joe welch

Burgess vs. Joe McCarthy: The Entire Story

This has been requested a few times since starting this blog, and now thanks to @namesisfortombstones​ the requests are really coming in. I could give you a short, impersonal answer that you can easily find on Google. But I want you guys to understand how big of a deal this was, and because I want to share how Burgess felt I’m going to make this as insightful as possible. I know it looks long and daunting, but please take time to read it - I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 First of all, let’s start with who Joe McCarthy was - for those who may not know. So during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the prospect of communist subversion at home and abroad seemed frighteningly real to many people in the United States. These fears came to define–and, in some cases, corrode–the era’s political culture. For many Americans, the most enduring symbol of this “Red Scare” was Republican Senator Joseph P. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Senator McCarthy spent almost five years trying in vain to expose communists and other left-wing “loyalty risks” in the U.S. government. In the hyper-suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War, insinuations of disloyalty were enough to convince many Americans that their government was packed with traitors and spies. McCarthy’s accusations were so intimidating that few people dared to speak out against him. It was not until he attacked the Army in 1954 that his actions earned him the censure of the U.S. Senate - but we’ll get to that later. 


 On June 22, 1950, the right-wing publication Counterattack printed a pamphlet that would change the entertainment industry, if not American society itself. Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television listed 151 professionals in the entertainment industry, branding them Communists. Because of his liberal views, Burgess was one of the 151 names listed - and being called a communist frightened him to death. The result of being blacklisted was devastating to him and his career. He lost a sizable amount of film work - just take a look at the huge gap in his filmography in the 1950s. The accusations split Hollywood, leading studios to blacklist supposedly leftist actors and creators, while others, like Barbara Stanwyck, would join pro-blacklist groups such as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. 


 In the spring of 1954, McCarthy picked a fight with the U.S. Army, charging lax security at a top-secret army facility. The army responded that the senator had used improper influence and sought preferential treatment for a recently drafted former staff member. Amidst this controversy, McCarthy temporarily stepped down as chairman for the duration of the three-month nationally televised spectacle known to history as the Army-McCarthy hearings. The army hired Boston lawyer Joseph Welch to make its case. At a session on June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” Overnight, McCarthy’s immense national popularity evaporated. Censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press, McCarthy died three years later, 48 years old and a broken man. In the end, not a single spy or communist was revealed - yet the aftermath was devastating with many innocent people’s lives destroyed. 


Tail Gunner Joe (1977) was a three hour NBC televised movie that dramatized the life of McCarthy. The title of the film is actually a snide term for the Senator that originated from his false claim to have been a tail gunner on American bombers during WWII. The film covered his beginnings in Wisconsin to his demise shortly after the Army-McCarthy hearings. And guess who was chosen to portray Joseph Welch, the lawyer who essentially ended McCarthy’s career with nothing but a few short sentences? That’s right, Burgess. Burgess absolutely reveled in the opportunity to play this character, and always said he could not remember a happier time in his entire acting career. He regarded this role as the best he ever had in television - and boy, did it pay off! It earned him his first and only Emmy award. For the American public, Burgess winning the Emmy was HUGE. It represented a sort of win over right-wing extremism and paranoia that needlessly destroyed the lives of many innocent Americans. All in all, Burgess was pleased that the film “went well” and simply called it “splendid revenge”. Burgess was the most self-effacing person and loathed the idea of praising oneself…but I think deep down, he was pretty proud of himself!;) 

Below is the iconic scene from TAIL GUNNER JOE that portrays the very moment in the courtroom in which the career of Joe McCarthy (played by Peter Boyle) was destroyed by lawyer Joseph Welch (Burgess). It was also this exact scene that earned Burgess his long over-due Emmy.

 To end this very long post, I will leave you with the last bit of dialogue in this film:

“’McCarthy’ - actually a redefinition of the word ‘mediocre’ because he was, finally, a man with no goals, no guilt, no shame and no achievement. Most of the media and most of the public just stood around and watched. He more or less created a national climate of fear but he himself caught no communists, found no traitors, uncovered no subversives. NOT. ONE. He wasn’t Hitler, he wasn’t Napoleon but fortunately people like that aren’t born everyday. But people like McCarthy are born every 30 seconds….and that is the horror.”

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