Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Joseph Welch

Joseph Welch suddenly appeared on the national stage in 1954 at the age of 63. Where did he come from? Who was he?

Upbringing

Welch was born on October 22, 1890, on a farm near the tiny Iowa town of Primghar, the youngest of seven children. His parents were poor English immigrants who came to Iowa in a covered wagon from Illinois. As a boy, he often watched trials in the county courthouse and was impressed with a lawyer’s ability to say “Strike that out” and eliminate what had been said. He worked in a real estate office for two years after completing high school to save money for college.

Education

Welch was the straight-A valedictorian of the Primghar High School class of 1908.

Primghar High School
Grinnell College

Welch attended Iowa’s Grinnell College, my alma mater, from 1910 through 1914, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree, Phi Beta Kappa (1914). [1]  He majored in economics and political science. He was active in debate and tennis and served as Editor-in-Chief of the College’s annual yearbook.  Welch later observed that Grinnell gave him four important things—an appreciation of literature and the beauty of words, development of speaking abilities, appreciation of music and a chance to dream and explore spiritual issues.

Austin Hall,                  Harvard Law School

Welch then went on to Harvard Law School, 1914 to 1917, receiving a LL.B. degree in 1917.  Welch was second in his class and a member of the staff of the Harvard Law Review and its Book Review Editor. Also on the Review with him were Dean Acheson, later a partner of Edward B. Burling (Grinnell, 1890) and U.S. Secretary of State, and Archibald MacLeish, later known for his poetry.

Legal Career

After a brief period as a private in the Army near the end of World War I and as a lawyer for the U.S. Shipping Board in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Burling was his supervisor, Welch started practicing law with the Boston firm of Hale and Dorr in 1919. He became a junior partner almost immediately and soon was the firm’s primary trial attorney. He handled all kinds of civil cases in state and federal courts in New England. He particularly liked antitrust cases (for the defense), libel cases (for the plaintiff), will and estate cases and tax cases. He came to be known as a “lawyer’s lawyer” and for his skill in cross-examination.

The Sacco-Venzetti Case

Vanzetti & Sacco

The public emotions over Senator McCarthy were presaged for Welch by the Sacco-Vanzetti case in Boston just as Welch was starting the practice of law in that city. In 1920-21, two Italian anarchists living in Boston, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by a Massachusetts trial court for murdering a factory paymaster and his guard. There was a widespread belief that they were convicted because of their political opinions, rather than committing the murders. As a result, there were protests in the U.S. and throughout the world. Such protests continued until and after their executions in 1927. It was the cause célèbre of the time.

Prof. Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter, then Professor at the Harvard Law School, chaired the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Fund, and Welch as a young lawyer in Boston apparently helped to raise money for the fund.  In the year before the executions, Welch’s friend and law firm colleague, Herbert Ehrmann, became one of the lawyers representing Sacco and Vanzetti, and Welch also knew another of their attorneys as well as the trial judge. As a result, Welch was very close to the case although he did not participate himself.

This case, Welch later said, “tortured” him. The trial judge was “an awful damned fool.” Sacco and Vanzetti, in Welch’s opinion, had not received a fair trial, and Welch had grave doubts about their guilt. The night the two men were executed shattered him, and the case tormented him for the rest of his life. As a result, Welch became an opponent of capital punishment.

Family Life

In September 1917 Welch married Judith Lyndon. They had two sons, Joseph Nye, Jr. and Lyndon, both of whom became engineers.


[1] I heard Welch speak at Grinnell College in the Fall of 1957, but I was too shy to introduce myself to him and engage him in conversation. Later I conducted research about Welch. Two of Grinnell’s other notables—Hallie Flanagan, the Director of the Federal Theatre Project in the New Deal, and Harry Hopkins, the head of the Works Progress Administration in the New Deal and an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt—were also Grinnell students at the same time as Welch. It would be interesting to find out whether Welch had any contacts with Hopkins or Flanagan during their college years or afterwards.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prior posts have examined the substance of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, the performance of Joseph Welch, the Army’s lawyer, in the hearings, and the Army’s hiring of Welch for this purpose.  Now we look at the role of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in these events.

During the hearings, President Eisenhower maintained his public distance from the battle between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Army. The President believed that any public criticism of McCarthy by the President would merely enhance the Senator’s publicity value without achieving any positive purpose and that it was the Senate’s constitutional responsibility, not the President’s, to curb the Senator.

George C. Marshall

Eisenhower did so despite having an intense dislike of McCarthy and his methods. This stemmed from the Senator’s past attacks on George C. Marshall, who was Eisenhower’s friend and Army colleague and who was the former Secretary of State in the Truman Administration. The dislike was exacerbated by McCarthy’s attacks on several of Eisenhower’s top-level nominees in 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration, and by McCarthy’s investigation of the Army starting in 1953. Eisenhower said privately, “I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk.”

We now know, however, that the President was active behind the scenes to fight McCarthy.

Though his Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, Eisenhower selected Welch as the Army’s attorney. Before and during the hearings, privately within the White House, Eisenhower expressed his extreme displeasure with McCarthy and was active in various ways regarding the hearings.

Robert Stevens

Moreover, Eisenhower wanted to give McCarthy enough rope to hang himself even though the Army would suffer in the short run. When the initial hearings went badly for McCarthy, the Senator suggested that there be no more television coverage. Army Secretary Robert Stevens discussed this proposal with the President, who rejected the idea, saying, “Now we have the bastard right where we want him!” The proposal was rejected. Television coverage continued. McCarthy destroyed himself.

As another example of the “hidden hand” of the Eisenhower presidency, the President invited television-journalist, Edward R. Murrow, to the White House to congratulate him for his television program’s exposure of McCarthy’s methodology.

When the hearings were over, the Army’s lawyers, Joseph Welch and James St. Clair, had a private meeting at the White House with the President. The President congratulated them on their presentation of the Army’s case and agreed with Welch that the main effect of the hearings had been to expose McCarthy’s disgraceful tactics before a national audience and that this exposure would ultimately benefit the country.1[1]


[1] Subsequent posts will review 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.  By the way, after the hearings, Welch and St. Clair also had a private meeting with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of Welch’s law school professors at Harvard.