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The Censure Case of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (1954)

Photo of Senator Joseph McCarthy

Abuse of a Senate committee.

Resolution introduced: July 30, 1954
Referred to committee: Aug. 2, 1954
Committee report: Nov. 8, 1954
Senate vote: Dec. 2, 1954

Result: Censured

On April 22, 1954, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Operations Committee, chaired by Joseph R. McCarthy (Republican-WI), opened hearings into aspects of security in the United States Army. McCarthy had temporarily stepped aside as committee chairman after the army charged him with seeking special treatment for a former staff member, and the committee decided to look into that complaint as well. Still, the Wisconsin senator continued to play an active role in the hearings, with power to cross examine witnesses. The Army-McCarthy hearings, fully covered on national television, showed McCarthy in an increasingly unattractive light, as he badgered witnesses while ignoring parliamentary procedures and the rules of common courtesy. By the time the hearings ended in June, he had greatly damaged his image with the American people.

Joseph McCarthy had appeared invincible when investigated by a Senate subcommittee in 1952, but by 1954 he had finally gone too far, convincing his Senate colleagues that his power must be curtailed.

Statement of the Case
On July 30, 1954, Ralph Flanders (Republican-VT) introduced a resolution calling for the censure of a colleague who had dominated the American press and the United States Senate for the past four years. Flanders declared that Joseph McCarthy's conduct as chairman of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations ran "contrary to senatorial traditions" and brought the whole body into disrepute. He therefore called on his colleagues to condemn McCarthy's behavior. Earlier, on June 11, Flanders had offered a resolution to strip McCarthy of his chairmanships, but consultation with other senators had indicated that censure would be easier to achieve, since many members objected to undercutting the seniority system of choosing committee chairmen.

In discussing the Flanders resolution the Senate demonstrated that, although weary of McCarthy's embarrassing antics, it wished to conduct the inquiry in an orderly fashion. In general, McCarthy's party colleagues did not attempt to defend his actions but focused instead on procedural concerns, as senators added 46 specific charges of misconduct to the original censure resolution. On August 2, the Senate decided to refer the matter to a bipartisan select committee, whose members were notable for their impeccable reputations and legal expertise, and asked for a report before the end of the 83rd Congress in late 1954. The group of three Republicans and three Democrats, led by Chairman Arthur V. Watkins (Republican-UT), included three former judges and two former governors. Only Joseph McCarthy complained about the composition of the panel.

Response of the Senate
The select committee recognized that the few previous censure cases had dealt with specific incidents of unacceptable action, rather than a whole pattern of behavior over a period of years as in the McCarthy case. Anxious to restore the sense of dignity so sorely absent in the recent army hearings, the committee plotted each move with care. It agreed to exclude television cameras from the hearings, in order to foster a judicial atmosphere and avoid a repetition of the unseemly show presented to the public by the recent debacle with McCarthy and the military. Because the hearings would be judicial in form rather than adversarial, the committee would not call Flanders and other supporters of censure as witnesses, thus offering McCarthy no targets for personal attacks. He would, however, have the right to be present and be represented by counsel, although only one individual—either McCarthy or his attorney—would be permitted to conduct questioning or cross-examination on a given subject. McCarthy was also allowed to make an opening statement.

After reviewing the 46 counts of misconduct, the committee reduced the charges to five categories: "contempt of the Senate or a senatorial committee"; encouraging federal government employees to violate the law by providing him with classified materials; "receipt or use of confidential or classified document"; abuse of Senate colleagues; and abuse of Brigadier General Ralph W. Zwicker during the army hearings. Because each of these charges was based on the massive collection of documents already at the committee's disposal, including the material from the 1952 investigation by the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections, very few witnesses needed to be called.

The hearings were held after the Senate recessed to allow members to campaign for the November election, opening on August 31, 1954, and continuing through September 13. The committee soon felt the full thrust of McCarthy's oratorical attack, but Chairman Watkins exercised strict control and ruled many of McCarthy's interruptions and diversions out of order. Unmoved by the Wisconsin senator's objections, the committee completed the hearings and set about drafting its report, which it released to the press on September 27 (although it was not officially printed until the Senate reconvened on November 8).

The select committee unanimously recommended that Joseph McCarthy be censured for his actions in two of the five categories:  (1) his refusal to appear before the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections to answer questions about his personal character, and his general obstruction to the work of the panel during its investigation of him in 1951 and 1952; and (2) his conduct on February 18, 1954, when he publicly abused and defamed General Zwicker during his appearance before the army hearings. The committee also strongly deplored McCarthy's actions in the other three categories as improper and irresponsible but determined that they did not "constitute a basis for censure."

On November 8, 1954, as the Senate convened in a rare post-election (“lame duck”) session to deal with the McCarthy case, a lengthy and tangled debate developed. McCarthy attacked the individual members of the committee and its work so fiercely that each senator found it necessary to counter his assault with legal arguments. To keep the discussion as bipartisan as possible, Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat-TX) urged Democratic liberals to remain quiet and allow moderate and conservative Republicans to carry the fight against McCarthy.

Those who defended Joseph McCarthy and sought to defeat the recommendation argued that censure would impose an unwise code of conduct for the future—that McCarthy should not be censured for his behavior in a previous Congress, and that a censure vote would interfere with the guarantees of free speech. As he warmed to the fight, McCarthy labeled the select committee the "unwitting handmaiden of the Communist Party," attacked Arthur Watkins as "cowardly," and referred to the entire proceeding as a "lynch party."  Chairman Watkins responded with an emotional speech about the dignity of the Senate that brought cheers from the galleries.

When McCarthy entered the hospital with an elbow injury, the Senate recessed for 10 days until he could again be present. Finally, on December 2, 1954, after three more days of debate, the Senate concluded the case and adjourned for the year. Exchanging the count relating to General Zwicker for one regarding his behavior to the Watkins committee, the Senate, on a vote of 67 to 22, censured Joseph McCarthy "for his non-cooperation with and abuse of the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections . . . in 1952" and "for abuse of the Select Committee to Study Censure" of 1954.

After four years of nearly unchallengeable political power, Joseph McCarthy fell before the demand of the Senate that its members conform to the body's rules of comity and civility.

Many observers believed that the Watkins Committee really wanted to avoid the unpleasantness of censure and had taken every measure possible to accommodate McCarthy, but his raucous demeanor and attacks on the committee members finally pressed them too far. Even so, the committee based its recommendations on McCarthy's violation of Senate behavioral norms and took no position on his anticommunist crusade.

McCarthy tried to appear unaffected by the censure, but it became apparent that the Senate vote had robbed him of his power and status. As his political fortunes waned, so did his health. He died in 1957. 

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.