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.

Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Joseph Welch’s participation in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 brought him national prominence. We have seen a summary of those hearings and his performance as the U.S. Army’s lawyer.

As a result, Welch became a celebrity. His career expanded to do new things.

Television Commentator

Welch appeared on various national television programs, most notably talking about the U.S. Constitution on the Omnibus program. A book of those commentaries was published.

Welch,The Constitution
Leonard Bernstein
Marian Anderson

In 1959 Welch provided commentary during intermissions of several televised concerts by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.  After Bernstein apparently had called Welch a “great American,” Welch responded, “I suspect you are a better judge of good music than you are of what could truly be called great Americans. Do not think for a moment, however, that it is not music to me to have you say of me what you do.”  Welch added that for him to accept money for being on a Christmas concert with Bernstein and soprano Marian Anderson was “just barely distinguishable from cheating.”

Correspondent with Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx

Welch’s television appearances had an impact on comedian Groucho Marx. In a serious article in TV Digest about the status of television programming, he said, “[I]t speaks very well of television and its audience that the man so constantly in demand for more TV appearances after the Army-McCarthy Hearings was not Senator McCarthy, but Joseph Welch.”

This article came to Welch’s attention, and he wrote to Groucho on his law firm’s letterhead that listed the names of all the 40 or so lawyers in the firm. Welch said that it had not been necessary to hire extra help “to hold at bay swarms of people anxious to get me to appear on television or in the movies.” He then expressed admiration for Groucho’s work and said it “must be wonderful to be (a) Rich, (b) Intelligent, and (c) Funny. I trust I list them in their correct order.”

Groucho responded that he was not rich, but “rich enough . . . to know that inflation is knocking hell out of what I have.”  He also said he was a “little frightened” by the imposing list of 40 lawyers on Welch’s law firm’s letterhead. Groucho said he had been sued over the years on most of the “minor charges—rape, larceny, embezzlement and parking in front of a fire plug,” but those law firms never had more than four lawyers. Groucho then asked a series of questions about life in such a large law firm.

Welch could not let this Marx missive go unnoticed. Welch told Groucho that he had misunderstood the letterhead: “All the names below the first line are the name of our professional witnesses. They hang around street corners and turn up unexpectedly as witnesses in all the automobile cases we try.”  Welch then answered Groucho’s questions about the firm:

  • Q: How do you get along in the office?
  • A:  By leaning on each other heavily and on our secretaries.
  • Q:  Do you trust each other? 
  • A:  In every area except money, property and women.
  • Q:  Does each one have a separate safe for his money?
  • A:  Yes, except I have so much money I have two safes.
  •  Q: Isn’t there some danger that you and one of your partners could both be in a courtroom, representing opposing clients?
  • A: Damned if there isn’t and every now and then somebody takes in a case where the client is against the client of another guy in this office and there is hell to pay and no foolin’.
  • Q: Do you have one community storage room for your briefcases? Or does each one sit on his own case?
  • A: I do not understand this question. I sit on what you sit on only I do more of it than you do.”

While Welch said he hoped that Groucho would visit him in Boston, Welch advised him to keep it quiet because “a highly numerous and vocal collection of people in Boston thought and still think that hanging is too good for me.”

Welch indeed matched wits with Groucho.

Movie Actor

In 1959 Welch became a movie actor when Director Otto Preminger picked him to play Judge Weaver, a Michigan trial-court judge, in the film, Anatomy of a Murder, which is still an entertaining movie.

The basic plot concerns an Army Lieutenant, Frederick Manion  (played by Ben Gazarra), who is accused of murdering a man, Barney Quill, for allegedly raping his beautiful wife, Laura Manion (played by Lee Remick). Manion’s lawyer, Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart), is assisted by his friend, Parnell McCarthy (played by Paul O’Connell), an alcoholic lawyer. They oppose the district attorney, Mitch Lodwick, and a state assistant attorney general, Claude Dancer (played by George C. Scott). Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch) presides over the trial. Several interesting issues of legal ethics are posed by the trial, which is a subject for another day.

Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver
Jimmy Stewart as Biegler
Lee Remick as Laura Manion
Duke Ellington & Jimmy Stewart

Filmed in a small, apparently all white, county seat in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the movie has an enjoyable digression. Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician, appears in one scene as Pie-Eye, a musician playing the piano with a black jazz band, at a roadhouse. Joining him on the piano is the defense attorney (Jimmy Stewart), who is a jazz aficionado.

The movie received many Oscar nominations, but lost “Best Picture” to Ben-Hur while Stewart lost “Best Actor” to Charlton Heston in the latter movie.

During the filming, Welch became a good friend of John Voelker, the author of the film script and of the  novel of the same title and a fellow attorney and a former member of the Michigan Supreme Court. They discussed the possibility of Voelker’s assisting Welch in writing an autobiography, but that never happened. In their extensive correspondence over the last 18 months of Welch’s life, Welch compared his wordsmithing as “counterfeit” coins to Voelker’s “complete access to, if not ownership of, the First National Bank of Words.”

Law Firm Partner

Welch’s graciousness, so evident in the Army-McCarthy hearings, also was present in Welch as a law firm partner.

In 1952 the Hale and Dorr law firm was faced with an issue of whether it should make a claim on the estate of a deceased partner who had paid himself more than he was entitled to, i.e., who had embezzled law firm funds. The firm adopted Welch’s proposal to make a claim for one-half the amount. Said Welch, “Let him pay for his choice of life style. But because of the nature of the partnership and because we truly liked him at his best, let us forgive a half.”

In addition, presumably in the late1950’s Welch wrote a letter to his partners at Hale and Dorr, “This is like my will to you. I have lived a successful, rewarding and happy life. I believe that I owe the firm money rather than visa-versa. In any event, since my second wife does not need any money, any moneys owing to me by the firm upon my death should be paid to you [the partners], not to my family.”

Welch also prepared what he called an “office will:” It stated, “All the rest and residue and remainder of me as a lawyer I leave to all those in Hale and Dorr that I have loved. To a very large degree they . . . have made me what I am. Such success as I have attained I owe largely to them. I have lived my whole professional life in an office free from grief, envy, and jealousy. Few lawyers have been so blessed in their associations continually all through life. For the serenely happy life I have had with all of you, I say a simple and inadequate thank you.” Welch concluded: “this is my office will and is undated. The identity of the typist is to remain a secret. It is not witnessed. But even so—no fooling. Joseph N. Welch.”

The author in his years as a practicing lawyer in large law firms has never heard of anything like these gracious comments from a partner to his or her fellow partners.

Conclusion

Welch’s first wife, Judith Lyndon Welch, died in 1956, and he was remarried to Agnes Rodgers Brown Welch.

Welch died on October 6, 1960, just weeks before his 70th birthday.

The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings

The Army had many lawyers of its own, and it had a call on lawyers from the Department of Justice. Why then did the Army decide to hire a private attorney? The answer has not been discovered. One reason could be that the Army’s chief legal Counsel, John G. Adams, was included in the charges of improper conduct by McCarthy, and this presented a conflict of interest that prevented his representing the Army and other officials.

In any event, the Army did search for a private attorney. Its first choice, an unnamed prominent Washington, D.C. lawyer, declined the request because he had been associated with a person who might be vulnerable to a McCarthy smear.

Sherman Adams
Thomas E. Dewey
Bruce Bromley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welch apparently was number two on the Army’s list. He was retained, pro bono publico (without fee), for the Army by Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, upon the recommendation of two Wall Street lawyers: Thomas E. Dewey, the former Republican Governor of New York and the Party’s presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948, and Bruce Bromley, a former New York State judge (appointed by Governor Dewey) and a senior litigation partner in the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.[i]

Bromley knew Welch and his reputation as an exceptional trial lawyer with the eminent Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr (now WilmerHale), where since 1919 he had been handling all kinds of commercial civil litigation in courts in New England. Bromley introduced Welch to Dewey, who after an interview joined in a joint recommendation of Welch. But Welch had no experience with national security or political matters, and like almost all lawyers of the time no experience in congressional hearings, especially those on national television. These facts, however, did not disqualify him and indeed may have been seen as qualifying characteristics.

Perhaps one reason for Welch’s selection was his being from Boston as was the first outside lawyer for the Committee, Samuel Sears, who immediately withdrew because of public comments he had made in favor of McCarthy. Before Sears’ withdrawal, however, Welch told him, “I want to talk with complete frankness. You and I can’t afford to have any holding out on the other. I want your confidence, and I want you to have my confidence, and I want to come out of this with each of us the friend of each other.”

Edward R. Murrow

Bromley’s recommendation of Welch suggests another possible connection between the two men. At the time, Bromley and his firm had been retained by the CBS television network to help it prepare for the anticipated counterattack by Senator McCarthy in response to programs attacking the Senator by Edward R. Murrow. Given how practicing lawyers operate, based upon personal experience, Bromley and Welch probably exchanged information and suggestions about doing battle against the Senator.

David Stratheim as Murrow
George Clooney as Friendly

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the way, Murrow’s programs about McCarthy were at the center of the recent film, Good Night, and Good Luck. The film has a scene of Murrow (played by David Strathairn)and his show’s producer ,  Fred Friendly (played by George Clooney), watching a video clip of the famous 1954 clash between Senator McCarthy and Welch.

Before Welch accepted the offer to be counsel for the Army, he told his law firm partners that he had been asked “to undertake a grueling assignment. It will be long drawn out. I shall have to stay in Washington and I must take two of our best Juniors with me. In exchange, the Army will pay no fee and will not even pay travel and hotel expenses. Also, it is a dangerous assignment. Senator McCarthy is a powerful antagonist. If we have any skeletons in our closets let us say ‘No’ at once.” The partners then unanimously voted to accept the case. One partner ironically observed that another partner, Reginald Heber Smith, who was a national leader for legal aid, had “talked Legal Aid all his life, and now he has a Legal Aid client in the person of the Army of the United States.”

Although I have not found information as to why the Army apparently insisted on a private attorney’s undertaking this representation on a pro bono basis, the Army (and the Eisenhower Administration) may have wanted to avoid criticism by the public and Senator McCarthy of large fees being charged by a private law firm.

In any event, Hale and Dorr accepted the pro bono status. The firm regarded the matter as important for the public, but undoubtedly did not expect the hearings to last as long as they did. Their length obviously increased the cost to the firm; it had to have been a major drag on the firm’s finances for 1954. As Reginald Heber Smith later observed, “The cost was very heavy.”  This engagement, however, subsequently added to the firm’s professional luster and undoubtedly helped in its recruitment of new lawyers and perhaps its retention by some clients.

Another reason for the firm’s pro bono role was not wanting to get sued by a McCarthy supporter in Boston over any fees it would have received if it were fee-for-service.  After all, McCarthy was an Irish Catholic, and there were many of those in Boston, including the patriarch of the Kennedy clan (Joseph Kennedy), who was a McCarthy supporter, and his son, Robert F. Kennedy, was a lawyer for the Democratic members of the McCarthy committee.

Hale and Dorr thus entered the fray as a matter of public service. Reginald Heber Smith said at the time to Welch: “This is your most important case in your professional life; it is the most important case entrusted to the firm . . . . You were exactly right to accept it without pay. . . . Your opening statement to the press was perfect. Get the facts without fear or favor,  present them in that same spirit. The American people are not frightened by mistakes because we all make them; but they are dismayed by what looks like lack of candor and double talk. You can remove this fog of miasma and doubt.  Let the fresh wind of truth come in and do not be disturbed if it blows hard. After that the sun will shine.”


[i]  From 1966 through early 1970, the author was a law clerk and associate attorney at the Cravath firm and worked with Judge Bromley. But I was unaware of the Bromley-Welch connection and thus never interviewed Bromley about his recommending Welch for this important engagement.