“Have You No Sense of Decency?”: The Question That Took Down Senator Joe McCarthy 

Lawyer Joseph N. Welch is credited with bringing down the fearmongering Senator Joe McCarthy during a congressional hearing in 1954. But his famous plea—“have you no sense of decency, sir?”—has since taken on a life of its own.
Joseph Welch (left), with Sen. Joe McCarthy (right), at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations' McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954.
Joseph Welch (left), with Sen. Joe McCarthy (right), at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations' McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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The year was 1954. Europe was slowly recovering from the destruction of World War II, but the Soviet Union controlled half of the continent. Moscow had a nuclear arsenal, and communism was spreading across much of the world, from Cuba to Korea. The U.S. economy was booming, but labor unions were threatening the wealth and power of America’s biggest corporations. 

Capitalizing on the country’s growing fear of socialism, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, made a name for himself by identifying and persecuting anyone with ties to the USSR—real or imagined. As chairman of the Senate’s Government Operations Committee as well as its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he went after politicians, journalists, and even Hollywood directors.

Joseph McCarthy stands in front of a map of supposed communist activity
Joseph McCarthy stands in front of a map purporting to show communist activity across the U.S. / Getty Images/GettyImages

Before long, his influence in Washington was so great that even President Dwight Eisenhower thought twice about getting in his way. Then McCarthy, crossing a bridge too far, directed his anti-communist attacks against high-ranking members of the U.S. Army. The Army retaliated by accusing McCarthy of seeking preferential treatment for one of his aides, one Private G. David Schine. In the ensuing months, millions of Americans watched their confrontation unfold on live television. 

McCarthy’s combative rhetoric and skillful manipulation of the media made him an effective investigator. But during these hearings, lawyer Joseph N. Welch, speaking on behalf of the Army, managed to bring down the senator with a single, now-iconic sentence: “Have you no sense of decency?” 

The sharp remark finally turned public opinion against McCarthy, kickstarting his downfall and ending the Red Scare. At least, that’s what most people believe.

The Army-McCarthy Hearings on Live TV

Joseph McCarthy had been a senator for three years before rising to prominence in 1950, when he claimed to posses a list of 205 employees at the State Department who were secretly members of the Communist Party, beginning a witch hunt that would put the first Red Scare of 1917-1920, formed in response to the Russian Revolution, to shame. 

A Republican victory in the 1952 congressional elections put McCarthy in charge of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations, teams tasked with evaluating the efficiency and integrity of the legislative branch itself. Here the senator—in the words of Harvard Law dean Ervin Griswold—played the role of “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.”

McCarthy’s control over these two committees was near absolute. He would call meetings on short notice or hold them outside the capital, making it difficult for colleagues to attend them on a regular basis. “As a result,” a Senate account states, “McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn largely ran the show by themselves, relentlessly grilling and insulting witnesses.”

After persecuting his fellow senators, university professors, and even members of the United Nations, McCarthy set his sights on the U.S. Army, investigating alleged communist infiltration at the Army Signal Corps laboratory at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. While these investigations ultimately did not lead to any indictments, they did antagonize the armed forces. The Army accused McCarthy and his staff of seeking special treatment for the consutant, Private Schine, who had forged McCarthy’s signature so he and Cohn could gain access to a pool and sauna reserved for senators, among other transgressions.

The hearings were carried out by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under the leadership of Senator Karl Mundt, who temporarily replaced the accused McCarthy as chairman, with John G. Adams and Joseph Welch of Boston law firm Hale & Dorr representing the Army. Their 36-day debate was aired live by ABC and the DuMont Television Network, which served it up to an audience of more than 80 million viewers.

A Secret Agreement

During a hearing session on June 9, 1954, McCarthy suddenly alleged that one of Welch’s attorneys, Fred Fisher, was connected to a communist organization. As McCarthy ranted on, flinging accusations, Welch interjected with what would soon become one of the most iconic lines in modern American political history: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” 

McCarthy, looking stricken, paused as though he knew he’d been knocked off his pedestal.

The proceedings turned in favor of the Army and by the end of the year, McCarthy was officially censured by the Senate—a formal statement of denouncement which, though it does not constitute a removal from office, greatly tarnishes the censured person’s reputation and credibility. 

The televised hearings etched Welch’s remark into the country’s collective memory. (A minor celebrity, Welch went on to play Judge Weaver in the 1959 crime drama Anatomy of a Murder.) A 1964 documentary by Emile de Antonio called Point of Order, made with archival footage from CBS, further entrenched the notion that Welch’s attack at McCarthy’s dubious character and paranoid conduct marked the beginning of the end of the senator’s short-lived career.

In truth, the attack wasn’t responsible for immediately bringing down McCarthy; The hearing continued for several days after the June 9 confrontation, despite being framed as a climax in De Antonio’s film, and McCarthyism survived the death of McCarthy himself. Welch also wasn’t attacking McCarthy’s character—at least, not in the way most people think he was.

According to an account by the law firm WilmerHale, Welch and McCarthy had made an agreement before the hearings promising that Welch wouldn’t go after Cohn for having avoided the draft during and after the Korean War if McCarthy didn’t bring up Fisher’s alleged political orientation. When Welch asked McCarthy if he had “no decency,” he wasn’t referring to the senator’s disregard for civil liberties, his questionable morality, or alcohol abuse, all of which were already well-known to the public by the time, but rather his betraying their secret truce.

Historians believe McCarthy would have been censured even if Welch never uttered his famous phrase. The senator’s unrelenting persecution had simply earned him too many enemies to allow for his career to continue unopposed. Slate reporter Rebecca Onion refers to the Army-McCarthy hearings as “a product of President Eisenhower’s decision to try to curb” the senator’s authority, which had become too problematic for the White House to ignore.

Following his official censure, McCarthy gradually retreated from public view. His alcohol abuse spiraled beyond his control. He died in 1957 from hepatitis at only 48 years old.

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