Losing the Sense of Decency

George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Recent political events have stirred up the most famous altercation from one of the darkest times in our government’s history.

On the ninth day of June 1954, American TV viewers were watching the thirtieth day of hearings involving the Senate and the Army. The hearings were about accusations that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, had used his influence with regards to the military service of G. David Schine, and McCarthy’s counterclaim that the accusations were in response to his committee’s hearings on suspected Communists in the military.

McCarthy was the central name in the Red Scare, a period of the Cold War in which the government sought to ferret out any and all influence of the Soviet Union in the United States. Careers were ruined by McCarthyism, as people accused each other in order to avoid the taint of being labeled a member of the Communist Party. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” about the Salem witch trials, was an allegory for McCarthy’s own style of a witch hunt. McCarthy’s driving force: Remove all Communist influence from the United States.

But on the ninth day of June, 1954, the tide change significantly over the span of about ten minutes.

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The protagonist in this story is much less famous in the history books. Joseph Welch was the chief counsel for the Army. He had initially asked two other lawyers to come with him to prepare for the hearings. One of these lawyers was Fred Phillips, young but respected in the firm. However, when Phillips voluntarily told Welch that he’d been a member of an organization tied to the Communists while he was in college, Welch removed him from the case out of concerns of the appearance of impropriety.

Welch knew that, even though Phillips was no longer involved in that organization, it would do significant damage to his reputation if it became publicly known: Not because there was anything wrong with the group (it was a group for lawyers that defended accused Communists), but because of McCarthy’s efforts to smear anything remotely attached to Communism.

Recall that the case at hand was largely over McCarthy’s claim that the Army was fraught with Communists. But when Welch pushes McCarthy’s lawyer, Cohn, to produce a list of Communists within the Army, McCarthy pushes back. He accuses Welch of harboring his own Communist, of even trying to foist that Communist upon the Committee, and he names Fred Phillips on national television.

Welch is furious. This was beyond the pale, even for Senator McCarthy. After getting McCarthy’s attention, Welch begins, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He goes on to refer to cruelty and recklessness several more times. He admits knowing of Phillips’s past, and speaks as a fond father might speak of a son who has made a mistake, has learned, and has moved on.

While McCarthy is glib and arrogant, Welch is visibly tender, shaken, and regretful. He speaks of Phillips as “the lad,” and speaks of the permanent scar that McCarthy has just inflicted. “Your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”

McCarthy digs in, repeating the accusation, mocking Welch, and suggesting that Welch is a hypocrite for asking for a list of Communists while working with one himself. This leads to Welch’s most famous retort: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy still refuses to relent, repeating the claim that Welch tried to sneak Phillips in the proceedings, a claim that Chairman Mundt denies several times. Welch gives up, telling Mundt that he’s done answering questions and that they should move on to the next witness.

The entire exchange did not take long, but the damage to McCarthy’s reputation was irreversible. These were two men shown in contrast: Welch, speaking of Phillips as if he were his own son, and McCarthy, a bully refusing to relent on his personal vendetta long enough to consider another person’s humanity. Welch’s eloquence in illustrating the contrast left an impression on the public.

McCarthyism persisted for a few years after this, but it had lost much of its bite. While it was Supreme Court rulings that brought McCarthyism to a legal end, the exchange involving Welch was its spiritual end.

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This exchange brings to mind a much more recent one between an actual father and a relentless bully. The bully’s target is Muslims, but many of the tactics are the same: Distraction, lying, restructuring the debate. Welch did not bring McCarthy down: McCarthy brought himself down, by not realizing that he’d stepped over a line while the public was watching, and continuing his cruel and reckless drumbeat. Likewise, Khizr Khan did nothing but challenge Donald Trump’s suggestion that Muslims represent a danger that justifies violating the First Amendment.

Time will tell whether the incident with Khan will represent the same sort of watershed for Trump that Welch did for McCarthy. However, it’s clear that at least some damage has been done. We cannot march down the same path.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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