Point of Order!

By Doherty, Thomas | History Today, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Point of Order!


Doherty, Thomas, History Today


The 1954 lawsuit brought against the US Army by Joseph McCarthy marked a turning point in public attitude towards the `Red Scare' Senator. Thomas Doherty tells how television played a crucial role in his demise.

No political figure of the modern world was ever looked at so thoroughly as Joseph McCarthy was between April and June 1954. (Emile de Antonio).

Since his death in 1957, the shadow cast by Joseph R. McCarthy has grown in length and deepened in darkness. According to the National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience, a volume published in 1992 by the National Center of History in the Schools, a dominant part of the American experience revolves around him. McCarthyism warranted nineteen separate references while such lesser lights in American history -- Robert E. Lee, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers -- failed to garner a single notation.

Historical lustre of that degree of magnitude is conferred mainly by television. No less than the post-war creation of the national security state, the other great beast born of the Cold War, it was television that propelled the career and instigated the destruction of Joseph McCarthy. Between February 1950, when `the junior senator from Wisconsin' launched his first charges of Communist subversion in the State Department, and December 1954, when the Senate voted to condemn his actions, the medium and the man were locked in a symbiotic relationship -- in televised press conferences and congressional hearings, in live appearances on interview shows such as Meet the Press and American Forum of the Air, and on Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, the pioneering news magazine that in late 1953 began firing the first shots from the small screen at what had already become known as `McCarthyism'.

Yet it was the Army-McCarthy hearings that forged the permanent link between McCarthy and television. Broadcast from April 22nd to June 17th, 1954, the hearings were the first nationally televised congressional inquiry and a landmark in the commingling of television and American politics. Though the Kefauver Crime Committee hearings of March 1951 can claim priority as a congressional TV show, and subsequent political spectacles (the Watergate hearings, the Iran Contra hearings, the Thomas-Hill hearings) would rivet the attention of later generations of American televiewers, for sheer theatricality and narrative force the Army-McCarthy hearings remain the genre prototype -- not least because the constitutional drama has been kept alive in memory through a pathbreaking compilation film, Emile de Antonio's Point of Order! (1963).

Ostensibly, the Army-McCarthy hearings convened to investigate a convoluted series of charges levelled by McCarthy at the United States Army and vice versa. In November 1953, a consultant on McCarthy's staff named G. David Schine was drafted into the Army. Even before Schine's formal induction, Roy M. Cohn, McCarthy's chief counsel, had waged a personal campaign to pressure military officials, from the Secretary of the Army down to Schine's company commander, into giving Schine special privileges. In fact, military men at the highest levels devoted an extraordinary amount of time and attention to Schine, whom newspapers dubbed `the most famous private in the US Army'. When on March 11th, 1954, the Army issued a detailed chronology documenting Cohn's improper intrusions into Schine's military career, McCarthy responded by claiming the Army was holding Schine `hostage' to deter his committee from exposing Communists within the military ranks. To resolve the dispute, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, of which McCarthy was chairman, voted to investigate the matter and to allow live television coverage of the hearings. McCarthy relinquished his chairmanship to Karl Mundt (R-SD) to become, with Cohn, contestant and witness in a widely anticipated live television drama.

Initially, all four networks were expected to carry the hearings live, `gavel to gavel'. …

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