On April 22, 1954, McCarthy’s Senate hearings on the U.S. Army began. They were televised. They did not provide the proof that McCarthy promised of the Army being a hotbed of communist traitors. Instead, they demonstrated to the world that McCarthy was a grandstanding showboater who was willing to ruin people’s lives and tarnish the respectability of the Senate in his quest for personal power.
McCarthy got started on his quest for power just four years earlier, in 1950, when he gained national attention for claiming that there were more than 200 known communists in the Department of State. Because of the ongoing Cold War with the communist Soviet Union, this caused some alarm, and he was quickly granted the power to investigate the Department of State, and then the CIA, other government agencies, and even Hollywood. He slung wild accusations without evidence and ruined a lot of people’s lives, often by getting them “black-balled” from ever holding a job again. He destroyed critics and political opponents by the simple expedient of accusing them of being communist sympathizers.
It is probably not very surprising that he made a lot of enemies this way, and by 1953, his political allies began deserting him, leaving him to run all of the investigations alone. Drunk on his own power, he thought that highly public, televised hearings of his investigation of the Army for harboring communists would restore his influence. In fact, it did the opposite.
After weeks of a total circus of a hearing, the Army’s chief counsel Joseph Welch responded to one of McCarthy’s vicious slanders with the now-famous line, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” The audience erupted into applause. McCarthy’s credibility and power were thoroughly destroyed. He died three years later of alcoholism.