Study Guide

Have You No Sense of Decency? Analysis

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

  • Rhetoric

    Ethos

    Ethos: using your street cred to persuade people…more or less.

    In the portion of the hearings we've been looking at, both sides use ethos to persuade. First, Secretary of the Army Stevens makes his comment that he is speaking on behalf of the one-and-a-half million loyal members of the Army—thus establishing his cred as a guy who knows his stuff and is working for a righteous cause.

    McCarthy challenges that immediately, and counters with his own ethos appeal that he is the nation's guardian against Communism.

    It's a holier-than-thou, ethos-to-the-brim exchange.

    Pathos

    Joe McCarthy was the king of pathos. Not in a nice way, either.

    He wasn't telling click-baity stories about the time a golden retriever puppy saved a bucket of sloths from a duckling flood. He was directly tapping into the fears of people at the time, effortlessly playing on their in-group and out-group dynamics. Any sort of association with even vaguely left-wing groups was more than enough to become a target, and the only way out would be to rat out your friends and associates for the same kind of treatment.

    This is what made Welch's smackdown so deliciously epic.

    Welch initially used pathos of another sort in his needling of Cohn on the stand. Welch was employing ridicule, which is often the best way to deal with power-mad folks. People look a lot smaller when you've mocked them. Show the argument to be ridiculous, then you show the person making it to be the same. Then you're done.

    When McCarthy lashed out at Fred Fisher, who, remember, wasn't even in the room, that was a step too far. Welch's response is pitch perfect, calling the senator out on exactly what he did. His disgust at McCarthy, and dismay at the damage being caused to Fisher, is palpable. Some viewers commented that it looked like Welch was about to burst into tears thinking of McCarthy trying to ruin the rep of the young Fisher.

    It was the perfect response. This was a case of fighting fire with fire, pathos with pathos. Welch held a mirror up to McCarthy, and by extension, everyone who supported him. No one liked what they saw.

    Except McCarthy himself, but then, he barely looked.

    Logos

    Not much to say here, since logic was missing in action during much of this debate.

  • Structure

    Legal Document/Speech

    As the transcript of a hearing, this text is hard to classify. No one had this thing scripted beforehand with everyone hitting their marks. McCarthy fell into a trap Welch didn't even intend to set. Everything is very free-flowing. It's not quite a conversation, and there are some parliamentary flourishes and interruptions.

    This was largely a spontaneous moment in American discourse, but you could easily make the argument that it was in the works since McCarthy's Wheeling speech.

    How it Breaks Down

    Who Is On Trial Here?

    McCarthy objects to the idea that Stevens is speaking for the Army. He's just speaking for the Communists that McCarthy wants to root out.

    What Cohn Said

    Jenkins questions Adams on exactly what Cohn said. Whether or not he cursed, and how abusive he was when asking for special treatment for Schine.

    Cohn vs. Welch

    Welch takes over, turning the conversation to exactly how many Communists are hiding in these defense plants, pointing out that if this information is true, they should act on it before sundown. He's really making fun of the idea that Cohn has this information at all.

    McCarthy Steps In

    With Cohn falling apart in front of Welch, McCarthy does what he does best: smear an unrelated party with charges of Communism. Welch hits him with "at long last, have you no sense of decency," and like a magician, makes McCarthy's political career disappear.

  • Tone

    Sleazy and Wounded

    This exchange has two primary authors: The Joes.

    McCarthy and Welch had two vastly different tones because they were two vastly different guys.

    McCarthy's tone was what the country had come to expect. He was confrontational and contemptuous, relying on sleazy innuendo to assassinate the character of whomever he was speaking to. When he saw Welch getting the better of Cohn, he leaned back on his most potent weapon—accusations of Communism.

    Welch was extremely human here, going from something of a clown to embodying the wounded dignity of the American public. By standing up for someone else, Welch himself could remain mostly clean of insinuation, but still be as wounded by the accusation as though he were the target. He sorta was, since McCarthy was trying his whole guilt-by-association strategy. Welch, by adopting the role of noble, baffled defender, crushed him.

  • What's Up with the Title?

    It's not common that one line ends an entire political career, especially one like Senator McCarthy's. But Welch's anguished question, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" crushed the most powerful man in politics. It should be remembered.

    So while these are technically called the Army-McCarthy hearings, we like to shout it out by its most famous line.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Let's take a look at the opening lines of the Welch-McCarthy showdown. It's Senator Sleaze who gets the ball rolling:

    […] in view of Mr. Welch's request that the information be given once we know of anyone who might be performing any work for the Communist Party, I think we should tell him that he has in his law firm a young man named Fisher whom he recommended, incidentally, to do work on this committee, who has been for a number of years a member of an organization which was named, oh, years and years ago, as the legal bulwark of the Communist Party, an organization which always swings to the defense of anyone who dares to expose Communists. (McCarthy.78)

    This is McCarthy's opening salvo to get Welch to stop his effortless shellacking of Roy Cohn on the stand. While McCarthy had made a cursory attempt to stop the line of questioning by claiming the FBI already had the information on where these hidden Communists were, it was literally one line. Then it was right to the smear.

    Welch was probably thinking, "Make my day.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    At the end of the Welch-McCarthy showdown, you can almost see McCarthy desperately trying to salvage his career.

    Mr. Jenkins, the thing that I think we must remember is that this is a war which a brutalitarian force has won to a greater extent than any brutalitarian force has won a war in the history of the world before. For example, Christianity, which has been in existence for 2,000 years, has not converted, convinced nearly as many people as this Communist brutalitarianism has enslaved in 106 years, and they are not going to stop. I know that many of my good friends seem to feel that this is a sort of a game you can play, that you can talk about communism as though it is something 10,000 miles away. (McCarthy.106)

    McCarthy justifies his actions, again, not with facts to support his insinuations about Fisher. Instead, he leans on the existential threat of Communism, and invents a whole new word (brutalitarian) to describe it. The implication is that it doesn't matter if McCarthy callously ruined a young man's life. Fighting Communism is more important than any one person's reputation.

    Still, Shmoop likes the word "brutalitarianism" almost as much as we like "refudiate."

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    As long as you can keep track of who's talking to whom—which…good luck—the text isn't too hard to follow. Even though they're politicians and lawyers, everyone's speaking pretty plain English.

    Because it's a conversation among several people involved in the hearing, it helps a bunch to actually listen to the proceedings. The only difficulty lies in the fact that you need a decent background in history to understand what's going on.

    Shmoop is all over it, as usual.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    National Lawyers Guild

    McCarthy makes reference to an organization Fred Fisher belonged to that was "obviously" a Communist Front. The group was the National Lawyers Guild, a politically progressive group of attorneys founded in 1937 who lobbied for civil liberties and social justice. They helped organize unions, fought against racial discrimination in the Jim Crow era, and opposed things like HUAC, illegal FBI surveillance of American citizens, and other violation of First Amendment rights.

    They were definitely left-leaning and some of its members had acted as defense attorneys for Communists. For these "treasonous" activities, HUAC labeled the group as the "legal bulwark of the Communist Party." (McCarthy uses this exact phrase in the hearings.) A HUAC report listed the name, addresses, and affiliations of the NLG members. You can imagine what that list did to their careers.

    In 1953, the Attorney General of the U.S. tried to indict the group as a subversive organization, which decimated its membership and resulted in the disbarment of some of its members. The group successfully fought the allegations and eventually regained strength. They're still crusaders for social justice.

    Biblical References

    Forgiveness

    Welch makes a side reference to the Bible when he admonishes McCarthy to seek forgiveness from someone other than him. (Welch.90) He's talking about God's forgiveness, natch—something that might have given McCarthy, a devout Catholic, something to think about.

    References to This Text

    Pop Culture References

    The Crucible, Arthur Miller

    Miller intended his play about the Salem witch hunts to be an allegory for the McCarthy Era, which terrorized the artistic community he was part of. Many films and plays in the '50s and '60s made reference to the McCarthy era in general, even if they didn't mention the specific hearings that we've been discussing.

    Quiz Show

    In this 1995 film about about the quiz show scandal of the '50s, one character specifically says "This isn't McCarthyism." This scandal was all about the quiz shows that focused on obscure trivia and found to be rigged, with the contestants being given the answers beforehand.

    The character clarifies that he's going after the shows themselves for falsely representing themselves. He's not looking for exposure for the sake of exposure, like Senator Shameless.

    Good Night, and Good Luck 

    It's not too surprising that director George Clooney would have chosen to have Welch in his anti-McCarthy movie. Though this film centers around McCarthy's grudge match with Edward R. Murrow, the conflicts were happening right around the same time.

    Tail Gunner Joe 

    This 1977 movie about McCarthy's life included the famous exchange between the Senator and Welch. Roy Cohn and David Schine unsuccessfully sued Universal, who produced the film, for defamation. Guess they didn't like how they were represented on film.

  • Trivia

    Joe McCarthy claimed to have flown 32 combat missions. It was actually closer to 12. Considering his relationship to numbers later on, that's not too surprising. (Source)

    Joe McCarthy is only one of nine senators in history to be officially condemned by his colleagues. Our unbiased opinion is that he totally deserved it. (Source)

    The National Lawyers Guild that McCarthy thought was so dangerous? Still around. Still working for justice. So subversive. (Source)

    Roy Cohn got his own movie, Citizen Cohn, in which James Woods played the hated guy. In an interview with the New York Times, Woods described Cohn as a vampire and sociopath, much more evil and dangerous than McCarthy himself. Cohn didn't sue the producers this time because he was already dead. (Source)

    Charlie Chaplin was one of those in the movie industry smeared during the Red Scare. This was partly due to his film The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin had the audacity to mock Adolf Hitler. Yeah... that's how weird things were back then. (Source)

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