To the extent that Joseph Nye Welch (1890–1960) is remembered today, over sixty years after his death, it is for asking a question. Welch represented the U.S. Army in the “Army-McCarthy Hearings” before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, convened in 1954 to resolve Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s charge that communists had infiltrated the Army and the countercharge against McCarthy that he and his aide Roy Cohn pressured the Army for special privileges for a McCarthy staffer. Tens of millions of Americans tuned into the live, gavel-to-gavel coverage on ABC. While the cameras were rolling on June 9, 1954, McCarthy interjected a non-sequitur by charging a lawyer at Welch’s Boston law firm with having been a member of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild. In response to this charge, Welch addressed McCarthy: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy persisted in the line of questioning, Welch exclaimed: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
By late 1954, the Senate had formally condemned McCarthy, and President Eisenhower declared that the movement could be called “McCarthy-wasm.” The problem with naming the Red Scare of the 1950s after McCarthy, however, is that the man’s influence did not end with his fall from power. Christopher M. Elias emphasizes this point in his first book, Gossip Men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation, a masterful interpretation of the politics of the early Cold War. Elias describes McCarthyism as “a closet of horrors in which Americans stored their fears of government overreach and expanding federal oversight—once the man had died [in 1957, of cirrhosis], many believed that his tactics would die with him.” They did not, and instead “became folded into the fabric of American political culture.”
To illustrate how pervasive McCarthy’s tactics had become, Elias opens with a different scene from the Army-McCarthy hearings and a different question from Welch. In critiquing a doctored photograph that a McCarthy staffer entered into the record, Welch asked whether the photograph “came from a pixie.” On an objection from McCarthy, Welch belabored the point, describing a pixie as “a close relative of a fairy.” Welch’s innuendo caused “the audience’s light laughter [to be] mixed with guffaws of deeper understanding” that Welch was spreading rumors of homosexuality that hounded both McCarthy and Cohn. In other words, Welch was using their own methods against them.
This exchange, Elias explains, “was only possible because of years of gossip that had circulated either in coded language or through underground channels.” Tracing the genealogy of these methods is at the heart of Gossip Men. During the 1950s, “surveillance state masculinity,” as Elias calls it, arose from the convergence of three developments: the creation of the national-security state; the emergence of gossip as a key element of American politics and society; and the revolution in gender and sexual politics prompted by urbanization. Through the lens of these three dynamics, Elias traces the lives of Gossip Men’s three major figures—McCarthy, Cohn, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—each of whom “rose to power by taking advantage of political anxieties over changing gender roles, communist infiltration, shifting social mores, and perceived increases in criminality.”
Historians typically date the national-security state to the National Security Act of 1947, which, among other things, established the Central Intelligence Agency, the first peacetime non-military intelligence organization. Elias recounts similar information-gathering methods as early as the turn of the century, when American colonial administrators of the Philippines integrated new technologies, including punch cards and telegraphic communications, “to collect, organize, and manage data about possible enemies of the state.” After World War I, Hoover’s meteoric rise within the Justice Department to head the Bureau of Investigation at age twenty-nine can be attributed to the zeal with which he used such techniques to identify, track, and deport political dissidents, including, most famously, the anarchist Emma Goldman during the Red Scare of 1919.