I must admit that I was unaware just how deep the calumny against Senator Joseph McCarthy was until a friend of mine, supposedly an arch-conservative, invoked the infamous Joseph Welch line
“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
to decry the unfair treatment of a current political figure. My friend did not realize that Welch’s statement was no more than bluster, and has been forever (and successfully) quoted out of context—a context that has apparently been lost to most.
The exchange between Welch and McCarthy—especially the above line uttered on June 9, 1954—has been immortalized in the Leftist archives as what finally brought down the senator. In fact, this assessment is a gross oversimplification of what actually occurred, and deliberately obfuscates what led up to it.
Joe McCarthy first took on the Army establishment in earnest with his blistering March 14, 1951 speech blaming General George C. Marshall for losing China.
“When Marshall was sent to China with secret State Department orders, the Communists at that time were bottled up in two areas and were fighting a losing battle, but that because of those orders the situation was radically changed in favor of the Communists. Under those orders, as we know, Marshall embargoed all arms and ammunition to our allies in China.”
“He forced the opening of the Nationalist-held Kalgan Mountain pass into Manchuria, to the end that the Chinese Communists gained access to the mountains of captured Japanese equipment. No need to tell the country about how Marshall tried to force Chiang Kai-shek to form a partnership government with the Communists.”
At the time, there was considerable public uproar over what seemed to be an almost systematic losing of the peace. Indeed, Dwight Eisenhower, a close associate of Marshall during World War II, not only resoundingly condemned Truman, but refused (some say with reluctance) to defend Marshall’s postwar policies during his successful campaign for the presidency.
As it is, there is hardly unanimous agreement on the supposed greatness of Marshall as a military leader. Critics point to his complicity in a Pearl Harbor cover-up; his orders to MacArthur that exacerbated losses at Bataan; his humdrum Army career until playing politics with the Roosevelts, and being promoted over hundreds of more senior and arguably more qualified men to Chief of Staff; his constant favoring of the Soviets, especially at Yalta; and his virtually unique status as receiving such high rank with almost no combat duties on his record.
Many also wonder how Marshall, who had been relieved of the command of a regiment by Douglas MacArthur [the Inspector General reported that under one year of Marshall’s command the regiment had dropped from one of the best in the army to one of the worst], would be placed by Roosevelt in command of the entire United States Army six years later.
In 1953, McCarthy focused his attention on the Army Signal Corps, former home of convicted atomic spy Julius Rosenberg, as well as Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant who both defected to the Soviet Union upon Rosenberg’s arrest. McCarthy was following-up a request from Fort Monmouth’s commanding general, Kirke B. Lawton, although an alleged espionage ring was never found. Even so, a considerable amount of damaging evidence was discovered, and much of Monmouth’s top-secret operations were moved to Arizona soon after.
Then came Camp Kilmer, NJ, and the case of Army Captain Irving Peress, a New York dentist who had been drafted into the army in 1952 and promoted to major in November, 1953. Peress had declined to answer questions about his political affiliations on a loyalty-review form, and took the Fifth Amendment 20 times when questioned by McCarthy. On the very same day, Peress requested and received an honorable discharge, from commanding officer General Ralph Zwicker. Surely, this looked like a cover-up.
McCarthy summoned General Zwicker to his subcommittee on February 18, 1954, and the general, on advice from counsel, refused to answer some of McCarthy’s questions and reportedly changed his story three times when asked if he had known at the time he signed the discharge that Peress had refused to answer questions before the McCarthy subcommittee.
In frustration, McCarthy compared Zwicker’s intelligence to that of a “five-year-old child,” and said he was “not fit to wear that uniform.” This was not to endear the senator to the Army or a segment of the public, who were simply not prepared to accept that serious problems existed in the military—even after the Rosenberg case. Plus, it was to change the entire momentum whereby McCarthy would be put on the defensive.
The Army was determined to get McCarthy, far more than they were determined to clean up their act, it appears, as the Peress matter seemed to disappear from sight. Big-time Boston defense lawyer Joseph Welch was hired, and jumped on the foolish activities of McCarthy aide Roy Cohn to secure favored treatment for recently drafted former McCarthy aide David Schine.
It was only after Welch grilled Cohn for hours that McCarthy countered with an attack on Welch aide Fred Fisher, who had been a member of a Communist front organization, evidently for longer than he had originally admitted. But the far-from-telegenic McCarthy would prove no match for the polished New Englander, and his popularity would fade. Aware of the damage he had done, Cohn resigned.
McCarthy was certainly not without his faults, but hardly deserved the media treatment he received, nor does Welch deserve to be lionized for his part in preventing a proper investigation of the Army at such a critical time.