Joseph Nye Welch
Joseph Nye Welch represented the U.S. Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings held in the U.S. Senate in April through June 1954.
Welch was born in Primghar, Iowa, on October 22, 1890, the youngest of seven children born in a poor farm family. Welch's mother encouraged him to succeed in school. He was intrigued by the law even as a boy and enjoyed watching trials whenever he could. After clerking for two years in a real estate office, he entered Grinnell College in Iowa and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1914. Welch then entered Harvard Law School with a $600 scholarship and earned his bachelor of laws degree in 1917.
Welch attended Army Officer Candidate School when the U.S. entered WORLD WAR I, but the war ended before he received his commission as a second lieutenant. He served briefly in the legal division of the U.S. Shipping Board. Welch joined the Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr in 1919 and became a partner in 1923 and a senior partner in 1936. He practiced CIVIL LAW, particularly in the areas of antitrust, LIBEL, estates, wills, and tax litigation, and he oversaw the firm's trial department.
Welch is known for serving as special counsel to the Department of the Army in Senate hearings involving Wisconsin Senator JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY. Welch served without compensation for the job. The hearings were held before the Senate's Special Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee, chaired by McCarthy. Televised to millions of Americans, the hearings showed political theater of a kind never seen before.
The issues in the hearings were a mass of attacks, innuendo, and counterattacks involving Senator McCarthy and Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens. McCarthy, widely known for his forceful attempts to ferret out suspected or imagined subversives in the government, had made repeated demands in late 1953 for access to confidential Army files on loyalty and security because he alleged that the Army had employed subversives. In addition, McCarthy was agitated
over the case of an Army dentist, Irving Peress. Peress, a member of the left-wing American Labor party, had been promoted to major in late 1953 according to provisions automatically applicable to drafted doctors. Soon thereafter, he was ordered discharged when the military learned that he had declined to answer questions regarding his political beliefs. McCarthy learned about the case before the discharge and summoned Peress to speak before the subcommittee. Peress invoked the FIFTH AMENDMENT when asked about his political views, and McCarthy demanded that he be court-martialed.
While McCarthy was pressuring the Army, the press uncovered a story regarding an unpaid, sometime consultant to the subcommittee, G. David Schine. Schine, a friend of the subcommittee's chief counsel ROY COHN, had been called by the draft board in July 1953. Cohn and McCarthy purportedly tried unsuccessfully to arrange a commission for Schine in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. McCarthy and Cohn were also charged with improperly pressuring the Army to promote Schine. In response, McCarthy claimed that the Army was holding Schine "hostage" to blackmail McCarthy into stopping his investigation.
In stark contrast to the domineering, goading, and downright bullying demeanor of McCarthy, Welch appeared calm, genteel, and well prepared in the hearing room. He managed to inject a bit of humor into the proceedings on more than one occasion. When Welch questioned a witness about how he had come into possession of a photograph, he asked the witness if he thought it came from a pixie. Senator McCarthy interrupted to ask for the definition of a pixie. Welch replied, "I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy. Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you?"
The thirty-six days of hearings resolved little, and legal issues remained muddled. The dramatic climax came on June 9, 1954, when McCarthy attacked Frederick G. Fisher Jr., a member of Welch's Boston firm, for supposed Communist leanings. During law school at Harvard, Fisher had belonged to the National Lawyer's Guild, an organization with purported Communist ties. At the time of the hearings, Fisher was a Republican (as was McCarthy) and a respected lawyer. Welch responded, "Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad…. I like to think that I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me." When McCarthy persisted in his diatribe, Welch cut him off, exhorting him to exhibit a sense of decency. Welch then left the hearing room, as the spectators broke into loud applause.
Though the outcome of the investigation was inconclusive, McCarthy's conduct during the widely publicized hearings eventually cost him support from moderates who had long tolerated him. Later that year, the Senate took a rare step and voted to censure McCarthy for his unbecoming conduct.
Welch was a family man who preferred a quiet life, but he did not return to obscurity after the hearings. His courtroom persona captured the nation's interest, and in 1956 he became the narrator of a highly praised television series on the constitutional history of the United States. He also wrote a book, The Constitution, to accompany the series. He took on other roles, culminating in his portrayal of a judge in the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder. Reviews of the film praised his performance.
Welch was married in 1917 and had two sons. His wife died in 1956, and he remarried the next year. He died on October 6, 1960, in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Griffith, Robert. 1987. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. 2d ed. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.