In April of 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy began a series of televised hearings investigating the United States Army. He accused the institution of being ‘soft’ on communism. The 36-day debacle gave the American public their first glimpse of McCarthy in action. His unbecoming behavior and sensational claims in the courtroom caused him to quickly fall out of favor.

The start of McCarthyism

After only four years as an elected official, Joseph McCarthy rose to prominence in 1950 when he claimed that there were over 200 ‘known communists’ in the Department of State. His subsequent search for communists in the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and other government agencies.

His activities immediately polarized the nation, as he became feared almost as much as he was admired. The Senator’s tactics were manipulative and cruel, and he often accused opponents of being ‘communist sympathizers’ in an attempt to retain power.

The beginning of the end

In 1953, fellow politicians began to view McCarthy as a liability. Three Democrats, upset that he hired staff without consulting the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations, resigned mid-year. Several Republican senators also stopped attending the hearings. As a result, McCarthy and his right hand man, Roy Cohn, largely ran the hearings by themselves. Harvard law dean Ervin Griswold described McCarthy’s role as “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.” In the spring of 1954, McCarthy picked a fight with the U.S. Army. His accusation? That they were ‘soft’ on communism. The effort, seen by man as an attempt to bolster his sagging popularity, quickly backfired.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

The Army hearings turned out to be both the climax and downfall of McCarthy’s career. The true turning point occured when the Senator attacked the reputation of Fred Fisher, a close associate of the Army’s chief counsel Joseph Welch. Welch fixed McCarthy with a steely glare and famously responded, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” The audience broke into applause.

Overnight, any credibility McCarthy had left disappeared. A few weeks later, the hearings closed and no charges were upheld against the Army. McCarthy died three years later, a hopeless alcoholic.