"Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

At the height of the Cold War, America's fear of communism and the Soviet Union was so great that American politicians could reliably score publicity points by suggesting that opponents had "communist sympathies."

The Hollywood Blacklist, preventing certain actors and writers from working, was the best-known punishment for those deemed ideologically impure, but similar lists kept uncounted Americans virtually un-employable in other fields, including the military, the State Department, and police departments, and "loyalty oaths." requiring workers to declare their allegiance to the USA, were common in almost any line of work.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) built his career on red-baiting, and was perhaps the most famous American politician outside the White House. In 1954, gavel-to-gavel coverage was offered live on two commercial TV networks, ABC and DuMont, as hearings investigated McCarthy's allegations against Army officers, and counter-allegations that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured Army brass to give preferential treatment to a close friend of Cohn.

These were the first live telecasts of Congressional hearings, and an estimated eighty million Americans watched.

A staunch Republican, Joseph Welch had been asked to serve as the Army's unpaid legal counsel in the hearings. He came from a midwestern farm family, had earned his college tuition by selling maps door-to-door, and was an attorney at the Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr. Day after day as the hearings progressed, he remained calm and cool while McCarthy raged.

The unexpected climax of the hearings came on June 9, 1954, when McCarthy dropped a bombshell accusation — that Fred Fisher, a young lawyer from Welch's own law firm, had once been a member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG).

The NLG was the first non-segregated lawyers' association, a civil rights group that J Edgar Hoover had accused of being a communist front, because it provided defense attorneys for several suspected communists.

Fisher was not present, having declined to work in the hearings specifically because he feared that McCarthy might discover that he had, years earlier, been a member of the NLG. Welch appeared to be near tears as he responded with an impromptu defense of his colleague, and viewers were riveted from his first few words to his last question.

"Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.

"Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm, and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad.

"It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you.

"If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me."

Sen McCarthy took the floor again, indignant and argumentative, and Welch listened for a few minutes, but interrupted when McCarthy returned to the topic of Fred Fisher.

"Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers 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 left no sense of decency?"

McCarthy resumed disparaging Fisher, but Welch interrupted again:

"Mr McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have seen fit to bring it out, and if there is a God in Heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further... Mr Chairman, you may, if you will, call the next witness."

The public's verdict was immediate: the audience at the hearing burst into applause. McCarthy’s face went pale, even on America's black-and-white TVs.

That day's live coverage was water cooler conversation all across the country, and Welch was widely seen as a "stand-up guy." He returned to his law firm as something of a national hero, while McCarthy was censured by the Senate for "bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."

It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy and McCarthyism, and for the extreme anti-communist paranoia of his time.

In a bit of stunt casting, Welch played the judge in Jimmy Stewart's courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959). 

McCarthy died in 1957, Welch in 1960.

Fisher, the associate of Welch that McCarthy had tried to smear, went on to become a partner at Hale and Dorr, and president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. He died in 1989.


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  1. There is a new movie about Roy Cohn and Donald Trump that is sitting in the can. Cohn is played by Jeremy Strong, a shockingly intense actor currently devouring Broadway in a re-interpretation of an Ibsen play to reference climate change, and who for four years starred on HBO's "Succession."

    Apparently a bunch of the people who produced this play (i.e. funded it) thought it would be flattering to Trump and would serve as a way to ingratiate themselves into his favor. They were surprised that a story about the friendship of Cohn and Trump would be a farce about two utterly depraved men.

    So it's sitting in the can, and the director and other filmmakers are slowly leaking whatever they can to try to get it released.

    Here's some of the drama, though it's developing quickly (Trump filed his own cease & desist just before Memorial Day weekend):


    1. I'm aware of the film, and now more aware after reading the Variety article, but not on the edge of my seat yet. Trump is so vomitous to me, I can't imagine watching a movie about him, esp since coverage somewhere said the moviemakers' intent was to be impartial. We've all seen what impartial coverage of Trump hath rot.

      Perhaps after he's dead I'll watch it. :)


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