Table of Contents
- Central Question and Abstract
- Supplementary Sources
- Historical Thinking
- For More Information
At a Glance
- McCarthy vs. Welch
- Ideas & Ideologies, Politics, Radicalism
- 9, 10, 11, 12
Using Historical Footage (High School)
Why is the exchange between Welch and McCarthy historically significant?
This example includes materials for challenging high school students to consider the historical context of primary source footage. Asking questions of, and about, this clip from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings helps students consider its contemporary reception and significance. Additional documents then challenge students to consider McCarthyism as an ideological and political climate that extended beyond its namesake’s actions in its duration and impact.
Film Clip: Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954 (duration: 12:28)
Partial Transcript: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/welch-mccarthy.html
Historical Thinking Focus: Interrogating sources, Historical context and significance
McCarthyism as climate, rather than a single man’s crusade.
The term “McCarthyism,” coined by cartoonist Herbert Block in March 1950, most obviously refers to Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist accusations and his efforts to purge the government of so-called Communist sympathizers and spies. Between McCarthy’s 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia where he vowed to expose spies in the State Department and the Senate hearings that he presided over, McCarthy became famous for pursuing supposed Communists in the first decade of the Cold War.
However, this time of political conformity was by no means the work of only one man. Historian Ellen Schrecker calls McCarthy a “careerist,” others call him an opportunist, and characterize him as a politician who capitalized on the anti-Communist fervor of the times. Government investigations and legislation prior to McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign helped create and build this period—one driven by what Justice William Douglas called in 1952, “the black silence of fear.” (See, for example, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hatch Act of 1938, Truman’s loyalty oaths, the McCarran Act of 1950, and the blacklisting of hundreds of Hollywood filmmakers and actors.)
In the fall of 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R—WI), chairman of the Senate Committee of Government Operations, launched an inquiry into alleged communist infiltration of the Army. The Committee held lengthy public hearings in which McCarthy questioned Army officials about alleged ties to the communist party, but he was unable to produce substantive evidence of any communist ties or influence. Angered by McCarthy’s attack, the Army launched a counterattack. In the winter of 1954, the Army accused McCarthy of unduly using his power and influence to pressure Army officials to appoint his former aide to an Army position. The accusations led to a Senate investigation of McCarthy’s actions.The Army-McCarthy Hearings
The Army-McCarthy hearings that followed were the first Congressional hearings broadcast live on television from start to finish and were followed extensively in the press. These hearings were the first time that many Americans got to see Senator McCarthy in action. The lead representative for the Army was attorney Joseph Welch, who confronted the powerful Wisconsin Senator who had ruined the careers of many influential Americans by accusing them of having communist sympathies. This clip portrays an important verbal exchange between Welch and McCarthy that captured the attention of the millions of Americans who followed the hearings.The Characters
- Joseph Welch: Army’s lead Attorney; Special Counsel for the Army
- Senator Joe McCarthy: defendant
- Roy Cohn: McCarthy’s attorney
- Fred Fisher: an associate of Welch’s who worked in the same law firm but was not on this case (or seen in the video.)
- National Lawyer’s guild: A group of lawyers who defended clients in anti-Communist cases and was accused of having Communist sympathies.
Before this clip, Welch poked fun at Cohn for commenting that he would root out all communists by sundown. At the beginning of the clip, McCarthy references this to make a point about how Welch could poke fun, but that Welch himself worked with communists, and cited Welch’s colleague Fred Fisher’s prior association with the National Lawyer’s Guild. Welch explained that he did not let Fisher work on this case because he anticipated such an attack on his character and to let it be. McCarthy continues going after Fisher and Welch speaks his famous line—have you no sense of decency, sir?How did the public view this exchange?
Many Americans who watched the exchange concurred with Welch’s famous line, “Have you no sense of decency sir?” and came to see McCarthy as a reckless bully. This public exchange helped turn the tide of public opinion against Senator McCarthy and marked the end of McCarthy’s reign as a feared inquisitor.
This exchange marked the end of Senator Joe McCarthy’s influence. After this event, he was no longer able to continue his campaign against Communists as effectively or with as much public support. However, the historical significance goes beyond the exchange’s effect on McCarthy’s political fortunes as it also marked a turning point in ending America’s Second Red Scare as public support for the campaign waned and court decisions rejected its methods.
How do we understand a single historical source? We need background information and knowledge of its historical context. This clip is familiar to many adults, but foreign and likely unremarkable to our students. Viewing the clip and using the supplementary sources helps students understand how to contextualize primary source footage from the past. Beyond that, it also helps students learn more about the Second Red Scare and see that it was not the work of a single man, but rather a pervasive climate. The exchange can move from an unremarkable event to an entry into another time that reverberates today. As students understand the exchange in its historical context, its historical significance becomes clearer.
Supplementary SourcesDocument A: New York Times Article (June 10, 1954)
Lawrence, W.H. "Welch Assails M'Carthy's 'Cruelty' And 'Recklessness' In Attack On Aide,” New York Times, June 10, 1954 [excerpt].
Use this source to help students consider how the exchange in the clip was perceived by contemporaries.Document B: Herb Block cartoon “You Read Books, eh?” (April 24, 1949)
Block, Herb, "So you Read Books, eh?", Washington Post, April 24, 1949.
Use this cartoon to remind students that a climate of oppressive political conformity existed before Senator Joseph McCarthy made his accusations in 1950. See the cartoon in the original exhibit.Document C: “The Legacy of McCarthyism” by Ellen Schrecker
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (1994): pp. 92-94.
Use this article to have students think about the immediate and long-lasting effects of McCarthyism on American politics and society.Timelines
Use this set of chronologies with the other sources to help students track the sequence of events that signified McCarthy’s rise and fall. These chronologies also help students consider events that signified a climate of red-baiting and fear of communism that McCarthy took advantage of rather than created by himself.
Historical ThinkingQuestioning Historical Sources
Start the lesson with minimal information about this video and challenge students to generate questions necessary to more fully understand the clip, its historical context, and its significance. Limit the information you give students to the date, place, and main characters (McCarthy, Welch) before the initial viewing.
Ask students to generate questions that will help them understand the clip in its historical context. Before viewing the clip a second time, answer student questions about the characters and content of the exchange. For a repeat viewing, focus students’ attention on the tone of the exchange and identifying evidence for their characterization of that tone.Understanding a Source in its Historical Context
When students generate questions, track them and return to those that illuminate the historical context surrounding the clip and the significance of McCarthyism. Use the additional sources as opportunities to help students understand this context, from its immediate significance and response as illustrated by the New York Times article, to understanding McCarthyism as a climate that extended beyond one Senator’s efforts with the Herb Block cartoon and Schrecker interpretation (see supplementary sources).
Put date of clip on board. Ask students, what was going on at this time?During Viewing
What questions do you want answered about this clip to more fully understand it? Students generate questions, for example:
- What are they talking about?
- Where was it shown?
- Who was the audience?
- Why would people care?
Teacher answers questions regarding the circumstances and content of the clip. A second viewing is recommended for the following three questions:
- Who “wins” this exchange?
- Who comes out ahead in this exchange?
Assign groups of students to look closely at one of the following:
- conversational style of Welch & McCarthy;
- audience response;
- Content of conversation, including word choice;
- camera work—who & what appears in the frame and in what sequence?
What do you suspect is the historical significance of this clip? Explain. Where could you look to find out if you are judging this as its contemporaries might?For Additional Sources
- See questions on each prepared document.
- Evaluate the accuracy of the statement: Senator McCarthy was responsible for anti-Communist hysteria after WWII. Use evidence to support your evaluation.
- Make a list of contextual factors that matter to understanding this clip and its significance. Star the most important and then explain in a paragraph.
For More Information
Universal Newsreel excerpt on the beginning of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] hearings on communists in Hollywood (October 20, 1947).
A series of helpful timelines, including ones addressing the Army-McCarthy Hearings, the era of McCarthyism, and McCarthy’s life.
"After the Brawl" Collier’s (August 6, 1954). This article talks about the damage done the Senate by the “carnival” hearings.
Additional excerpts from historian Ellen Schrecker about the Age of McCarthyism.
Senate website. Includes the transcripts of the McCarthy hearings.
The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthyism. This lesson plan includes hyperlinks to multiple relevant resources. It is part of a larger Edsitement curriculum unit titled Anticommunism in Postwar America, 1945-1954: Witch Hunt or Red Menace?