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On This Day: Army-McCarthy Hearings Televised

Last updated: December 19, 2022

On April 22, 1954, U.S. television networks began broadcasting the Army-McCarthy hearings, often credited with the political downfall of the anti-communist senator.

“Have You No Sense of Decency?”

Since a 1950 speech in which he claimed to have a list of known communists in the State Department, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy had gained notoriety as a rabid anti-communist intent on using any means necessary to expose the “reds” within the U.S. government.

In 1953, he began an investigation into the Army, accusing it of harboring communists. The Army fought back, charging that McCarthy was requesting special privileges for a former aide, G. David Schine, while McCarthy countered that the Army was just trying to cover up the communists in its ranks.

McCarthy was brought before the Senate to respond to the Army’s accusations. The Army-McCarthy Hearings began behind closed doors on March 16, 1954. These executive sections were kept secret from the public until transcripts were released in 2003.

On April 22, the hearings were opened to the public, and the ABC and DuMont networks began their 36-day coverage. It was the first ever nationally televised congressional inquiry.

On television, McCarthy came across as bullying, ill-mannered and deceitful. In a famous exchange, McCarthy mentioned that Fred Fisher, a member of Army attorney Joseph Welch’s law firm, was a suspected communist. Welch responded, “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?”

McCarthy was cleared of the charges; only his legal counsel, Roy Cohn, was judged to have pressured the Army for special treatment. However, his two months on national television had damaged his reputation beyond repair.

Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri summed up the consequences for McCarthy, telling him, “the American people have had a look at you for six weeks. You are not fooling anyone.”

In December 1954, the Senate censured the beleaguered McCarthy. With his political power reduced to almost nothing, the senator lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1957.

Biography: Joseph McCarthy

Sources in this Story

  • Time: McCarthy v. the Army: The Men and the Issues
  • American Rhetoric: McCarthy-Welch Exchange
  • Appleton Public Library: Joseph McCarthy: Biography
  • Spartacus Educational: McCarthyism
  • Radio Days: Edward R. Murrow—Army/McCarthy Hearings—March 9, 1954
  • “See It Now”: Murrow vs. McCarthy
  • History Today: Film in Context: Point of Order!
  • High Beam (The Historian): Flickering images: live television coverage and viewership of the army-McCarthy hearings
  • University of Pennsylvania: The Legacy of McCarthyism
  • Charleston Voice (The New American): The Real McCarthy Record

McCarthy was an undistinguished senator from Wisconsin until a 1950 speech during which he claimed to have a list of 205 communists in the State Department. In the years that followed, McCarthy became a virulent anti-communist crusader, taking aim at President Truman, the State Department and other government organizations.

In 1953, he was named chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which allowed him to launch his own investigations. He gained a reputation for bullying witnesses and ending the careers of anybody he accused.

However, it was his investigation into the Army that proved his downfall; even those who had supported him couldn’t defend an attack on the Army. After the Army-McCarthy hearings and his censure, McCarthy—an alcoholic—struggled with his health and died of liver failure in May 1957.

Background: McCarthyism and the Red Scare

McCarthyism is a term used to describe the tactics of McCarthy and others in exposing communists and communist sympathizers in the United States. It is applied to events that predate McCarthy’s rise to power, including the Hollywood Blacklist and the conviction of Alger Hiss.

It developed in response to the growing Soviet threat, and though there was certainly a measure of dangerous communist influence within the U.S., McCarthyist investigators often overstepped their bounds and recklessly accused innocent people of being communists.

The National Endowment for the Humanities offers a lesson plan explaining the very real communist threat to post-war America.

McCarthy’s Legacy

Ellen Schrecker, author of “The Age of McCarthyism”, believes that McCarthyism created an overwhelming paranoia that censored debate, took focus away from social reforms, and caused an “end of ideology.”

McCarthy has been defended by some conservative thinkers and historians, who believe that though he may have gone overboard at times, he was justified in seeking to expose communists. The John Birch Society has been particularly sympathetic to McCarthy and, in a 1987 article in The New American, JBS member James J. Drummey attempted to refute all the common criticisms of McCarthy and his tactics.

He wrote that McCarthy “was a brave and honest man. There was nothing cynical or devious about him. He was not perfect … but his record of accuracy and truthfulness far outshines that of his detractors.”

Television’s Impact on McCarthy

On March 9, 1954, respected journalist Edward R. Murrow broadcast an exposé on his CBS show “See it Now.” The television audience supported Murrow over McCarthy 15 to 1. McCarthy would later appear on the show, but his poor television presence further hurt his cause.

Thomas Doherty analyzes how the televised hearings damaged McCarthy’s reputation and led to his political collapse. He writes in History Today that “prolonged exposure to McCarthy’s odious character and ill-mannered interruptions was a textbook demonstration of how a hot personality wilted under the glare of a cool medium.”

Writing in The Historian, Michael Gauber argues that the hearings’ negative impact on McCarthy’s popularity has been overstated. Television ratings for the hearings were low and Gallup polls reveal that viewers did not drastically change their opinions of McCarthy. Gauber believes that McCarthy’s downfall was due not to a shift in public opinion, but to the growing political opposition from the Army, President Eisenhower and members of the Senate.

Reference: Senate Transcripts

In 2003, the Senate released the transcripts of all the executive sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by McCarthy. The five volumes of hearings include the Army-McCarthy hearings.

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