The name Joe McCarthy has been coming up, lately. Who was Joe McCarthy?
Senator McCarthy was a bully. In his zeal to uproot all vestiges of Communism or Communist sympathizers, he bullied, scared and threatened his way across Washington, D.C. Everyone was afraid of Joe McCarthy, because they feared being branded as “soft” on Communism. Like Donald Trump, Joe McCarthy shot from the hip. For example, he stated flatly, with no explanation, that there were dozens of Communists in the federal government. He claimed in one speech to have a list in his hands of 205 known Communists in the State Department. Later, in the Senate, he said the number was actually 57. Still later, he claimed it was 81. That alleged list lead to Senate hearings looking for Commies anywhere in the federal government. Overnight, Joe McCarthy became a household name. He became an albatross for the Republicans. Gen. Eisenhower, while campaigning, said he supported Mr. McCarthy’s goals, but not his methods. According to some accounts, in actuality, the President had planned a sharper attack on Sen. McCarthy, but backed down at the last minute.
When the Senator ran his own committee, he destroyed people, based on little more than suspicion. His browbeating tactics in Senate hearings offended his colleagues. But, afraid of what he would do or say, the other Senators said nothing.
In looking into the U.S. Army, he could find no evidence of subversion after weeks of investigation. But, he was convinced the Army had been “soft” on Communists. Frustrated, he started focusing on the case of Irving Peress, a New York dentist. Mr. Peress had been drafted in 1952. In his papers, he had disclosed a former membership in the American Labor Party, a leftist organization. When asked about his political affiliations, he had left that portion blank.
Capt. Peress was promoted to Major in 1953. Sen. McCarthy started a campaign to find out who had promoted Maj. Peress. The question, “Who promoted Peress?” became a conservative rallying cry. All this time, Sen. McCarthy knew that the major had been promoted automatically by the provisions of the Draft Doctor’s Act, a recently passed law which Sen. McCarthy had supported.
When called before the committee, Capt. Peress invoked the 5th Amendment numerous times. He insisted that citing the 5th Amendment did not amount to guilt. Later, Sen. McCarthy demanded that the Army court-martial Capt. Peress. The pressure eventually forced the captain to request a discharge. He was discharged honorably with a promotion to major.
The committee then called on his commander, Brigadier-General Wicker to explain how he was promoted and discharged without a court-martial. BG Wicker, a West Point graduate, had been at Normandy. He had led an Infantry battalion at the key Battle of Brest. He was a hero. He was asked about his approval of the discharge orders for Maj. Peress. Based on advice from the Army counsel, he refused to answer certain questions. The Senator badgered him, and accused him of perjury. He said the general was not fit to wear the uniform.
“Tail-Gunner” Joe had been an enlisted man in the Army during WW II. His abuse of BG Wicker caused many people to turn against Sen. McCarthy. All the general did was approve discharge for an officer who had committed no transgression while in service. As BG Wicker said many years later, he was initially not unsympathetic to Sen. McCarthy. But, as soon as the hearing began, he quickly became disillusioned. Sen. McCarthy, said the general, was an opportunist. The Senator’s abuse postponed Zwicker’s promotion to Major General.
The debacle with BG Zwicker lead to the Army hearings. Sen. McCarthy would hold hearings on live television, the new medium, digging deeper into so-called Army tolerance of Communism. Millions watched as he browbeat and interrogated various Army officials. In one such hearing, the chief legal representative for the Army, Joseph N. Welch pressed the committee about some supposed 130 persons who worked in defense plants and supported the Communist party. Sen. McCarthy jumped into the conversation. He insisted Mr. Welch explain the case of Fred Fisher, a young lawyer who worked in Mr. Welch’s law firm. Mr. Fisher, insisted the Senator, had once belonged to the National Lawyer’s Guild, the “mouthpiece” of the Communist party.
The National lawyers Guild is still around. It is indeed liberal leaning, but it is also independent of any political affiliation. Sen. McCarthy had to know this.
Joseph Welch accused the senator of cruelty. The Senator persisted, demanding to know about Mr. Fisher’s former membership. Mr. Welch famously replied, “Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the National Lawyer’s 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 no sense of decency??” When Sen. McCarthy persisted, Mr. Welch cut him off. He reminded him that he could have asked about Fred Fisher any time that day. He sat within six feet of Mr. Welch. He told the chairman of the committee to call the next witness. The gallery then erupted in applause and a recess was called. Sen. McCarthy’s decline began soon after.
Fred Fisher did indeed once belong to the NLG during law school. But, as Mr. Welch pointed out, this was needless trashing of a man at a time when membership in liberal organizations could ruin a man’s career. This line of inquiry served no purpose, other than advancing Sen. McCarthy’s political goals. It was cold-blooded political opportunism and Mr. Welch called it.
So, when persons accuse another of McCarthyism, that is indeed a deep insult. Sixty years ago, the end for “Tail-Gunner” Joe started with one decent man, representing the U.S. Army.