On June 9, 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings on possible Communist infiltration of the U.S. armed forces reached a boiling point when Army counsel Joseph Welch lashed out at Senator Joseph McCarthy for his attack on a member of Welch’s law firm. Over the preceding four years, McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican senator, had been at the center of a firestorm of anti-Communist hysteria in the United States. From his position as chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Government Operations, he formed a subcommittee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. In this position, he chaired investigations into alleged Communist subversion, espionage, and infiltration of the U.S. government as well as of labor unions, the entertainment industry, and other organizations and industries. According to McCarthy, these organizations were in a position to influence U.S. policies and actions with regard to the Communist Soviet Union.
On December 2, 1954, the U.S. Senate, by a 67–22 vote, passed Senate Resolution 301: Censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Senate did not censure McCarthy directly on the basis of the substance of his anti-Communist activities. Rather, the censure resolution was based on McCarthy’s behavior in conducting his investigations and during the controversies they aroused. In particular, the resolution censured McCarthy for “obstructing the constitutional processes of the Senate” in his failure to cooperate with the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Further, the resolution censured him for acting “contrary to senatorial ethics” in responding publicly with abusive and inflammatory language to the Senate Select Committee to Study Censure Charges.
In the eyes of most observers, the public charges McCarthy leveled at suspected Communists were without foundation; at worst the charges were false, and at best they demonized people who may have sympathized with the ideology of Communism but took no action to subvert the U.S. government or incite revolution. In virtually all cases, the charges McCarthy and others leveled destroyed the careers of actors, politicians, labor leaders, academicians, authors, musicians, intellectuals, and many others, stripping them not only of their livelihoods but also of their dignity and the respect of their colleagues. Fifty years later, the term McCarthyism, coined in a Washington Post editorial cartoon by Herbert Block in 1950, continues to be used to refer to any perception of indiscriminant attacks on individuals based on unsupported allegations.
Read our complete coverage of the Senate censure of Joseph McCarthy, including in-depth analysis by the historian Michael D. Murray of the University of Missouri—St. Louis.