Paul R. Pillar: The Torrent of Vitriol Directed at Chuck Hagel is a Product of a New McCarthyism

Paul R. Pillar is director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. He is a contributing editor to The National Interest.

I was born just early enough to have some faint but direct memories of the stain on American history that became known as McCarthyism. One recollection is of my parents watching on television in 1954 substantial portions of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which was the first Congressional inquiry to be nationally televised. Although I was too young to understand it at the time, those hearings marked the beginning of the end of Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting campaign of slander. Before the end of the year he would be formally censured by the U.S. Senate.

One important factor in stopping McCarthy's reputation-ruining rampage was the working of media in those early days of the television era. Media coverage of the 1954 hearings, which lasted several weeks and in which accusations and counter-accusations were made and confronted in concentrated form within a single hearing room, made it impossible to turn a blind eye to what McCarthyism was about. The gavel-to-gavel television coverage, bringing such a dramatic event into living rooms across the country for the first time, was especially influential.

Another important factor was the willingness of visible figures to call McCarthy to account and to shame him, clearly and directly. A key figure was Joseph Welch, the prominent lawyer who served as chief counsel for the U.S. Army at the hearings. When McCarthy attempted to apply his usual method of innuendo and guilt-by-association to a junior lawyer at Welch's firm, Welch labeled McCarthy's tactics as "reckless cruelty" and spoke the most eloquent and memorable line of the hearings:

You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?...

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