Reckless Cruelty: The Televised Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican of Wisconsin) being interviewed, March 9, 1954

When the Army-McCarthy hearings convened, on April 22, 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was one of the most powerful and feared men in the United States. He had charged the military with “coddling Communists” within its ranks, while the Army countered that Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief aide, had threatened to “wreck” it. The battle was televised live across the country—a first for the new medium. 

“I’m glad we’re on television,” McCarthy snarled to his opponent, Senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), “so millions of people…can see how low an alleged man can sink.” But Symington’s retort more accurately matched the public pulse: “Senator, let me tell you something. The American people have had a look at you for six weeks. You’re not fooling anyone either.”

E.B. White prophetically wrote in 1938, “I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world.… We shall stand or fall by television.” In 1954 Senate Minority Leader (and future president) Lyndon Johnson (D-Tex.) and Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower both quietly lobbied for the Army-McCarthy hearings to be televised. Each hoped McCarthy’s prolonged, real-time exposure before the American people would turn the tide against the Communist-obsessed senator. The more than 800 spectators who crammed into a Senate caucus room (designed to fit only 300) at the trial’s opening were confronted with the then alien sight of television cameras and floodlights positioned all around them.

CSUB001 CS460CBS hadn’t been interested, and NBC backed out after a day of coverage, but low-performing ABC and the struggling DuMont network opted for live gavel-to-gavel airings and were rewarded with very large ratings. According to Robert Shogan’s book No Sense of Decency, “About 45 million Americans, nearly half the adult population, watched at least part of the 188 hours of live broadcasts.” Shogan continues, “The Army-McCarthy hearings were the greatest news event yet generated by the television culture that was just beginning to shape American life.” When the hearings drew as many viewers as the popular show Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, CBS admitted it had made a mistake by not offering live coverage. And Variety called the hearings “television’s latest soap opera,” which at least would “take your mind off the H-bomb for an hour or so.”

More than 60 years later, it’s hard to believe that all that television time, 7,424 pages of transcripts, 22 witnesses and 36 days of hearings resulted mainly from Cohn’s snit with the Army over an object of his affection, soldier G. David Schine. You can’t beat this summation from The Harvard Crimson (Schine had been a Harvard man) about the absurdity at the bottom of the events:

In Washington today, eight senators, many high-priced legal brains and hordes of top Army brass will move wearily into the third week of their seemingly endless wrangle over the military career of a 26-year-old private.… To many it seems incredible that the fortunes of this young man should demand the sustained attention of such an array of talent, and should obsess the nation by press and TV. But to most of those who knew Dave Schine ’49 at Harvard it is no surprise.

Schine, an anti-Communist consultant to McCarthy, had been drafted in July 1953—and Cohn leaped into action. According to testimony by Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens, Schine was discussed in more than 65 phone calls and 19 meetings, and McCarthy or his staffers made numerous requests for “special consideration and privileges” for the private. John G. Adams, counsel for the Army, testified that Cohn had threatened the Army-wrecking reprisals if Schine were given overseas duty. McCarthy and Cohn countercharged, saying the Army was holding Schine “hostage” in order to “blackmail” the senator out of investigating Communist infiltration of the armed forces. I prefer Lillian Hellman’s take on the controversy: She called McCarthy, Cohn and Schine “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.”

McCarthy, who liked to open his speeches with “It’s good to get out of Washington and back to the United States,” was just 37 when he was elected to the Senate. He gained national attention over a 1950 speech he made in West Virginia, when, waving a sheet of paper, he declared, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” (McCarthy later admitted the paper was his laundry list.) And thus a new movement, McCarthyism, was born.

Army Private David Schine, Senator Joseph McCarthy and counsel Roy Cohn at the Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954.
Army Private David Schine, Senator Joseph McCarthy and counsel Roy Cohn at the Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954.

Taking on the Army, however, proved to be the senator’s downfall. He had said to Cohn, “People aren’t going to remember the things we say on the issues here. They are only going to remember the impressions,” but the senator’s nasal shouts of “Point of order! Point of order!” broadcast on television made him a national punchline. By the time Joseph N. Welch, special counsel for the Army, famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” he was merely verbalizing what TV audiences were already thinking.

Months afterward, the Senate censured McCarthy by a vote of 67 to 22. He died three years later, on May 2, 1957, at age 48, from acute hepatitis. Schine never discussed Cohn or McCarthy after the hearings; linked romantically with such glamorous Hollywood stars as Rhonda Fleming and Piper Laurie, he ultimately married the Swedish Miss Universe and had six children. Cohn remained a closeted homosexual his entire life, outed by his death from AIDS in 1986. He told his biographer Sidney Zion that he knew his obituary would open with “Roy M. Cohn, who served as chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” which, he said, “is exactly how I want it to read.” But Welch, the lawyer who tearfully asked McCarthy about his decency, was cast as a judge in Otto Preminger’s controversial 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder. Nominated for a best supporting actor Golden Globe, Welch perhaps can be considered the first reality star.

Photos: Everett Collection