Joseph McCarthy: America on Trial 1953-1954 - 1953
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
Rights for All Americans, 1964 - 1964
The question in the summer of 1964 was not whether senators would approve a civil rights bill, but whether they would vote on one. Using classic filibuster techniques (long speeches and procedural delays), opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Act delayed a vote for 57 days. Ending debate required two-thirds of the Senate—67 senators.
On June 10, 1964, for the first time since the Reconstruction era just after the Civil War, a coalition uniting many Republicans with northern and western Democrats successfully ended the filibuster. Nine days later, the Senate approved the bill. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in public facilities and required equal employment opportunities for all Americans, regardless of race. “Stronger than all the armies,” said Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen, quoting Victor Hugo, “is an idea whose time has come.”
“We dare not temporize with the issue which is before us. It is essentially moral in character. It must be resolved. It will not go away. Its time has come.”
—Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, June 10, 1964
Senator Fulbright and the Vietnam War 1966-1972 - 1966
The Constitution makes the president commander in chief of the armed forces, but gives Congress the power to declare war, sometimes creating tension between the two branches. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright was an early supporter of America’s efforts against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. He supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, authorizing American military retaliation against North Vietnamese attacks. When President Lyndon Johnson used the resolution as the equivalent of a declaration of war, Senator Fulbright launched a series of hearings to explore the reasons for America’s escalating participation in the conflict. Both supporters and critics of the Vietnam War testified in hearings that continued until 1972. The often-televised investigation promoted a national debate over the Vietnam War and gave encouragement to the growing antiwar movement.
Uncovering Watergate, 1972 - 1972
Five men were arrested in June 1972 for illegally entering the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building. Republican president Richard Nixon denied any connection between the burglary and his reelection campaign. Yet, suspicions lingered. After Nixon’s landslide victory in November, the Senate appointed a special committee to investigate the matter.
In televised hearings, the Watergate committee, chaired by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, grilled key administration figures. The committee soon discovered that Nixon had secretly recorded his Oval Office conversations, and the Supreme Court ordered the president to give these tapes to a special prosecutor. They revealed Nixon’s role in the cover-up. The Senate hearings swayed public opinion and helped lead to an impeachment effort in the House—halted abruptly by President Nixon’s resignation. The Watergate affair reinforced the Senate’s investigative role and—into the 21st century—strengthened its vigilance against abuses of governmental power.