The anniversary of McCarthy’s downfall

Via Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, I was reminded that today, June 9, is the anniversary of the day that red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy was given his comeuppance on national television by soft-spoken lawyer Joseph Welch.

In 1954, a series of meetings were convened by the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations to investigate counter-allegations between McCarthy and the U.S. Army.  On June 9th, McCarthy had been pressured by Army lawyer Welch to provide evidence of Communists in the defense industry, and he responded by singling out a young lawyer in Welch’s firm as an alleged sympathizer.  Obviously, McCarthy hoped to put Welch on the defensive, but Welch responded with a mellow but devastating criticism of McCarthy’s reckless cruelty.  This confrontation is generally considered the beginning of the end for McCarthy, the moment when the nation got to see how ugly his politics really were.

The speech of Welch is amazing, and moving; I never get tired of hearing it.  It is a timeless testament to the real human cost that the politics of fear can exact.

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13 Responses to The anniversary of McCarthy’s downfall

  1. Yoo says:

    When McCarthy comes up, I’m struck by how hard some people today are working towards becoming the next McCarthy. I would have thought everyone would know how bad McCarthyism is viewed today, or maybe some people just don’t make the connection …

    (Admittedly, I only started noticing the similarities after watching the movie Good Night, and Good Luck.)

    • Yoo: The sad thing about Mccarthyism is that, at least in the short term, it works — that is, one can gain political power very quickly by appealing to people’s fears. It seems that too many people find this an irresistible temptation, even in sight of how much damage historically has been done by such demagoguery. Hitler’s Germany was built upon similar fearmongering, as were the witch-hunts of Medieval Europe. The right-wing performed the same tactics after September 11th to great effect (‘national security depends upon our passing these upper-class tax cuts!’).

      In a democracy, though, people eventually get tired of being scared all the time, and the demagogues almost always overreach in their grasp for power. It happened to McCarthy, and it seems to have happened to the modern right-wing.

      (Good Night, and Good Luck was, incidentally, made in part to highlight the similarity between McCarthy and modern Republicans.)

  2. Mary says:

    I had never seen video of McCarthy before, I don’t think. I always imagined him blustery and emotional, but he’s not. He’s slick.

    He really doesn’t come off here like someone who is scared that communists are going to overthrow the government or someone who feels betrayed. He comes off like someone who thinks this is a game, who is scoring points and gloating about it. Maybe acting like that was what ultimately caused his downfall..?

    • Mary: Your impressions of McCarthy are very astute. The three biographies I’ve read of McCarthy (understanding demagoguery has been a hobby of mine for years, for some reason) all paint a picture of the man very similar to your view: he was an opportunist who really treated communism, and red-baiting, as a game which could get him more political power.

      His downfall seems to have been brought about, as you noted, by people finally getting a chance to see this part of McCarthy on television. In print, he sounded like a “true patriot” who was valiantly fighting alone against the awesome and insidious threat of COMMUNISM! In person, he looks like an opportunist who is cavalier about destroying people’s lives and rather unconcerned about really rooting out communism threats.

      I love the applause at the end of Welch’s speech. Considering this was another era of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” thinking, the fact that people were so openly applauding a smackdown of McCarthy represents how much they were sick of him and how much his fear tactics had lost their power.

  3. Mary says:

    Maybe TV is good for politics after all, if it helps people see what men like McCarthy (and Nixon) are really like…

    Or maybe it just breeds more sophisticated assholes.

    Anyway, thanks for posting that.

  4. IronMonkey says:

    Nice piece of history. Strange how dirty tactics can creep back into politics after some time (I’m not referring to Obama of course). That video was shot in black and white but it still appears relevant today.

    • IronMonkey: Yep, it’s very relevant — it’s sad how history repeats itself. As the late Douglas Adams once said, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

      How’ve you been, BTW? I haven’t heard from you for a while! Everything going okay?

      • IronMonkey says:

        For the past 2 weeks I have been preparing for my pre-doctoral exam which is like a GRE physics test albeit with fewer questions that require long answers. Anyways, I was on another planet for awhile! 🙂 Hopefully, everything will be ok and I can continue my PhD!

      • Well, best of luck! (Either with taking the test, if you haven’t yet, or with the results, if you have!)

      • IronMonkey says:

        Thank you GG! I finally learned that I passed the dreaded test. So this is a welcome relief, meaning I won’t have to re-study it during this hot summer.

  5. Arj says:

    nice to see that so many recognize the pertinence of such old footage to today’s (Republican-McCarthyesque!) politics. While Welch may have been the “beginning of the end” for McCarthy, Ed Murrow really stuck the final fork in.
    (on a sidenote: in the 1950s my mother didn’t see any value to TV until the Army-McCarthy hearings came along, at which point we finally became the last family on our block to get one.)

    • Arj: Yeah, McCarthy is, or should be, a constant reminder that it takes very little for a society to devolve into a state where our rights, and our spirits, are at risk.

      As far as the TV goes, it sounds like you were one of the only people to benefit from the McCarthy era! 😛

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