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"Damage": Collier’s Assesses the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Anticommunist crusader Senator Joseph R. McCarthy stepped into national prominence on February 9, 1950, when he mounted an attack on President Truman’s foreign policy agenda. McCarthy charged that the State Department and its Secretary, Dean Acheson, harbored “traitorous” Communists. McCarthy’s apocalyptic rhetoric—he portrayed the Cold War conflict as “a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity”—made critics hesitate before challenging him. Those accused by McCarthy faced loss of employment, damaged careers, and in many cases, broken lives. After the 1952 election, in which the Republican Party won control of both branches of Congress, McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy then extended his targets to include numerous government agencies, in addition to the broadcasting and defense industries, universities, and the United Nations. His dramatic hearings investigating purported Communist infiltration in the Army were televised live to the nation. The following editorial from the popular magazine Collier’s assessed the damage to public perception of governmental institutions.

After the Brawl

Now that the Army-McCarthy hearings have been history for a month, and the soap operas have reinherited the daytime TV channels, we should like to do a final review of the long-run show from Washington, and try to summarize its effect—aside from the subcommittee’s report.

We suppose the effect can be summarized in one word: damage. The legislative operations of Congress must have been delayed. The morale of the armed forces certainly could not have been heightened by the hearings. And our friends in other countries were obviously bewildered and dismayed by the goings on, with a consequent impairment of American prestige. But the greatest damage, we believe, occurred in the millions of homes where the televised proceedings were seen and heard.

Incidentally, this is not a rap at television. The wrangle over Private Schine, with all its ramifications, was of wide public interest, and the TV people had the same duty to cover it as the press and radio. And technically the television production was good. It’s the script and the performances that concern us here.

The recent hearings were not the first Congressional proceedings to be broadcast, to be sure. But networks have been greatly extended and millions of sets have been sold since Senator Kefauver & Company had their crimebusting act on the air some three years ago. So it is safe to assume that more than half the people who viewed the Army-McCarthy hearings had never seen Congress in action before.

Probably they had formed some preconceptions. If they had envisioned Congressional procedure as something marked by statesmanship, responsibility, befitting seriousness and, above all, dignity, they must have suffered a rude disillusionment. But if they were among those who thoughtlessly sneer at politics and politicians—and we have listened to many such—their unflattering opinion could have been intensified.

It’s too bad, for both houses of Congress have men of wisdom and intellectual stature who treat their positions with respect, who are patriots first and partisans second, and who deserve the country’s thanks. Some such men were on the subcommittee which investigated itself on television. But in general the hearings seemed to us as pretty much of a disgrace to the tradition of a Senate where great men have served, great words have been spoken and great decisions made.

What must many Americans have thought, knowing that tradition but seeing government in action for the first time! It was a carnival, a sprawling, brawling travesty. It was a performance to shame some of the leading participants, who seemed to forget that their hammy hokum and snarling words were being seen across the country and heard around the world.

How much damage was done cannot be calculated. But fortunately the carnival is over. Now let us hope that responsible members of party and government will take over and, without any further side-show diversions, guide us wisely through the crises that face the country. And let us also hope that those citizens who were shocked by the recent burlesque of responsible government will be assured that some of the performers are not typical of the men in the Capitol who, through the years, have helped to make America great and strong and just.

Source: "After the Brawl," Collier’s, August 6, 1954, 90.

See Also:"You Are the Un-Americans, and You Ought to be Ashamed of Yourselves": Paul Robeson Appears Before HUAC
"They Want to Muzzle Public Opinion": John Howard Lawson's Warning to the American Public
"The World Was at Stake": Three "Friendly" HUAC Hollywood Witnesses Assess Pro-Soviet Wartime Films
"A Damaging Impression of Hollywood Has Spread": Movie "Czar" Eric Johnston Testifies before HUAC
"Have You No Sense of Decency": The Army-McCarthy Hearings
"Communists are second to none in our devotion to our people and to our country": Prosecution and Defense Statements, 1949 Trial of American Communist Party Leaders
"Not Only Ridiculous, but Dangerous": Collier's Objects to Joseph McCarthy's Attacks on the Press
"I Cannot and Will Not Cut My Conscience to Fit This Year's Fashions": Lillian Hellman Refuses to Name Names
"Enemies from Within": Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's Accusations of Disloyalty
"I Have Sung in Hobo Jungles, and I Have Sung for the Rockefellers": Pete Seeger Refuses to "Sing" for HUAC
"We Must Keep the Labor Unions Clean": "Friendly" HUAC Witnesses Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney Blame Hollywood Labor Conflicts on Communist Infiltration
"National Suicide": Margaret Chase Smith and Six Republican Senators Speak Out Against Joseph McCarthy's Attack on "Individual Freedom"