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The Army-McCarthy hearings served as the final chapter in the infamous public career of United States Senator Joseph McCarthy. During the period of intense U.S.-Soviet rivalry known as the Cold War, McCarthy gained fame by accusing U.S. government employees of being communists or communist sympathizers. When he turned his focus to the U.S. Army, Army officials launched their own investigation of McCarthy. The resulting Senate hearings, called the Army-McCarthy hearings, were televised live in 1954, turning American public sentiment strongly against McCarthy.
McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin, first elected in 1946. At the time, just after World War II, the communist government of the Soviet Union was expanding its influence into neighboring countries. This was viewed with alarm in the U.S., and McCarthy rose to fame in 1950 by claiming that communist agents had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. He became chair of an investigative Senate committee in 1953, using his new-found power to accuse government employees and private citizens of communist ties. Although these accusations were often based on dubious evidence, many people found their lives and careers ruined as a result of McCarthy’s actions.
In 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings resulted from McCarthy alleging communist influence in the U.S. Army. Army officials retaliated by accusing McCarthy and his top aide, attorney Roy Cohn, of abusing their power. They claimed that McCarthy and Cohn had sought preferential treatment for another aide, G. David Schine, after Schine was drafted into the Army. As McCarthy was being investigated by his own Senate committee, he temporarily removed himself as its chair. The Army-McCarthy hearings were telecast live during the months of April, May, and June 1954, the first Senate hearings ever to be televised.
The Army hired Boston attorney Joseph Welch as its defense counsel for the Army-McCarthy hearings. Welch exposed McCarthy’s use of fake evidence to support his case, including a doctored photograph and a forged letter supposedly from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy attempted to besmirch Welch by accusing his staff of communist ties. Welch famously replied, “Have you no sense of decency?” As a result of these widely publicized events, McCarthy fell into disfavor with the American public and was censured by his colleagues in the Senate.
McCarthy was voted out of office in 1955, dying in disgrace two years later. His legacy includes the phrase McCarthyism, used ever since to describe the practice of defaming political opponents without evidence. The anti-communist hysteria he exemplified has since been regarded as one of the darkest periods in the history of the U.S. government. McCarthy and his tirades have been represented many times in popular media, including the films Citizen Cohn, Point of Order, and Good Night and Good Luck. A fictionalized version of Cohn appears in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America, along with the quote “Have you no sense of decency?”