Saturday, June 9, 2018
June 9-10, 2018: McCarthyism Contexts: The Beginning of the End
[On June 9th, 1954 laywer Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of contexts for McCarthyism, leading up to a weekend post on that moment and historical turning points!]
On nuance, clarity, and historical turning points.
At the start of 1954, Senator McCarthy was still riding high, seemingly dictating not only Congressional hearings but the Eisenhower administration, Hollywood blacklists, and the pulse of national conversations about Communism, dissidents, and even the concept of patriotism itself. But roughly half a year later, McCarthy’s polling numbers were dropping precipitously (from 50% national approval in January to 34% in June), a measure was introduced into the Senate in late July to censure him for “abuse of a Senate committee,” and the era of McCarthyism had begun to decline. By December the Senate would vote overwhelmingly to censure McCarthy, his hearings and public statements stopped or received no media attention, and he became, according to biographer Fred Cook, “a pale ghost of his former self.” While America’s anti-Communist fervor would of course continue in many ways, over this year McCarthy went from a vocal leader of that movement to a persona non grata inside and outside of Washington; three years later, in May 1957, he was dead at the age of 48, from complications associated with alcoholism.
Any historian or AmericanStudier worth his or her salt would have to note that there were various factors that contributed to this striking 1954 shift. As I wrote on Wednesday, Edward R. Murrow’s March 1954 See It Now episode, along with the follow-up April episode featuring an ineffective and indeed counter-productive rebuttal from McCarthy himself, went a long way toward changing public opinion and narratives. Also beginning in April, the new American Broadcasting Company (ABC) televised the full Army-McCarthy hearings live; this was the first time most Americans had the chance to witness McCarthy’s tactics live and at length, and in this case they say him targeting the military and impugning that institution’s integrity and patriotism, not exactly a popular position to take. Yet those lengthy live broadcasts, which aired from April 22nd through June 17th, also featured the very singular June 9th moment that was the origin point for this week’s series: McCarthy arguing at length that one of Army lawyer Joseph Welch’s employees was himself a Communist sympathizer if not an outright traitor; and Welch’s famous reply (about the 1:30 mark of that video).
It’s possible and even important to recognize the multiple, extended, nuanced factors that contributed to McCarthy’s decline and downfall and still highlight that June 9th exchange as a hugely significant historical turning point. Indeed, just as I believe highlighting inspiring figures and stories (rather than just dark or painful histories) is a key part of public scholarly writing, so too would I argue that identifying and narrating such historical turning points should be part of what public scholars do. For one thing, people (all of us) like and need stories, and through them we can better and more productively make sense of history, ideas, and the world. And for another, these singular historical moments did and do occur, and highlighting them is not a matter of downplaying longer trends but rather distilling those broader arcs into specific individual examples that can help us understand and engage with them. When it comes to the end of Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, Joseph Welch’s outraged response and questions provide precisely such a distilling moment, and served as a vital turning point for our collective conversations about this dark and divisive era.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?