Truman and his State Department for so long. But McCarthy was in motion, and it seemed that he couldn’t be stopped. Eisenhower responded, at first, by doing nothing. “I had made up my mind how I was going to handle McCarthy,” he said in a later interview. “This was to ignore him. … I would give him no satisfaction. I’d never defend anything. I don’t care what he called me, or mentioned, or put in the papers. I’d just ignore him.” This was a matter of manners but also of strategy; in 1953 the Senate was split 48–47 in favor of the Republicans, and the president couldn’t expect to be able to fight McCarthy without losing traction on his legislative goals.
In early 1953, McCarthy became the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—his most powerful post yet. In July 1953, his opposition began to see ways to weaken him. The senator’s research director, J.B. Matthews, published an article in the conservative periodical American Mercury titled “Reds and Our Churches.” “The largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States today is comprised of Protestant clergymen,” the article began; at least 7,000 of them, Matthews wrote, were reds. McCarthy, it seems, didn’t know about the article in advance; as historian Robert S. Ellwood writes, McCarthy “had always been careful to keep religion and religious figures out of his inquiries,” perhaps because, as a Catholic and thus a member of a minority religion still sometimes demonized in public life, he knew he was vulnerable in that area. The National Committee for an Effective Congress, a liberal group looking for a way to curb McCarthy, made sure copies of Matthews’ article made their way to the press. Democratic lawmakers rebelled against Matthews, and Eisenhower condemned him—the first time, Ellwood writes, that “Ike had so pointedly and publicly rebuked McCarthy and his works.”
In 1953, the events that would bring McCarthy down for real were set in motion. At the behest of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s brilliant (and diabolical) young right-hand investigator, G. David Schine joined McCarthy’s staff. Schine was a handsome 25-year-old who had swept through life on gusts of family money. At Harvard, he displayed it ostentatiously. The Harvard Crimson wrote that Schine had “an exquisitely furnished room, a valet, a big black convertible equipped with a two-way phone–radio and a fabulous electric phonograph.” Cohn and Schine were inseparable, and the press noticed—beginning at least in April 1953, when they took a tour of Europe to visit libraries run by the International Information Administration and survey their collections for Communist-friendly material. The two men spent and shopped and roughhoused in hotel lobbies; columnists who had criticized McCarthy in the past took the opportunity to depict the tour as a display of the kind of masculine intimacy that Americans in the 1950s wouldn’t accept.
In the summer of 1953, Schine was drafted. Cohn began calling the Army to get his friend special favors: an assignment that would keep him geographically close to Cohn, a better commission, freedom from undesirable duties like kitchen patrol. Somewhat contemporaneously, the McCarthy subcommittee turned its spotlight on the Army, looking for security weaknesses in its ranks. This conflict between McCarthy and the Army—an institution beloved by Eisenhower, and many Americans—was the occasion for the Army-McCarthy hearings, the perfect setting for Welch to deal his killing blow.
In March 1954, the Army released the Adams chronology, a list of instances when Cohn had intervened on Schine’s behalf. Two days before, Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly decided to run the famous “McCarthy episode” of their See It Now program, which they had readied and held for an opportune moment. In his book on McCarthyism and television, historian Thomas Doherty calls the close timing of the Adams chronology and the See It Now report “suspiciously coincidental,” pointing out that Murrow had connections everywhere and may have gotten tipped to the imminent release of the Army’s report. “Attacked from two directions,” Doherty writes, “McCarthy was caught in a cultural pincer movement: a media posse, led by Murrow, and a military brigade, orchestrated offstage by the Eisenhower administration.”
“A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” went live on March 9, 1954. The special juxtaposed quotes from McCarthy’s record, highlighting his hypocrisy and inconsistency, fact-checking his accusations, and including clips that showed him bullying and tormenting witnesses. Murrow ended the show with a rousing speech: “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.”
This Murrow special was a little teaser for the Army-McCarthy hearings of the following months. TV penetration went from a tenth of the population in 1949, when McCarthy first came into office, to two-thirds by the end of 1954. Previous hearings where McCarthy appeared got only intermittent TV coverage, but in the course of the almost two months of Army-McCarthy hearings, Heather Richardson writes, “up to twenty million people watched McCarthy bully, evade, attack, and lie.” Even without the cathartic “no sense of decency” line, the cumulative effect of seeing McCarthy in action, pugnaciously defending his investigators against the Army’s charges of corruption, seems to have changed people’s minds. By June 1954, McCarthy’s Gallup approval ratings had fallen to 34 percent, from their January level of 50 percent.
Was it just the bullying and aggression that turned people away, though? The televised hearings gave McCarthy’s critics another chance to imply that something was off about his relationships with his staff. “One of the most enduring images of that era is a photograph of McCarthy’s aide, Roy Cohn, whispering in the senator’s ear,” historian Andrea Friedman writes.
“In 1954, the pose was already iconic.” Friedman argues that what happened to McCarthy was a “sexual smearing” as well as a well-deserved political comeuppance. She points out that while McCarthy wove a fetishization of male “toughness” and anti-queerness into his anti-Communism, Cold War liberals were far from righteous, by today’s standards, when it came to the question of homophobia. Anti-McCarthy coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings focused on the “triangle” of McCarthy, Cohn, and Schine. The way Cohn whispered into McCarthy’s ear made it seem that the senator was controlled by a mere boy—“irrationally tied to Cohn, inexplicably loyal to him, dependent upon and dominated by him,” as Friedman puts it.
One part of our treasured memory is true. It was clear, when Welch asked McCarthy if he had “no sense of decency” on a random day two-thirds of the way through the hearings, that the attorney for the Army had scored a point. The room erupted in applause. “McCarthy,” Oshinsky writes, “knew he had come off poorly, but he did not seem to understand why. ‘What did I do?’ he kept asking the people around him. ‘What did I do?’ ”
But the enduring importance of the “no sense of decency” line was cemented in history, Doherty argues, by the narrative choices made by Emile de Antonio in his 1964 documentary Point of Order. De Antonio used archival CBS footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings to make a 97-minute movie, restructuring hours of hearings into a story. The hearings themselves went on for days after the famous Welch-McCarthy faceoff, but in the movie, “no sense of decency” is the climax. The well-received film became a source for future coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings, transmitting its massaging of the narrative on down the line.
If McCarthy hadn’t been brought down in this particular way, there would have been some other moment of breakage. Domestic Cold War tensions were easing anyway, Oshinsky argues, as the Earl Warren Supreme Court defended the rights of political dissidents and circumscribed Congress’ investigative powers in a series of cases in the mid-1950s. And it’s not like the McCarthy faithful went away completely. They rallied for Joe in a crowd of 13,000 at Madison Square Garden in late November 1954, as the Senate debated censuring him, and wrote in to Congress to decry the move. A senator read some of their letters into the record:
Red Skunk. You are not fit to clean Senator McCarthy’s shoes. Hope you are struck by God. […]
I am an ex-marine who fought in the South Pacific, to open the gates of this Nation for the commie Jews that Hitler did not kill?
Heather Richardson argues that after his downfall, the right wing of his party took copious notes from McCarthy. “McCarthy and his investigations had shown activists within the Taft wing of the Republican Party that they could advance an agenda by use of fiction,” she writes, “as long as that fiction spoke to Americans’ fears and could be kept from open scrutiny.”
All of this history is why the memory of the “no sense of decency” line brings me no hope today. If you buy Friedman’s theory that the Army-McCarthy hearings were colored with homophobic innuendo from the left—and I do—then the “decency” line doesn’t look so noble after all. And other contextual reasons for its effectiveness aren’t available to us now. We can’t exploit the novelty factor of those televised hearings; voters have long had access to every horrid clip and GIF. Neither do we have the ambient political support that made the Welch takedown possible; recall that the president himself, working behind the scenes, set up the investigation that gave Welch his opportunity. The left has no such ally against Trump today. But most of all, Welch’s line “killed” McCarthy, but it didn’t kill McCarthyism. We’re still living with it, and no strong-jawed knight will save us.