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Joseph Welch

AKA Joseph Nye Welch

Born: 22-Oct-1890
Birthplace: Primghar, IA
Died: 6-Oct-1960
Location of death: Cape Cod, MA
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Attorney

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Have you no sense of decency?

Military service: US Army (WWI, 2nd Lt.)

To understand why Joseph Welch is remembered, it is first necessary to remember his era. It was the height of the Cold War, and the fear of Communist Russia was so great that American politicians could reliably score publicity points by suggesting that opponents had "communist sympathies." The Hollywood Blacklist, preventing certain actors and writers from working, was the best-known of the unofficial blacklists, but similar lists kept many Americans virtually un-employable in the military, the State Department, police or other work considered "sensitive".

Senator Joseph McCarthy had built his career on red-baiting, and he was perhaps the most famous American politician outside the White House. So in 1954, gavel-to-gavel coverage was offered live on two commercial TV networks, ABC and DuMont, as hearings investigated McCarthy's allegations against Army officers, and counter-allegations that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured Army brass to give preferential treatment to a close friend of Cohn (later revealed to be Cohn's gay lover). These were the first live telecasts of Congressional hearings, and an estimated eighty million Americans watched.

Welch, an attorney at a Boston law firm, had came from a midwest farm family, and earned his college tuition by selling maps door-to-door. A solid Republican, he had been asked to serve as the Army's unpaid legal counsel in the hearings, and day after day he remained calm and cool as McCarthy raged.

The climax came on 9 June 1954, on live television and without warning, when McCarthy dropped his bombshell accusation -- that Fred Fisher, a young lawyer from Welch's own law firm, had once been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a civil rights group that J. Edgar Hoover had accused of being a communist front because it provided defense attorneys for several suspected communists. Fisher was not present, having declined to work in the hearings specifically because he feared that McCarthy might discover that he had, years earlier, been a member of the NLG. Welch was almost in tears as he responded with an impromptu defense of his colleague, and viewers were riveted from his first few words to his last question.

"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. ... Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

The public's verdict was immediate: the audience burst into applause. Welch was widely seen as a "stand-up guy", and returned to his law firm as something of a national hero, while McCarthy was censured by the Senate for conduct unbecoming. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy, and for the anti-communist paranoia of his time.

The documentary Point of Order (1964) includes archival television footage of the Army-McCarthy hearings. In movies, Welch has been played by Burgess Meredith opposite Peter Boyle's McCarthy in Tail Gunner Joe (1977), and by Ed Flanders opposite Joe Don Baker's McCarthy in Citizen Cohn (1992). In a bit of stunt casting, Welch played the judge in the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959) with Jimmy Stewart. Fisher, the associate of Welch that McCarthy had tried to smear, went on to become president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

Father: William Welch (merchant seaman)
Mother: Martha Welch
Wife: Judith Lyndon Welch (m. 1917, d. 1956, two sons)
Son: Joseph Nye Welch Jr (engineer)
Son: Lyndon Welch (engineer)
Wife: Agnes Rodgers Brown Welch (m. 1957)

    High School: Primghar High School, Primghar, IA (1908)
    University: Grinnell College (1914)
    Law School: Harvard Law School (1917)

    Hale and Dorr Partner
    American Bar Association
    Phi Beta Kappa Society
    McCarthy Hearings
    English Ancestry

    Anatomy of a Murder (1-Jul-1959) · Judge Weaver

Appears on the cover of:
Life, 26-Jul-1954, DETAILS: Joe Welch Sums It Up

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