Have You No Decency Sir? Part Two- Joseph McCarthy: Separating Fact from Fiction

Is it true what they say about Joe McCarthy? Did he have any “decency?”

  1. IV. In carrying out his “Witch Hunts” it is believed that McCarthy was cruel, disrespectful, and contemptuous toward his witnesses with little regard for their constitutional rights. Eager to put these so-called “commies” in jail, the standard histories say, the impatient, nasty, mean-spirited Senator from Wisconsin and his gang of assassins ran roughshod over innocent victims with little regard for fairness while his helpless Senate colleagues watched in utter dismay afraid to challenge him lest they too be accused of Communism. Surely, his was a reign of terror, a Washington version of the Salem witch trials.

Narrative historian William Manchester knows a rat when he sees one: “Tydings (Democrat committee chair in 1950) had won all the battles of reason and decency, but McCarthy had never tried to be reasonable or decent; he was a political charlatan, etc..” 1

Kenneth Davis in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY calls him “this scruffy, mean-spirited alcoholic..” -among other things. And that’s one of his nicer comments.2

In the textbook LIBERTY, EQUALITY, AND POWER the authors assert that McCarthy “bullied witnesses..”3

David Halberstam,( usually one of my favorite narrative historians), can’t find anything nice to say either: “..a serious drinker ..who…after berating vulnerable witnesses during the day… had a talent for imagining conspiracy…a marvelous actor who knew instinctively how to brush aside the protests of his witnesses, how to humiliate scared, vulnerable people..” Gosh, McCarthy was not only a drunk, but a mean one at that! 4

These are but a few comments from the standard histories- representative of what we’ll find in book after book, all on the same anti-McCarthy page.

So… do we accept this at face value, the widely held belief that McCarthy was a particularly nasty Nazi? That the devil himself was running loose in Washington from 1950 to 1954? True or false? I say:


The evidence doesn’t support this.

Consider these comments from Samuel Shaffer of Newsweek in the Spring of 1953 quoting a Democratic member of McCarthy’s committee:

“I must say I have a more favorable opinion of McCarthy than I used to have before I came on this committee. He is a very able lawyer. He is damn sharp. He is fair and COURTEOUS (emphasis mine) to members of his committee. He doesn’t bulldoze his witnesses as much as I expected him to. In fact, he has permitted hostile witnesses to speak at great length.” 4

McCarthy “courteous?” How could anyone who had ACTUALLY BEEN WITH McCarthy say such as thing?

And another. That same year Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune observed:

“Many will be astonished by this but the fact is that McCarthy is an extraordinarily patient man. He has more self-control than almost any public figure I have encountered in the past two decades. This writer has had..almost numberless occasions to marvel at his control under persistent and insulting questions by hostile reporters…An abusive Fifth Amendment witness gets slapped down promptly but ordinarily McCarthy maintains an even temperament. ” 5

Stanton Evans tells us to forget the standard histories, textbooks compiled by lazy historians simply regurgitating the party line, “movie history” and to doubt contemporary editorials* from hostile newspapers like the Washington Post. Instead look at primary sources, namely the transcripts of the ACTUAL Senate hearings, the official Congressional record, thousands of pages detailing McCarthy and his colleagues going about their daily business.

Primary sources? Seems I remember reading once that REAL historians were supposed to take a strong interest in such things.

“Anyone,” Evans tells us, ” will be struck by the contrast between the picture they(transcripts-primary sources) convey and the accepted image of McCarthy…exchanges between McCarthy and his democratic colleagues at this time (early 1953) were..quite cordial..he was patient with harangues from hostile witnesses..Another salient feature ..was the rule that no one should be named as a Communist, pro-Communist, or subversive unless the person named was given notice and the opportunity to respond directly ..with counsel present.”6

It is particularly interesting that even in the bit of film shown in the movie GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK where we see McCarthy and Cohn being questioned in the McCarthy-Army hearings in 1954 by attorney Joseph Welch (who is clearly enjoying himself), McCarthy and Roy Cohn appear subdued, cooperative and even respectful demonstrating the “even-temperament” cited by   Willard Edwards. Even in this carefully selected bit-of-film we do not view an out-of-control bully, a bulldozer of civil and constitutional rights.

Furthermore, in the famous “gotcha” moment, when McCarthy produces the name of Welch’s associate as a potential subversive and a member of a highly questionable organization, he does so calmly and deliberately ONLY after being incessantly goaded and “double-dog dared” to do so by the grandstanding Welch (playing to the hoots, catcalls, and cheers of the anti-McCarthy audience) who had delivered one silly contemptuous remark after another such as: “Show me just one Communist and I’ll tell the FBI myself!” Clearly it is McCarthy and Cohn who are being bullied here! Watch this short bit of film objectively and forget for a few minutes what it is you’re supposed to believe about McCarthy the school-yard bully and simply observe what is  occurring in this piece of film.

Yes, McCarthy did in this instance, by the way, “name a name.” But, he did so only after being challenged and goaded into doing so. (More on this later)

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, a drama telling the story of the gallant Edward R. Murrow’s “heroic” and long overdue attack against the beast McCarthy was produced and funded by the imminent Hollywood historian George Clooney.

By the way, the real Joe McCarthy was filmed many times. If a bit of film showing him in a very unsympathetic, “bullying” light does indeed exist, I’ve got a feeling that Clooney and company would have used it. Maybe they didn’t because such a bit of film doesn’t exist.

Arthur Hermann, author of a well-regarded modern book-length study of the much maligned senator offers a far more believable appraisal. He tells us that:

“McCarthy was a warm, engaging, intensely physical man…the kind of person who cornered you and buttonholed you at a party…charming and engaging. Most people-even his political opponents-found him a very likeable individual. 7

An application of common sense might be in order here. McCarthy was elected to high political office in 1946 in what was usually considered a progressive state and RE-ELECTED in 1952 in the midst of his Communist-chasing campaign. An unlikeable, crude, “scruffy” drunken brute might, just might, win the first election but a reelection? I doubt it. From what I’ve read, McCarthy was popular back home and had little trouble getting himself reelected. This suggests to me that in 1952 the people of Wisconsin,( not Alabama) liked their senator and liked what he was doing!

Oh, one last thing. Remember Joe Kennedy and his boys John and Robert, that Irish-Catholic bunch from Massachusetts? More bad news for lazy historians.  They loved Joe McCarthy as well and had him over for visits to their family home on Hyannis Port at Cape Cod several times. The feisty young Robert even served as McCarthy’s assistant for a few months in 1954. When JFK ran for the Senate in 1952, McCarthy refused to campaign against his good friend, much to the disgust of fellow Republican Henry Cabot Lodge the incumbent who, of course, lost his Senate seat to the young Democrat challenger and future president.

The friendship of McCarthy to the Kennedys has been a problem for McCarthy-hating historians. Few standard histories will even bring it up. I haven’t found any mention of it in the dozen or so bargain textbooks I own. Best not to, I guess; such an application of truth just confuses the issue and softens the picture of Joe McCarthy the caveman. After all, that’s the picture we’ve been programmed to see.

In conclusion, the standard histories have mostly presented us with a simplistic one-dimensional cartoon Nazi, an inquisitor, a “Witch-hunter,” a melodramatic bad guy straight out of a 1950’s Hollywood B-rate movie that bears scant resemblance to the real Joe McCarthy.

Here’s to you Kenneth Davis, as your book title indicates, you ( and your textbook colleagues) really “don’t know much about history.” At the very least, you guys are abysmally ignorant, and willfully so, when it comes to Senator McCarthy. Dig a little deeper boys and girls. Grow up. Quit insulting our intelligence. And give us, and the Senator, a break.


More to come.


*When we base our view of Joe McCarthy on negative newspaper editorials of his day aren’t we, in a sense, like future researchers basing their view of President Barak Obama on information gleaned from U-tube videos of Bill O’Reilly (Fox News) commentaries? My Democrat friends certainly hope that their grandchildren will dig a little deeper than that!


  1. Manchester, William. THE GLORY AND THE DREAM Vol. 1, p. 648.
  3. Murrin, et al. LIBERTY, EQUALITY, AND POWER. p. 742.
  4. David Halberstam, THE FIFTIES. (p.54)
  5. Evans, M. Stanton: BLACKLISTED BY HISTORY, p. 458
  6. Evans, etc.




1 Comment

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One response to “Have You No Decency Sir? Part Two- Joseph McCarthy: Separating Fact from Fiction

  1. Dave Lavell


    If you keep insisting on including facts in your writing, well, that’s not nice. You’ll really tick people off. (chuckle)
    And I’m so glad to see that you recognize George Clooney as a historian.

    Excellent piece, as usual.

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