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Monday, May 3, 2010

On the Infamous "Have You No Decency?" Remark

Every so often I will read some commentary involving or referring to Joe Welch's infamous riposte to Joe McCarthy--"Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"--and almost without exception, the commentary makes it clear that the writer knows only part of the story behind that remark. It was only a few weeks ago that I read another such bit of commentary. I thought, at the time, "You poor devil. You have only part of the story, and have no idea what an ignorant footstool you've made yourself out to be." And I thought, too, that it would be a good thing for the correct story to be "out there" in the blogosphere.

Anyone genuinely interested in the full story of Joe McCarthy has been perfectly free to pick up M. Stanton Evans' massively researched and painstakingly documented Blacklisted By History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies for a couple of years now. Of course, most of the people who cite Mr. Welch's remark are not interested in the whole story; they are simply interested in making McCarthy look bad. They do not care that McCarthy has indisputably been proven correct: the federal government in the thirties, forties, and fifties did harbor quite a lot of communists. Nor do they care overmuch that communists persist to this day, that our wonderful president, Barack Obama, Peace Be Upon Him, has been known to appoint avowed communists such as Van Jones to positions of power and influence.

I have often thought that such people either have convinced themselves that communists are a thing of the past, something from the "old days," a specter, a phantom, a chimera which Republicans hope to use to scare up a few more votes, or even that communism itself has been hideously misrepresented. It was/is a simple reformist agrarian movement, they think. Nice spread-the-wealth folks. Can't possibly be as bad as those conservatives or Republicans.

I must disagree. Communism was, and is, a murderous, totalitarian ideology, and hard-core communists are, at heart, themselves murderers.

Now, I know--I know--that at this point, some poor soul is even now scrambling for his keyboard, eager to inform me that conservatives have no room to talk, that, after all, fascism is a murderous ideology, too, and fascism is a totalitarian ideology of the right. Sorry. It isn't true, and in trying to argue for it, you are only making yourself look more uninformed than you already did. Read this excerpt, and learn that fascism sprang from the bosom of socialism, is, in fact, simply a different variety of socialism, and learn that your devastating counter-argument is stillborn: fascism, too, is a creation of the left, not the right.

I hesitated somewhat before typing up this lengthy quote from the book. My fervent hope is that reading the material will cause at least a few people to take the step of actually ordering and reading the book, but nevertheless, this extended quote is perhaps somewhat longer than most authors would prefer. Should Mr. Evans (and I will not be satisfied with someone merely claiming to be Mr. Evans) ask me to take the post down, I will of course comply, but hopefully he will approve my intent and reap some additional sales. The remainder of this post is from the book and will give you a much fuller sense of the genesis of Mr. Welch's remark to Senator McCarthy. If I have missed any typos, I apologize, but they are perhaps inevitable in the copying of such a long section. Anything in bold is something I have emphasized. Lastly, I would be remiss in not mentioning that in the book, Mr. Evans includes a photocopy of the New York Times article to which he refers.
Having thus exhibited his instinct for the capillary, Welch would outdo himself in a third notable episode of this nature--the matter of Frederick Fisher. Fisher was a young attorney from Welch's Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr, brought down to Washington to help prepare the case for Stevens-Adams. In getting ready for the hearings, Welch had asked Fisher if there were anything in his background that could prove embarassing to the Army.

Well, yes, said Fisher, there was. He had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, which was indeed a problem. As the Guild had the year before been branded by Attorney General Herbert Brownell as the "legal mouthpiece" of the Communist Party, and before that by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as the party's "legal bulwark," it was decided such past membership would be an incapacitating factor in hearings so heavily devoted to issues of subversion. Fisher was sent home to Boston.

Nevertheless, his name would show up in the hearings, as Welch was cross-examining Roy Cohn in what would be a famous confrontation. This began with the standard Welch technique of exaggerated buildup, to the effect that Cohn had been remiss in not communicating whatever he knew about Communists in the Army directly to Robert Stevens. This colloquy is worth quoting in extenso as an example of Welch in action and the degree to which the lovable codger could change his mien as needed.

WELCH: If you had gone over to the Pentagon and got inside the door and yelled to the first receptionist you saw, "We got some hot dope on some Communists in the Army," don't you think you could have landed at the top?
COHN: Sir, that is not the way I do things.


WELCH: And although you had this dope and a fresh and ambitious new Secretary of the Army, reachable by the expenditure of one taxicab fare, you never went during March, if you had it in March, did you, is that right?
COHN: Mr Welch--
WELCH: Just answer. You never went near him in March?
COHN: No, I--
WELCH: Or April? Did you?
COHN: Mr. Welch--
WELCH: Tell me, please.
COHN: I am trying, sir.
WELCH: Or April?
COHN: No, sir.
WELCH: Or May?
COHN: I never went near him, sir.
WELCH: Or June?
COHN: The answer is never.
WELCH: Right. Or July?
COHN: I communicated--
WELCH: Or July?
COHN: No, sir--
SENATOR MUNDT: I think we have covered July.
WELCH: I think it is really dramatic to see how these Communist hunters will sit on this document when they could have brought it to the attention of Bob Stevens in 20 minutes, and they let month after month go by without going to the head and saying, "Sic 'em Stevens."


COHN: May I answer the last statement?
WELCH: I only said you didn't say, "Sic 'em Stevens," and you didn't, did you?...You did not say "Sic 'em Stevens." Is that right?
COHN: Sir--
WELCH: Is that right?
COHN: Mr. Welch, if you want to know the way things work, I will tell you.
WELCH: I don't care how it works. I just want to know if it is right that you did not say, "Sic 'em Stevens."
COHN: No, sir, you are right.
WELCH: I am at long last right once, is that correct?
COHN: Mr. Welch, you can always get a laugh...
WELCH: Mr. Cohn, we are not talking about laughing matters. If there is a laugh, I suggest to you, sir, it is because it is so hard to get you to say that you didn't actually yell, "Sic 'em Stevens."

When McCarthy finally objected to this burlesque, the discussion wandered off to other topics. However, Welch was soon back in "Sic 'em Stevens" mode, arguing that Cohn was at fault for not having personally rushed to inform Stevens the instant that data on security problems at Monmouth surfaced. This recapped what had gone before, but with additional Welchian furbelows:

WELCH: didn't tug at his lapel and say, "Mr. Secretary, I know something about Monmouth that won't let me sleep nights?" You didn't do it, did you?
COHN: I don't, as I testifed, Mr. Welch, I don't know whether I talked to Mr. Stevens about it then [in September 1953] or not...
WELCH: Don't you know that if you had really told him what your fears were, and substantiated them to any extent, he could have jumped in the next day with suspensions?
COHN: No, sir.


WELCH: Mr. Cohn, tell me once more: Every time you learn of a Communist or a spy anywhere, is it your policy to get them out as fast as possible?
COHN: Surely, we want them out as fast as possible, sir.
WELCH: And whenever you learn of one from now on, Mr. Cohn, I beg of you, will you tell somebody about them quick?
COHN: Mr. Welch, with great respect, I work for the committee here. They know how we go about handling situations of Communist infiltration and failure to act on FBI information about Communist infiltration...
WELCH: May I add my small voice, sir, and say whenever you know about a subversive or a Communist spy, please hurry. Will you remember these words?

This hectoring of Cohn, be it noted, came from the small voice whose clients had been pressuring General Lawton to restore asserted security risks at Monmouth. Even more ironic, if possible, it was premised on the selfsame "purloined letter" Welch had dismissively treated as a "carbon copy of precisely nothing." Now he was contending that Cohn was grievously to blame for not hand-delivering this copy of "precisely nothing" to Robert Stevens by the fastest possible method.

After sitting through these Welch sermonettes about exposing every subversive or Communist suspect Cohn had ever heard of, and being extra quick about it, McCarthy at last broke in by raising the issue of Fred Fisher. Having brought Fisher to D.C. to help out with the hearings, McCarthy opined, Welch had little standing to lecture others about proper methods of Red-hunting. In a tone heavy with disdain, McCarthy stated: view of Mr. Welch's request that information be given once we know of anyone who might be performing work for the Communist Party, I think we should tell him that he has in his law firm a young man named Fisher, whom he recommended incidentally to do work on this committee, he has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh years and years back, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party...We are now letting you know that this young man did belong to this organization for either 3 or 4 years, belonged to it long after he was out of law school...
And subsequently:
Jim [Juliana], will you get the news story to the effect that this man belonged to this Communist front organization?
This drew from Welch a much-celebrated answer, featured in all the usual write-ups and replayed innumerable times in video treatments of the hearings. It was the distilled essence of Joe Welch, worth studying in detail to get context and flavor. Along with certain other statements on Fred Fisher, Welch assailed McCarthy as follows:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never fully grasped your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to Harvard Law School and came with my firm and is starting what looks like a brilliant career with us...Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad...I fear that he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentlemean, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. (Emphasis added.)
When McCarthy then attempted to give some background on the National Lawyers Guild, plus a strong tu quoque about the harm done to the reputations of Frank Carr and other young McCarthy staffers by the charges Welch had signed his name to, the Army counsel again lamented the injury to Fisher:
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
And, finally:
Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this with you further. You have been within six feet of me, and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have brought it out If there is a God in Heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it with you further. (emphasis added.)
Subsequently, we're told, Welch broke into tears and the audience in the Senate chamber responded with sustained applause. Thus the incident most remembered from the hearings, and generally viewed as the moral Waterloo of Joe McCarthy. The reckless evildoer had exposed young Fred Fisher and his former membership in the National Lawyers Guild, thus scarring the innocent lad forever, and the good, decent Welch had protested this shameful outing of a youthful indiscretion.

All of which seems very moving, and is invariably so treated. It looks a little different, however, when we note that, well before this dramatic moment, Fred Fisher had already been outed, in conclusive fashion, as a former member of the National Lawyers Guild--by none other than Joe Welch. This had occurred in April, some six weeks before the McCarthy-Welch exchange, when Welch took it upon himself to confirm before the world that Fisher had indeed been a member of the Guild, and for this reason had been sent back to Boston. As the New York Times reported, in a story about the formal filing of Army allegations against Cohn-McCarthy:
The Army charges were signed by its new special counsel, Joseph N. Welch. Mr. Welch today [April 15] confirmed news reports that he had relieved from duty his original second assistant, Frederick G. Fisher, Jr., of his own Boston law office because of admitted previous membership in the National Lawyers Guild, which has been listed by Herbert Brownell, Jr. the Attorney General, as a Communist front organization. Mr. Welch said he had brought in another lawyer, John Kimball, Jr., from his Boston office to take Mr. Fisher's place. (Emphasis added.)
Giving this news item further impact, the Times ran a sizable photograph of Fred Fisher, plus a caption noting he had been relieved of duty with the Army's legal forces. Having caused this story to appear in the nation's most prestigious daily and reputed paper of record, Joe Welch would seem to have done a pretty good job of outing the innocent lad from Boston. (it was undoubtedly this news story, or an equivalent, that McCarthy was asking Jim Juliana to bring him.) It thus develops that Welch himself had already done the very thing for which he so fervently denounced McCarthy. So the suspicion once more dawns...that something was unspeakably evil when, and only when, done by McCarthy, but perfectly proper when done by Welch and/or his clients.
Counterpoint? Find it here. And yes, if you're wondering, I did go back and change two words in my introduction, two words which may, in retrospect, have been over the top. That's the beauty of the "edit posts" function of blogger...

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