ALERT: Dome Restoration Project Necessitates Rotunda Closure April 12 through April 28.
Click here for more information.

Joseph McCarthy: America on Trial 1953-1954

As America and the Soviet Union faced off in the Cold War, sensational charges of Soviet spying triggered congressional investigations. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, accused the State Department of harboring “known Communists.” When McCarthy became Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations three years later, he set out to prove his charges.

McCarthy called hundreds of witnesses, browbeating and intimidating them. His charges of Communist subversion in the U.S. Army culminated in the 1954 televised Army–McCarthy hearings. When Army Counsel Joseph Welch challenged the senator’s reckless charges, asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” McCarthy’s support eroded. The Senate later censured him for conduct unbecoming a senator.

"Senator Ervin: Do we have the manhood in the Senate to stand up to a challenge of that kind?
Senator Arthur V. Watkins: I think we do. I may be a coward, but I will not compromise with that kind of attack. . . . I will not compromise on matters of principle.
—Congressional Record, November 16, 1954

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
—Army Counsel Joseph Welch, June 9, 1954

  • Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch listens in frustration as Senator Joseph McCarthy displays what he considers to be a nationwide network of Communist Party organizations.

    Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch listens in frustration as Senator Joseph McCarthy displays what he considers to be a nationwide network of Communist Party organizations.

    © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • Cornered?, cartoon by Edwin Marcus, March 26, 1950

    Marcus portrayed Senator Joseph McCarthy as “cornered” by his own unsubstantiated attacks on government officials for their alleged Communist party affiliation.

    Reproduced by permission of the Marcus family, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Aaron Copland’s Testimony before a Closed Hearing, 1953

    Senator McCarthy’s investigations extended to cultural figures, such as composer Aaron Copland (1900—1990). The full scope of McCarthy’s hearings was not known until 2003, when the closed hearings were made public.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

    Joseph Welch’s Rebuke of Senator McCarthy at a Public Hearing, 1954

    Support for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of suspected Communists collapsed with this rebuke by Army Counsel Joseph Welch: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Welch was countering McCarthy’s accusation that one of Welch’s staff had Communist ties.

    Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.