The Time a Senior Partner Stood Up for an Associate and Changed the Course of American History

Well, that’s a dramatic title, isn’t it? But, it’s true.

In 1950, Joseph McCarthy, a lawyer, former judge, and a junior senator from Wisconsin, shot to prominence by claiming that he had a list of “members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring” who were employed in the State Department.

He is famous for saying things like, “One communist on the faculty of one American University is one too many,” and “even if there is only one communist in the State Department, that would be one too many.” By the time he really got going, it wasn’t just important power figures who felt his wrath, but ordinary citizens who lost their livelihoods as a result of McCarthy’s finger-pointing witch-hunt. Despite the fact that he came in like a wrecking ball, he  was never able to prove his sensational charge.

But, in the few years succeeding his claim,  he became an all-American hero, despite his complete disregard for due process.

Not as widely known as McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade were his various attempts to intimidate, and expel from government positions, persons whom he accused, or threatened to publicly accuse, of homosexuality. Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson has written: “The so-called ‘Red Scare’  has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element…and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals.”This anti-homosexual witch-hunt that McCarthy and others waged alongside their “Red Scare” tactics has been referred to by some as the “Lavender Scare.”

In 1953, McCarthy decided to take on the military after his chief legal counsel, Roy Cohn, pressured him to. Cohn was unhappy because his friend (and a former junior staffers to McCarthy), David Schine, was called up for military service and was unable to get a cushy desk job in either the CIA or the Army, despite Cohn asking very nicely. That did not suit them.

Early in 1954, the U.S. Army accused McCarthy and  Cohn, of improperly pressuring the Army to give favorable treatment to Schine. McCarthy claimed that the accusation was made in  in retaliation. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, usually chaired by McCarthy, was given the task of adjudicating these conflicting charges. The hearings convened on April 22, 1954 and lasted for 36 days. They were broadcast on live televsion, with an estimated 20 million viewers.

The most famous incident in the hearings was an exchange between McCarthy and the army’s chief legal representative, Joseph Welch. On June 9, Welch challenged Roy Cohn to provide USAG Herb Brownell, Jr. with McCarthy’s list of 130 Communists or subversives in defense plants “before the sun goes down”. McCarthy stepped in and said that if Welch was so concerned about persons aiding the Communist Party, he should check on a man in his Boston law office named Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which Brownell had called “the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.”

In an impassioned defense of Fisher, Welch responded.

Welch: “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 gentle man but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”

When McCarthy resumed his attack, Welch interrupted him:

“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 tried to ask Welch another question about Fisher, and Welch cut him off:

“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.”

When McCarthy once again persisted, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman “call the next witness.” At that point, the gallery erupted in applause and a recess was called.

The American people saw a callous bully in McCarthy and his public approval ratings plummetted. The hearings recessed for summer and never resumed. McCarthy was later censured and lost all influence. He became a very heavy drinker and drank himself to death.

Fisher went on to have a long and successful career as a lawyer, becoming a partner at Hale & Dorr and president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.