Reflections on Learning and Teaching

As a student of history, economics, political science, law and other humanities courses at six colleges and universities[1] and as an instructor at three such institutions,[2] I have participated in different ways of instructing and learning such bodies of knowledge and skills: college and university lectures, other lectures; seminars, research and writing; tutorials; the Socratic method; and role-playing. Similar methods were used in my practice as a litigating attorney and now as a blogger and ordinary citizen. Underlying all of them, of course, are reading and studying. Here are a septuagenarian’s lessons in life-long learning.

My thinking about this subject and writing this blog post were prompted by a recent article about the lecture as a mode of instructing and learning. That article by Molly Worthen, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was put into a broader context by her quoting John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” where he said the humanities taught a student “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent. He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”[3]

College and University Lectures

“A good lecture class,” Worthen says, teaches “comprehension and reasoning” by keeping “students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action.” It does so by emphasizing “the art of attention, the crucial first step in … ‘critical thinking.’” She quotes Monessa Cummins, the Chair of the Classics Department at Grinnell College, my alma mater, as saying the lecture places “a premium on the connections between individual facts . . . [and] the building of an argument.”

This is “hard work” for the students, Worthen adds, requiring them “to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Indeed, students need to be taught how to listen, and lecture courses are exercises in “mindfulness and attention building.” This skill cannot be assumed, but must be taught. One way of doing so, in Professor Cummins’ classes, is to assign one student in each session to present a critique of her argument at the subsequent small discussion section.

Such a lecture course teaches that “listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next–and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.“

This is enhanced, Worthen argues, by requiring the students to take notes by hand, not by typing them into a computer. The former makes it impossible for them to make verbatim transcripts of the lecture, but instead to synthesize as they listen. That may be true, in my opinion, when the lecturer does not provide the students or audience with an outline of the lecture.

Lecturing, on the other hand, with a PowerPoint outline and providing the students or audience members with the Notes Page version of the outline enables the student to glance at the entire presentation in advance and see how the individual points fit into the entire lecture or presentation and then add his or her notes to individual pages as the lecture proceeds. PowerPoint also facilitates the use of graphs, maps and photographs in the lecture. [4]

Worthen also recognizes the utility of combining a large lecture session with small discussions sections and thereby obtain the reactions and comments of the students.

My memories of my first exposure as a student to lecturing 58 years ago as a freshman at Grinnell College are fuzzy at best, but I do not recall being provided with tips on how to take full advantage of this form of instruction. I now wish I had been told how to listen, to be mindful and to synthesize as I listened. I wish I had had a professor assign one student in each session to present a critique of the lecture’s argument at the next class session. Of course, then all notes of a lecture were handwritten.

As a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford, 1961-1963, attendance at university lectures on these subjects, often by world-famous scholars, was optional. I attended some primarily to see and hear such people as philosophers A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle, economist J. R. Hicks and legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart, but regrettably I did not regularly do so. (Instead my attention was focused on tutorials as discussed below.)

As a law student at the University of Chicago, 1963-1966, the Socratic method was the dominant form of instruction, not lectures. The latter instead were formal occasions for all the students and faculty, usually provided by visiting scholars and judges. (The Socratic method also will be discussed below.)

In addition, I was a lecturer when I taught a course on the American Civil Law System at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm, when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law, when I was an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and when I was on the faculty of various continuing legal education courses while I was a practicing lawyer. That experience required me to review the material to be covered, to conduct any additional research I deemed necessary, to determine the main points to emphasize, to construct an outline for what I wanted to cover in the lecture and, in some cases, to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for use at the lecture.

Other Lectures

All of us obtain information and are educated, or not, in other oral presentations throughout our lives. I think of major political speeches like the State of the Union and Inaugural Addresses; other speeches at public events; and sermons at churches.

When, for example, I listen to speeches or presentations at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, I sometimes take handwritten notes and submit proposed questions for the moderator to ask the speaker. Later I also can go to the Forum’s website to re-listen to the speech. I also have written blog posts about some of these presentations. Another recent source of lectures for me is those offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) of the University of Minnesota.

For sermons at Westminster Presbyterian Church, I sometimes make handwritten notes of some of the points on the church bulletin in my hands while the morning prayer, hymns and choral anthems usually emphasize some of the sermon’s main points. I also have found that I learn more about the sermon’s lesson by reading its text when it is subsequently posted on the church’s website and by reading and reflecting on the Scripture passages for the sermon; additional insight is often providing by writing a blog post about a sermon.

Seminars

My best educational experience at Grinnell College was taking the Political Economy Seminar my senior year with nine other students and with faculty from the economics, history and political science departments. We read important books in the field, not textbooks, and wrote and presented our papers on the former for discussion by all.

The Washington Semester at American University in the Fall of 1959 provided another type of seminar experience as a group of students from all over the U.S. met with politicians, government officials and others to learn about the operations of the U.S. government and political process.

I also organized and led a liberal arts seminar for lawyers at Grinnell in 1984. After reading various materials, we gathered at the College to discuss American legal history, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), jurisprudence and the lives and challenges of being humane judges and lawyers. Our leaders were a federal appellate judge, a national ADR scholar, an American history professor, a jurisprudence professor and a practicing lawyer.

Being in a book group, for me at Westminster Presbyterian Church, is another seminar experience for groups of 12 or smaller. Reading an assigned book and then gathering for a discussion of the book led by one of the group usually leads to a greater understanding of the book and its issues. For example, I recently led my group in discussing David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” after I had written about the book in this blog.[5]

Research and Writing

During my student years I conducted factual and other research about various subjects and in the process learned a lot about those subjects as well as research skills. The task of then reducing that research into a paper on the subject provided more learning about the subject plus the process of writing such papers. Later as a practicing lawyer these skills were further developed with the aid of the legal process for obtaining evidence in lawsuits, including the examination of witnesses, and the writing of briefs and other legal papers under rules for their contents and length.

The student research paper I best recall was at American University. The topic was how political interest groups participate in important cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and more specifically in contempt-of-congress cases in that court. I identified such cases, read the Court’s opinions in the cases, interviewed staffers at the relevant congressional committees (especially the House Un-American Activities Committee) and at the relevant political interest groups (especially the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors) and then spent a lot of time at the Supreme Court’s Library reading the briefs in the case, including those from the ACLU and the AAUP as amici curiae (friends of the court). The paper summarized this research and conclusions.

My enjoyment of research and writing continued as a practicing lawyer, both in my work as a lawyer and as a putative scholar. For example while at Harvard Law School for a short summer course, I spent time in its library doing research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling, both prominent attorneys who were graduates of that Law School and of Grinnell College, and interviewing attorneys at Welch’s Boston law firm, about his representation of the U.S. Army in the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Later I wrote articles about both of them for the Grinnell Magazine [6] and even later with excerpts from the Welch article in this blog.[7]

A similar process was involved as a law student in researching and writing comments for the law review and as a lawyer in writing briefs.

Grinnell College recently has enhanced its use of research and writing as an educational method by adding a public website, The Grinnell Post, that hosts student essays about current events, public debates, and issues of interest to the Grinnell community. Its mission is to allow students to share their work in a public forum and foster conversations with a diverse readership and solicit their comments and criticism.

Another Grinnell effort to incorporate digital technology in the liberal arts is a website, Ashplan, initially devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses. It seeks to foster the inheritance of classroom culture; that is, it forges connections among students studying the same material at different times, allowing new students to benefit from, remix, and add to the work of their predecessors.

Tutorials

As discussed in a prior post, the tutorial was the primary mode of undergraduate education at Oxford. During each week of the three terms of the academic year, I would have two tutorials, usually with only one other student and the tutor and sometimes only by myself with the tutor. The assignment was always in the form of a question with the tutor’s suggestions of books and articles one should read.

As a result, most of my time each week at Oxford was spent in the university libraries reading those sources and other relevant materials, figuring out how I would answer the assigned question and writing an essay setting forth that answer and analysis. Then I would see the tutor again and read my essay for critiquing and discussion.

I loved the independence of this system and being “forced” to come to a conclusion on an issue and to construct my own analysis and documentation for my conclusion. This was exactly the skill that was tested in Oxford’s university-wide examinations at the conclusion of my student-years, as also discussed in a prior post.

Grinnell College now has a First-Year Tutorial for all freshmen in groups of about 12 students that are led by “faculty members . . . from all academic departments . . . in more than 35 topics.” For the Fall of 2015 these include “Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership;“ “Racism: Color, Culture, Class; “ and “The Origins of Capitalism.” Every tutorial emphasizes writing, critical thinking and analysis, and oral presentation and discussion skills. The tutorial professors also serve as the advisers to their tutorial students until they declare a major field of study.

Socratic Method

After the treasured independence of the Oxford undergraduate experience, I initially was shocked in my first weeks in the Fall of 1963 as a student at the University of Chicago Law School. Now I was in large classes with daily assignments of certain pages in our large casebooks. The professors did not lecture. Instead they cross-examined individual students, one-by-one, about what the holding of a particular case was and what the result should be in a hypothetical case. We were being taught, we were told, how to think like a lawyer.

This method clearly taught you how to read a judicial opinion very carefully (and very painfully and slowly during that first semester of law school), to analyze that opinion to determine what its holding was and to think about the arguments that could be raised in similar, but different, hypothetical cases. Then in class you had to learn how to think on your feet and respond to questions from the professor as you would later do as a lawyer when questioned by a judge.

Reading and analyzing constitutions, statutes and regulations are also important for a lawyer, but I do not have clear memories of how that was done in my law student years. Of course, many judicial opinions concern judicial interpretations of such materials, and the overall law-school emphasis on reading and analyzing judicial opinions covered that methodology.

Learning how to do legal research and write legal briefs is another important part of law school. In addition, being a member of a law review staff and editorial board gives experience in writing and editing articles about legal topics.

Role-Playing

Participating in moot courts and playing the role of a lawyer making an argument to a court is another prominent method of legal education. I did not take advantage of this opportunity in law school as I was busy working on the law review doing legal research and writing and editing articles for the journal.

I, however, employed this method when I taught for one semester at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm. I acted as a trial court judge hearing arguments by students as lawyers on a motion to compel production of a college tenure committee records in a hypothetical lawsuit brought by a professor against a college for denial of tenure. A different kind of role playing in that course was having the students, in lieu of a final examination, play the role of a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and write an opinion deciding a case after reading the briefs in the case along with my memoranda summarizing some of the legal issues and after hearing the case argued before the actual Court.

I also used the moot-court method when I was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School; I acted as a federal district court judge hearing arguments on a motion to dismiss a complaint under U.S. federal statutes (the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act) alleging a corporate defendant’s violations of human rights in other countries. I also acted as a judge of an immigration court to hear arguments on whether the court should grant an application for asylum by someone who allegedly had a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country due to political opinion or other protected ground.

I used a different kind of role-playing when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law. In a first-year civil procedure class, I played the role of a law firm partner while the students played the roles of associate attorneys working for me as we collectively identified issues, potential arguments and additional legal research needed for preparing a civil complaint under the strictures of Rule 11’s requiring such a pleading to be warranted by existing law or a non-frivolous argument for changing the law and by evidentiary support.

In such role-playing exercises, the student learns about procedural and substantive law, identification of legal and evidentiary issues and how to write and analyze briefs and make oral arguments.

In my experience, this is an effective way of learning several areas of law plus the skills of advocacy, and most students appreciate these opportunities to have a taste of what it is like to be a lawyer.

Conclusion

I am fortunate to have experienced different methods of teaching and learning from able practitioners of the different methods. I have learned in each of these settings and cannot say one is better than another. A lot depends on the size of the audience and the stage of your educational career. Seminars and tutorials require a small number of students while lectures are more appropriate, if not required, for a large number of students. I hope that I have been able to convey the same excitement of learning when I have been the instructor.

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[1] Grinnell College, 1957-1961; American University (Washington Semester), 1959; University of Oxford, 1961-1963; University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966; Harvard Law School (Summer Program), 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2001.

[2] Grinnell College, 1982, 1984; University of Iowa College of Law, 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2002-2010.

[3] Worthen, Lecture Me. Really, N.Y. Times Sunday Review (Oct. 18, 2015).

[4] Aaron Fichtelberg, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, strongly disagrees on the value of PowerPoint. Indeed, he argues that it “turns good teachers into mediocre ones and mediocre lectures into a sludge of unengaging facts.” According to him, it “forces rigidity on the content of the course and passivity onto the students.” I agree that sometimes such use is boring. But as with all of these modes of teaching, there are the good and the bad. Other opinions?

[5] The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on the Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

[6] Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2006, at 12; Edward Burnham Burling, Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009, at 21.

[7] Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 14, 2012); The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 8, 2012); Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 6, 2012); U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012); President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 10, 2012); Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012); Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie (June 12, 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch

Senator Joseph McCarthy

In 1953 U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, targeted Langston Hughes, a black writer, over his alleged communism.

Later that same year, McCarthy’s attention shifted to the U.S. Army when the Senator’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations began an investigation focused on an alleged spy ring at the Army Signal Corps laboratory at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.  Those accusations, however, were not sustained, so McCarthy went after the left-wing affiliations of an Army dentist, Irving Peress, who had declined to answer McCarthy’s questions and who had been promoted to Major. After his commanding officer, Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, a World War II hero, had given Peress an honorable discharge, McCarthy attacked Zwicker, but he  refused to answer some of McCarthy’s questions, and the Senator verbally abused the General at the hearing.  Army Secretary Robert Stevens then ordered Zwicker not to return to McCarthy’s hearing for further questioning. In an attempt to mediate this dispute, a group of Republican Senators, including McCarthy, met with the Secretary, who capitulated to virtually all of McCarthy’s demands. Afterwards the Secretary was a subject of public ridicule.

G. David Schine
Roy Cohn

In early 1954 the battle between the Army and McCarthy continued when the Army accused McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, of improperly attempting to pressure the Army to give favorable treatment to G. David Schine, a former aide to McCarthy and a friend of Cohn’s and who was then serving in the Army as a private. McCarthy claimed that the accusation was made in bad faith, in retaliation for his questioning of Zwicker. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was given the task of adjudicating these conflicting charges. Republican Senator Karl Mundt, Republican of South Dakota, was appointed to chair the committee for this purpose, and what were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings convened on April 22, 1954.

Joseph Welch

This is when Boston attorney Joseph Welch entered the drama as the lead attorney for the Army and ultimately proved to be the Senator’s nemesis.

The hearings lasted for 36 days and were broadcast on live television by two networks to an estimated 20 million viewers. After hearing 32 witnesses and two million words of testimony, the committee concluded that McCarthy himself had not exercised any improper influence on Schine’s behalf, but that Cohn had engaged in “unduly persistent or aggressive efforts” in that regard. The committee also concluded that Army Secretary Stevens and Army Counsel John Adams “made efforts to terminate or influence the investigation and hearings at Fort Monmouth”, and that Adams “made vigorous and diligent efforts” to block subpoenas for members of the Army Loyalty and Screening Board “by means of personal appeal to certain members of the [McCarthy] committee.”

Of far greater importance to McCarthy than the committee’s inconclusive final report was the negative effect that the extensive exposure had on his popularity. Many in the audience saw him as bullying, reckless, and dishonest, and the daily newspaper summaries of the hearings were also frequently unfavorable.

Joseph Welch and Senator McCarthy

The most famous incident in the hearings was an exchange between McCarthy and Welch on June 9, the 30th day of the hearings. Welch was cross examining Roy Cohn and challenging him to provide the U.S. Attorney General with McCarthy’s list of alleged Communists or subversives in defense plants “before the sun goes down.” McCarthy interrupted to say that if Welch was so concerned about persons aiding the Communist Party, he should check on a man in his Boston law office named Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which the Attorney General had called “the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.”

In an impassioned defense of Fisher, Welch immediately responded, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness …” When McCarthy resumed his attack, Welch interrupted him: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” When McCarthy once again persisted, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman “call the next witness.” At that point, the gallery erupted in applause and a recess was called.

The issue of Fisher’s membership in the National Lawyers Guild was not a surprise to Welch.

When Welch went to Washington, D.C. to start his work for the Army in April 1954, he took along two young associate attorneys, Fisher and James St. Clair. At an initial press conference, Welch unexpectedly mentioned their names while announcing that Welch himself was “a registered Republican and a trial lawyer. I am just for facts.”

That night over dinner, Welch asked Fisher and St. Clair if there was anything in their past that could embarrass them if they were to be involved in the matter. St. Clair had nothing to be concerned about. Fisher, however, told Welch that he had been a member of the National Lawyers’ Guild while in law school and that the group had been criticized for alleged links to communists. Welch immediately was worried and called President Eisenhower’s Press Secretary, James Hagerty, to alert him to the issue. Later that night, Welch and St. Clair met with Hagerty at a home in Georgetown, and they all concluded that Fisher should not be a member of the team. As a result, Fisher ceased work on the matter and returned to Boston. (Before the decision was made that Fisher should leave the team, Welch and others discussed the possibility of Fisher’s remaining on the team and if McCarthy attacked Fisher, Welch’s becoming outraged and turning the attack on McCarthy.)

Thereafter, St. Clair was essentially Welch’s only assistant. (St. Clair later became a leading partner at the same law firm and represented President Nixon in the litigation over the White House tapes.)

The next day Welch made a public announcement that Fisher was no longer involved and the reason for his withdrawal in an attempted preemption of any attack by McCarthy on Fisher and Welch. The New York Times reported this statement.

Soon thereafter, Senator McCarthy included the Fisher issue in the Senator’s “indictment” about the Army. It stated, “a law partner of Mr. Welch has, in recent years, belonged to an organization found by the House Un-American Activities Committee to be the ‘legal bulwark’ of the Communist party, and referred to by the Attorney General as the ‘legal mouthpiece’ of the Communists. This same law partner was selected by Mr. Welch to act as his aide in this matter, and was discharged only when his Communist-front connection became publicly known.” The Senator also let it be known that he planned to attack Fisher at the hearings. Thus, the issue did not die.

During the course of the hearings, Welch and St. Clair apparently had discussions with McCarthy’s representatives about McCarthy’s not mentioning the Fisher issue in exchange for Welch’s not discussing the non-existent military record of McCarthy’s aide, Roy Cohn. Welch and St. Clair say there was no agreement to such effect while Cohn and the Army’s regular attorney (John Adams) said there was. At least, it seems to me, there was an informal understanding between the two sides that there might be adverse consequences to the party that first raised one of these issues.

In any event, the night before the cross-examination of Cohn, Welch and St. Clair considered going into the issue of Cohn’s military record, but decided against it because it would be similar to McCarthy’s personal attacks. The next morning, before the hearing started, Welch or St. Clair told Cohn that he would not be examined about his military record.

Later that morning during Welch’s cross-examination of Cohn, McCarthy interrupted to raise the Fisher issue. Cohn apparently tried to signal McCarthy to stop talking about Fisher. Even though McCarthy persisted, Welch did not retaliate by going into Cohn’s military record. He did not do so, St. Clair says, because they did not want to stoop to McCarthy’s level and tactics. Instead, as previously mentioned, Welch made a vigorous defense of Fisher.

Welch maintained that he was surprised by the McCarthy attack on Fisher and that Welch had not prepared his response. However, given the prominence of the Fisher issue and the bullying tactics of McCarthy, Welch must have thought that such an attack was possible. Moreover, during the course of the hearings before the actual attack on Fisher, Welch and St. Clair called Fisher from time to time to say that McCarthy had said he would tell “the Fisher story” and that Fisher should be prepared for same.

Any competent lawyer in that situation would have contingency plans at least in the lawyer’s own mind about what to do if the attack came. The videotape of this famous exchange shows an unperturbed Welch delivering his oft-quoted remarks without apparent emotion, supporting the notion, in my judgment, that Welch was not surprised and had prepared his remarks.

Indeed, some of the participants thought that Welch’s questioning of Cohn was designed to goad McCarthy into talking about Fisher and that Welch had rehearsed his defense of Fisher.  For example, Roy Cohn said Welch’s conduct that day was “an act from start to finish.” It started with Welch’s “sarcastic, sneering, coaxing, taunting” insistence that Cohn and McCarthy rush to find communists “before the sun goes down.” McCarthy’s raising the Fisher issue, Cohn insisted, “played squarely into Joe Welch’s hands.” And one of Welch’s clients, John Adams, agreed: “Welch was a master actor. He was  . . . conducting a theatrical performance.” Immediately after the hearing that day, Welch was overheard saying to another lawyer, “How did it go?”

Later that same day, Welch was observed crying outside the hearing room. Some thought it was provoked by the attack on Fisher. Cohn thought it was an act to engender sympathy for Fisher and the Army. I wonder whether they were genuine tears of anguish for Welch’s possibly baiting McCarthy to tell “the Fisher story,” i.e., for using Fisher to make a point for the client. There is no evidence to support any of these interpretations.

Soon after this encounter, Welch wrote to Fisher, “I have an agony of apprehension that I did less for you than should have been done. [But] I did all in my power. I allow myself to hope [the attack] did you little, if any harm. It could even be that it will do you good. I pray it does.”

Fisher subsequently issued a public statement acknowledging his membership in the National Lawyers’ Guild from 1947 through February 1950, when he resigned because of disagreement with its activities. He also expressed his concern over the possible effect of the attack on his reputation and his ability to make a living for himself and his family. (In fact, the attack toughened Fisher, and he went on to a distinguished legal career at the same law firm, eventually specializing in bankruptcy law. He was active in the American and Massachusetts bar associations, serving the latter as president in 1973, and in the Republican party.)

Near the end of that same year, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the Senator’s conduct, and Welch often was credited with hastening the downfall of McCarthyism.

Subsequent posts will review other aspects of Welch’s representation of the Army in the hearings, 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.[1]


[1] 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.

U.S.Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater

Senator Joseph McCarthy

In 1953 the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, purportedly was investigating the legitimacy or prudence of purchases of certain books by the U.S. Information Agency for overseas U.S. informational offices. This investigation did so, at least in part, by subpoenaing the authors of some of the books that Senator McCarthy did not like.

Langston Hughes

One of the authors who was caught in this investigation was Langston Hughes, an African-American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist.

Hughes’ appearance before an executive (or non-public) session of the Subcommittee has been dramatized by Carlyle Brown, an African-American playwright, in the play “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . .”

The play opens in Hughes’ Harlem apartment the night before his congressional appearance. Hughes cannot sleep as he fitfully tries to write a new poem on his typewriter. He also recites from memory some of his earlier poems. Fearful of the next day, he talks through how he might answer the Subcommittee’s questions regarding whether he is now, or has ever been, a Communist.

Senator                  Everett Dirksen
Roy Cohn

The last half of the play is the encounter at the Subcommittee hearing between Hughes and McCarthy, another member of the Subcommittee (Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen) and its Chief Counsel, Roy Cohn. Hughes naively keeps attempting to answer the argumentative questions, primarily from Roy Cohn, on the mistaken assumption that the Subcommittee really wants to obtain complete and honest answers to impossible questions. In fact, the questions are intended to pillory Hughes as a Communist or Communist-sympathizer.

Others in the cast with few, if any lines, are David Schine, a friend of Roy Cohn’s and the Subcommittee’s Consultant, and Frank Reeves, the attorney for Hughes. Not in the play are the other Republican Subcommittee members (Senators Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota and Charles E. Potter of Michigan) or one of its assistant counsels, Robert F. Kennedy.  The Democratic members (Senators John L. McClellan of Arkansas, Henry M. Jackson of Washington and Stuart Symington of Missouri) resigned from the Subcommittee in July 1953 to protest McCarthy’s hiring staff without consultation and are not in the play.

Guthrie Thester
Gavin Lawrence as   Langston Hughes

Through May 20th the play is being produced at the Dowling Studio of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. Gavin Lawrence gives an electrifying performance as Langston Hughes. During the first half of the play, he keeps throwing away drafts of the new poem ripped from the typewriter. He declaims his prior poems with passionate intensity while simultaneously the words are flashed on a screen for the audience. Minneapolis’ StarTribune and weekly City Pages gave the production superlative reviews.

The Guthrie Theater website for this play contains a Resource Guide that includes Huhges’ biographical chronology and bibliography; one of his articles and one of his poems; the introduction to the Senate’s release in 2003 of transcripts of the previously sealed records of the 1953 executive sessions of the Subcommittee; and other materials.[1]

See this play before it closes after its performance on May 20.


[1] One of the other materials is an extract from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings in which the attorney for the Army, Joseph Welch, asked Senator McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” after McCarthy had attacked a young lawyer at Welch’s Boston law firm. This exchange is often seen as the beginning of the end for McCarthy, who later that year was censured by the Senate. I have done a lot of research about Joseph Welch’s role in that hearing and will make postings of summaries of that research.