"UNTIL NOW, Senator, I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. I fear this young man's career will never recover. Have you no shame, sir, at long last? Have you no shame?"
This passionate outburst by Army counsel Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 must ever be graven on the memories of those who, like me, were lucky enough to watch that marvelous show when it played live on television; and of those too young to have seen it at the time, but who may have caught it in retrospective documentary newsreels of the era. It was the proximate cause, as lawyers say, of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's downfall. His exposure before the nation as a malignant bully was prelude to the formal vote of censure by the Senate a few months later, which signaled the beginning of the end of his personal reign of terror on the national scene.
Less well remembered would be the occasion for Welch's historic primal scream of fury. It was triggered when McCarthy, in his chivvying, goading, prosecutorial style, taxed Welch with employing a young assistant, Fred Fisher, who when in law school had been a member of a student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
This month the NLG, a hardy perennial, celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding convention held in Washington in the spring of 1937, a star-studded event attended by more than 600 lawyers, many judges, legislators and New Deal luminaries, crowned by a letter from FDR: "I have every confidence that your deliberations will affect the welfare of your own profession and the well-being of the country at large."
The Guild's program called for a concerted campaign against the policies of the super-reactionary American Bar Association (which excluded black laywers); support for New Deal legislation such as Social Security and child-labor laws; establishment of legal-aid clinics for the poor, an end to laws restricting freedom of speech -- in short, the whole spectrum of liberal/radical demands. By the end of 1937, the NLG had recruited 4,000 members and had chapters in all the major cities.
Thereafter, the NLG's wildly fluctuating fortunes over the decades could serve as a barometer of the vicissitudes of the left/liberal movement in general. Throughout the war years it grew in size and influence, its prestige at an all-time high in 1945 when it was invited to be part of the official U.S. delegation at the San Francisco conference for the establishment of the United Nations.
Came the 1950s and the barometer plummeted. Bludgeoned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, denounced as subversive by the attorney general, the Guild was badly dented. Membership dwindled from the wartime high of 4,000 to under 2,000. Many a faint-hearted liberalturned tail and fled, leaving to their embattled erstwhile colleagues the strenuous job of representing the thousands subpoenaed by various witch-hunting committees.
From my vantage point as a Guild wife (having married staunch guildsman Bob Treuhaft in 1943) I observed these developments with more than a passing interest, as they strongly affected our own lives. Like most of the Guild lawyers we knew, Bob and his partners were swamped with cases of police brutality and housing discrimination against blacks, defense of political dissidents, loyalty-oath refusedniks, HUAC victims -- an unending stream of cases from which "respectable" members of the bar too often averted their eyes.
Needless to say, Guild lawyers performed these tasks without much hope of recognition beyond the small circle of their beleaguered clients; but in 1959, Bob was accorded the signal honor of being listed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as one of the 39 most subversive lawyers in the country. (The ill-concealed jealousy of fellow guildsmen who had failed to qualify for this distinction was akin to that of Nixon haters who, some years later, found themselves omitted from his famous "enemies list.")
The 1959 HUAC report, entitled "Communist Legal Subversion", concentrates its fire on the National Lawyers Guild "which has been operating on the American scene for more than 20 years as an alleged nationwide organization for 'liberal' lawyers connerned with human rights in general and civil liberties in particular."
Specific charges against the Guild, whose activities (according to the report) "continue to be directed toward the weakening of the security programs of federal and local governments," today have a curiously old-fashioned ring, so many of its objectives having long since been achieved.
The Guild was accused of campaigning for:
"Abolition of congressional committees assigned to the task of coping with subversion in the United States;
"Curbing of the investigative powers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation;
"Repeal of the Smith Act prohibiting teaching or advocacy of forceful overthrow of the United States Government;
"Discontinuance of the attorney general's listings of subversive organizations;
"Repeal of the Internal Security Act and the Walter-McCarran Immigration Act;
"Unrestricted issuance of passports to subversive individuals . . . . "
This indictment is followed by brief case histories of the 39 most subversive, "selected for inclusion in this report because they exemplify patterns of activity which have aroused the concern of this committee." I, of course was fascinated by these mini-bios, specially that of Bob. In the summer of 1959 I took the report, hot off the press, to show to my mother when we visited her in her remote Hebridean Island. She seized it, and started reading out loud the charges against Bob: "In 1950, the East Bay Minute Women for Peace were circulating petitions on outlawing the atom bomb. Robert Treuhaft was the lawyer who explained the legal rights of petition circulators to the organization."
"Min-ute women for peace!" exclaimed my mother, pronouncing it to rhyme with Canute. "Oh, the sweet little things! -- a troupe of midgets, I expect?"
Now for an update. During the 1950s the NLG membership remained static, recruiting virtually at a standstill. But by the middle 1960s there was a sudden infusion of new blood when hundreds of young lawyers, many of them women, flocked to the NLG's call for volunteers to go south to provide large-scale legal aid to the civil-rights movement, and to represent the growing number of Vietnam war draft resisters.
These newcomers to the ranks were not altogether welcome to the veterans of the 1940s and 1950s. As Victor Rabinowitz, nationally renowned champion of McCarthy-era victims and a past president of the Guild, ruefully observed, "To many of us, these 25-to-30 year-olds seemed undignified, contentious, noisy, undisciplined. The generational differences were startling and deep."
For the next few years the NLG became the battleground of a classic Old Left/New Left confrontation. (A minor casualty was the NLG Auxiliary, to which I had belonged since the beginning. It was roughly patterned after the Ladies Auxiliaries of old-line AFL unions, which enlisted the services of members' wives in various menial jobs. Our main task was to stuff and address envelopes for the annual NLG fundraiser. Some of the other wives thought this work demeaning, although I secretly rather enjoyed it as relaxation from real work).
One of the main demands of the contentious, noisy neophytes was admission to full Guild membership status of law students, legal workers (para-legals, secretaries, etc.) and jailhouse lawyers -- prisoners who prepare their own briefs. Eventually this demand was adopted and is now NLG policy.
By the early 1980s, the widely disparate NLG generations had come to terms. Rabinowitz says that he knows of "no other organization with a similar political outlook in which transfer of power from radicals of the '30s and '40s to radicals of the '70s and '80s was successfully accomplished without change of principle. That the gap was closed and the organization survived and grew stronger is something of which we can be proud."
And what of Fred Fisher, who unwittingly did so much to guarantee the NLG a footnote in the history of the 20th century? He is still at his post in the late Joseph Welch's Boston lawfirm of Hale and Dorr, but his duties have changed. He is now, his secretary told me, a senior partner and chairman of the firm's commercial-law department. I asked if he would be coming to the NLG's 50th anniversary. No, she said, he doesn't like to be reminded of all that and would rather not talk about it. Regretfully, I hung up the phone. Jessica Mitford is the author of several books, including "The American Way of Death"