Study Guide

Have You No Sense of Decency?

By Joseph R. McCarthy, Joseph N. Welch, et al.

Have You No Sense of Decency? Introduction

You know those movies where the bad guy has been bullying the entire school for ninety minutes? He seems invincible, too. He's six feet of roided-out muscle and immaculate blond hair, and he probably knows karate or something.

For our heroes, trapped at the bottom of the social ladder, things look hopeless. It's even worse because somehow this bully jerk is the most popular kid in school. Everyone loves the creep. Except, right there at the end, our hero somehow gets the nerve to stand up to him. The bully goes down in either a flurry of fists or an impassioned speech, and the whole school cheers.

They never liked him after all.

Well, that's what this text is all about. And it's not even a teen rom-com.

We're looking at the Army-McCarthy hearings here. The "McCarthy" part of those hearings was Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican junior senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy had become one of the most powerful men in the country with a very simple tactic: accusing people of being Communists under the banner of protecting America from communist infiltration. In the 1950s, Communists were less popular than roaches in your tuna casserole, and just the suggestion of having of Communist sympathies was enough to ruin someone's life.

By 1954, McCarthy was drunk on power, and decided he was going to take on the Army, which he'd accused of being "soft on Communism." That's right—the Army.

The Army decided to punch back by investigating McCarthy's henchman Roy Cohn, who'd allegedly tried to get some special treatment for one of his buddies who was about to be drafted. (Cohn and McCarthy were eventually cleared of the charges.) While there were several lawyers representing the various factions, the real combatants were Joe McCarthy and Joe Welch, the lawyer for the Army.

McCarthy and Welch squared off in the hearings, with Welch's droll sense of humor contrasting with McCarthy's thuggish insinuations. It was pretty close to being a Stephen Colbert bit: Welch was openly mocking the number of Communists that Cohn and McCarthy claimed were hiding out in the Army.

McCarthy finally lost his temper and attempted to smear a young lawyer in Welch's firm by saying the young man was in a lawyer's union—which, at the time, was considered Diet Communism.

Welch was stunned with McCarthy's audacious cruelty, and dropped the humor act. In a display of wounded emotion, he smacked McCarthy upside his head with the famous line, "Have you no sense of decency," and effectively destroyed the man's career.

The bully had been served.

And the whole school cheered.

  

What is Have You No Sense of Decency? About and Why Should I Care?

Let's talk about witch hunts.

The all-time defining witch hunt was the first one (in Salem, Massachusetts), and witch hunt hipsters still say it was the best one. (Oh, and that Daniel Day-Lewis totally crushed it in The Crucible.) But the McCarthy Era is the defining witch hunt of the modern age. You know, when everyone really shoulda known better.

And Welch's "Have You No Decency" speech didn't quite end the hunt for Communists in government, but it did end McCarthy's fanatical role in it.

Joseph Welch, the hero of the hearings, is a classic example of a man standing up against popular public sentiment for what he believes is right. McCarthy was happily riding a wave of Communist hysteria in an era where people had decent reasons to fear the Soviets. Going to bat for anyone whom McCarthy had smeared, like the young attorney Fred Fisher, was a good way to end up friendless, in the unemployment line, or both. Welch stood up for Fisher, and did it with such humanist passion that it transformed the hearings quicker than you could say Karl Marx.

It would incredibly trite and corny for Shmoop to suggest that Welch's smackdown showed what a difference just one person can make by speaking truth to power. But…it's true. So we hope you like trite and corny. Just like the little boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes," Welch called out McCarthy on what was obvious to everyone but was just too scary for most people to say out loud.

Moral of the story? Be that guy.

Have You No Sense of Decency? Resources

Websites

The History Channel
A quick overview of the Cold War Era. Don't look for anything too deep here.

McCarthy and the Cold War
An in-depth look at the man and his obsession.

Miller, Kazan, and the Blacklist
Two different artists, two different sides about whether or not to name names to HUAC.

Movie or TV Productions

Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter who was blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy Era. This is his story. PS: Is there anything Bryan Cranston can't do?

The Crucible
There are tons of versions of this play by Arthur Miller about the Salem witch hunts, which was written as a condemnation of the HUAC and McCarthy investigations. Shmoop is partial to the Daniel Day-Lewis version.

On the Waterfront
This film is Elia Kazan's defense of his own testimony before HUAC, in the form of a story about a guy standing up to corrupt union bosses. Kazan said he named names because the he had to stand up to the pressure of the Screen Actors' Guild, which was filled with leftist types.

Movie or TV Production

Good Night, and Good Luck.
George Clooney directs this film about the epic showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Joe McCarthy. True story: test audiences thought that the actor playing McCarthy was too over the top, but Clooney had just used actual footage of the real guy.

Movie or TV Production

The Front
During the McCarthy Era it wasn't uncommon for blacklisted screenwriters to make a living by having other people submit their work. These people were called "fronts."

Articles and Interviews

The Mc-Files
What's in McCarthy's files?

Murrow Lets McCarthy Debate Himself
Just a solid piece of journalism here by one of the best.

The Media Angle
A take on how the TV broadcast influenced the future relationship between politics and television.

Worried Welch
The inside story suggests that Welch wasn't feeling as calm and collected as he seemed to be.

McCarthy Reconsidered
In the interest of fairness in Shmoopcasting, here are some excerpts from Arthur Herman's book that suggests that McCarthy wasn't as bad as his caricature as a crazy Red-baiter makes him out to be, and that much of the time, he was right. Herman claims that while the senator could be a bully, compared to Stalin he was a pussycat.

And Now, for Something Completely Different
Because this is the land of liberty and we're not threatened by free speech, here's a sample of a detailed pro-McCarthy article, brought to you by the magazine of the far-right John Birch Society. They feel that McCarthy was himself unfairly smeared, and that he did the country a big favor by highlighting the dangers of Communists in the government.

Video

Up Close and Personal
McCarthy himself in a snippet of the 1954 hearings.

Not the Biggest Fan of Democrats
McCarthy definitely wouldn't have felt the Bern.

Murrow vs. McCarthy
The title kinda says how the guy feels about Tail Gunner Joe.

Audio

McCarthy Speeches
Collect 'em all!

Images

Joseph McCarthy
You'd be forgiven if you saw this and assumed tweezers had yet to be invented.

McCarthy the Marine
Back when he was in the service

Army-McCarthy Hearings
That's Welch there on the left, all like, "Can you believe this idiot?"

A Man and his Minion
McCarthy with Roy Cohn.

Cover Boys
Cohn and Schine make the cover of TIME.