Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Joseph Welch

Attorney Joseph Welch’s legal representation of the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings was a very difficult assignment. It was not a trial in a court with established procedural and evidentiary rules to resolve a dispute under known substantive legal principles before an independent judge or jury. That is where Welch had many years of experience. Instead it was a congressional hearing without such rules or substantive law and without an independent trier of fact under the lights of television cameras before a jury of millions of fellow citizens. That is something for which Welch had no experience. Nor did any other lawyer at the time. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate Welch’s performance as a lawyer in the hearings.

As we have seen in a prior post, Welch ultimately was successful in showing the nation the bad side of McCarthy’s personality and tactics and in helping to undermine the Senator’s influence and power. Welch’s folksy,understated manner played  an important part in this TV drama. In that most important test of performance, Welch was successful. [1]

During the first weeks of the hearings, however, Life Magazine said, “many television viewers felt sorry for [Welch]—and even sorrier for anyone who was relying on his advice and assistance. He simply sat there, looking terribly tired and half asleep, and when he did speak up it was in a mild and apologetic tone of voice that seemed pathetically inadequate.”

John G. Adams

Moreover, one of Welch’s clients, John G. Adams, who as an Army attorney had been personally attacked by McCarthy, thought that Welch was not doing a good job in defending him before the committee. Adams was being excluded from the daily meetings to prepare for the hearings, and Welch allegedly was making deals with committee counsel without Adams’ approval. In addition, Adams thought Welch was too much of a gentleman to conduct a rigorous cross-examination of McCarthy’s female secretary.

As a result, during the hearings Adams met with attorney Edward B. Burling of the eminent Covington & Burling law firm to see if it could represent Adams. Burling had Adams meet with one of the firm’s other partners, who said that Adams probably not want the firm to represent him because it was subject to potential smearing by McCarthy. One of its partners (Donald Hiss) was the brother of Alger Hiss, who had been convicted in 1950 for providing classified government documents to an admitted Communist, Whitaker Chambers.

After the hearings were over, Welch thought that he had made many mistakes and that the Army had not proved its case in the hearings. He privately said to fellow attorney Bruce Bromley, who had recommended him for this assignment, “Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t make bad mistakes because I did. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t have gigantic anxieties that you were not aware of.”[1] Edward Bennett Williams, the noted trial attorney and legal counsel for McCarthy, opined that the Army did not put forth a convincing case on the evidence.

In addition, in an October 1954 speech, Welch publicly admitted, “There were many times when I sat stunned and speechless, and [the public] said, ‘What patience the man has.’ When I sat in an agony of indecision, [the public] said, ‘How wise he is. . . .’ Sometimes I was so weary my mind was almost blank, and then some of [the public] would say, ‘How witty he is!’”

Welch also said after the hearings that he had been hampered by the setting: the palpable fear and hate in the room, the crowded hearing room, the TV cameras, being forced to be seated and being far from the witness. For one watching the videotape of the hearings today, it is difficult to appreciate the fear and the hate that were present in the country and in the hearing room.

It is also difficult today to grasp the importance of the hearings because the issues that were being debated seem trivial: whether McCarthy tried to pressure the Army to give special favors to David Schine; whether a photograph of Shine and the Secretary of the Army had been cropped and by whom; and whether a purported letter from the FBI was authentic. Welch’s notes of levity in the hearings makes one wonder whether this was his way of signaling to the public that these issues were not really that important.

At one of the hearings, Welch was questioning a McCarthy investigator on how a photograph of Schine had been cropped to show only Schine and Army Secretary Stevens. Welch asked the investigator, “Do you think this came from a pixie?” McCarthy interrupted to ask Welch what a “pixie” was. Welch retorted: a “pixie is a close relative of a fairy.”

Al Pacino as Roy Cohn

At the time this was seen as an example of Welch’s clever wit. But it really was a double-entendre warning that McCarthy did not catch. Welch really was hinting that Cohn was a homosexual who was having an affair with Schine or maybe even with Senator McCarthy himself. (In the more recent Mike Nichols’ production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Al Pacino plays Roy Cohn as a closeted homosexual dying of AIDS.)

Welch closed the hearings with these remarks: “I, alone, came into this room from deep obscurity. I, alone, will retire to obscurity.  As it folds about me softly, as I hope it does quickly, the lady who listened and is called Judith Lyndon Welch [his wife] will hear from me a long sigh of relief. . . . I can say, as I have already indicated, that I could do with a little serenity. I will allow myself to hope that soon there will come a day when there will, in this lovely land of ours, be more simple laughter.”

Thereafter Welch wrote the Subcommittee’s lawyer, Roy Jenkins, “I think I cherish most the few words at the end of the hearing when you and I agreed that we had never had any really difficult moment. We did not always agree completely, but we seldom seriously disagreed and we never fought. To achieve that result in a room full of tensions required graciousness and good will; and while I would like to think my contribution approached half, I would be quick to say yours exceeded half.” (In response, Jenkins said, “I am going to write the lexicographers . . . so that the word ‘Welchian’ be incorporated as another synonym for the word ‘graciousness.’”)

Welch also wrote after the close of the hearings to Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota, who chaired the subcommittee. Welch said Mundt “had an incredibly difficult assignment and there was no hope that you would please everyone. I do not claim I was always happy with what you did, but I do claim I was happy with every personal contact and proud to have the feeling that you and I are really good friends. I could not bear to have it any other way.”

During and immediately after the hearings Welch was always circumspect in what he said about McCarthy.

In 1959, however, Welch said that McCarthy was “the most completely fraudulent man I ever knew…. But for the life of me I never could figure out what he was up to. He seemed to me just a planless adventurer who seemed to me to get some sort of an adolescent joy out of thrashing around, making a loud noise, wounding people, and embarrassing the hell out of highly placed individuals. He seemed to me to take a sort of maniacal delight in selecting some highly honorable and dignified person in some high position, and at the lowest just scaring the hell out of him, and at the highest or at the worst destroying him.”

And in a 1957 speech Welch spoke out about the fear engendered by McCarthy and the appropriate remedy for same. “Eccentric conduct,” Welch said, “which ought only to produce a tolerant smile has instead provoked fear. Thoughts and words not in conformity with those of the great majority of our people have often brought a dissenter into hatred, ridicule, and contempt, or worse dangers.” Welch continued, “Fear is a painful and contagious disease. It is also a cumulative disease. A society beset by fear develops no immunity to fear. Instead it becomes more and more vulnerable, and fresh waves of fear sweep over the enfeebled patient, whose resistance to disease diminishes with each new attack.” Welch finished, “The cure for the malady of fear is found only in the sweet medicine of reason. And reason at its finest social form is law.”


[1] Subsequent posts will review President Eisenhower’s participation in the hearings, the Army’s hiring of Welch as its attorney, Welch’s activities after the hearings and his background. I interviewed Fred Fisher and James St. Clair in 1986 and have reviewed many source materials that document the assertions in this post. If anyone wants to see the bibliography of these sources, I will do so in another post at the conclusion of this series. Just make such a request in a comment to this or the other posts in this series.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

4 thoughts on “Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings”

  1. I would love to see the bibliography you refer to. This is a very interestg post. In the movie (documentary) in which the famous “pixie” exchange occurs, you can see Roy Cohn looking very tense and uncomfortable. As you point out, using the word “fairy” was very deliberate. I remember that era, and “fairy” was, then, a very common negative term meaning “homosexual”.

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