Senator Joseph McCarthy begins hearings investigating the United States Army, which he charges with being “soft” on communism. These televised hearings gave the American public their first view of McCarthy in action, and his recklessness, indignant bluster, and bullying tactics quickly resulted in his fall from prominence.
In February 1950, Senator McCarthy charged that there were over 200 “known communists” in the Department of State. Thus began his dizzying rise to fame as the most famous and feared communist hunter in the United States. McCarthy adeptly manipulated the media, told ever more outrageous stories concerning the communist conspiracy in the United States, and smeared any opponents as “communist sympathizers” to keep his own name in the headlines for years. By 1954, however, his power was beginning to wane. While he had been useful to the Republican Party during the years of the Democratic administration of President Harry S. Truman, his continued attacks on “communists in government” after Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower took over the White House in 1953 were becoming political liabilities.
In an effort to reinvigorate his declining popularity, McCarthy made a dramatic accusation that was a crucial mistake: in early 1954, he charged that the United States Army was “soft” on communism. McCarthy was indignant because David Schine, one of his former investigators, had been drafted and the Army, much to McCarthy’s surprise, refused the special treatment he demanded for his former aide. In April 1954, McCarthy, chairman of the Government Operations Committee in the Senate, opened televised hearings into his charges against the Army.
The hearings were a fiasco for McCarthy. He constantly interrupted with irrelevant questions and asides; yelled “point of order” whenever testimony was not to his liking; and verbally attacked witnesses, attorneys for the Army, and his fellow senators. The climax came when McCarthy slandered an associate of the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch. Welch fixed McCarthy with a steady glare and declared evenly, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” A stunned McCarthy listened as the packed audience exploded into cheers and applause. McCarthy’s days as a political power were effectively over. A few weeks later, the Army hearings dribbled to a close with little fanfare and no charges were upheld against the Army by the committee. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for his conduct. Three years later, having become a hopeless alcoholic, he died.