Study Guide

Have You No Sense of Decency? Main Idea

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

  • Main Idea

    You're a Lying, Despicable Monster

    Senator McCarthy gets himself up in a snit about Welch's baiting of Roy Cohn and launches into an unrelated attack on a young attorney in Welch's law firm. It would be like if you were a kid, and your mom badgered you to clean your room for once in your life, and you responded with, "Forget it, and anyway, how about that time you burned the grilled cheese?"

    Especially if she'd never made grilled cheese.

    Anyway, Welch is, or at least pretends to be, shocked and disgusted by McCarthy's gratuitous attack on his young colleague. He can't believe how low McCarthy will stoop in trying to ruin the young man's reputation with an unsubstantiated allegation. You can hear the emotion in Welch's voice if you listen to one of the clips.

    The thing is, he shouldn't have been shocked at all; McCarthy had been doing this kind of stuff for years.

    McCarthy's side of the exchange is a pretty good portrait of power going to someone's head. McCarthy basically had only one tool in his toolbox: the smear. This solved every one of his problems until now, and at this televised hearing, he was going to bust it out one more time in what he thought was a routine investigation.

    This time, it didn't work.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. What if McCarthy had been correct, and Fred Fisher, the young man he smeared, truly had Communist tendencies?
    2. The First Amendment permits Americans to hold and express Communist beliefs. Why was McCarthy so successful?
    3. McCarthy's attacks were based on deception, insinuation, and rumor, but instead of concentrating on that, Welch ultimately brought him down with an emotional plea. Should Welch have stuck with concrete facts? Was that even possible? Is it okay for reason to be eclipsed by emotion?
    4. If the hearings weren't televised, would they have gone differently?

    Chew on This

    Welch wasn't really responding to the attacks against the young lawyer; he was calling McCarthy out for years of false accusations.

    Welch was just pretending to be shocked at McCarthy's smear of Fred Fisher. He knew these hearings were televised, and he wanted to have the most dramatic impact possible.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    Joe McCarthy had been heading for a showdown with the Army for quite some time. Angry about his failure to get any dirt on an alleged spy ring at the Monmouth, NJ Army base, he accused the Army of being "soft on Communism" and trained his guns on the Army Secretary in televised hearings starting on April 22, 1954. The Army decided to counter with allegations that McCarthy's aide Roy Cohn had tried to interfere with the military by demanding special consideration for his friend G. David Schine, another McCarthy aide, who was about to be drafted.

    Long story short: total rom com.

    The Text

    The first section is about exactly what Roy Cohn said when he attempted to get special treatment for David Schine. Essentially, Cohn didn't want his pal stationed overseas when a cushy commission in New York was so much more convenient. The testimony alleges that Cohn was abusive and threatening in his demands about Schine—he'd "wreck the Army." That's so Roy.

    While the confrontation between Welch and McCarthy is what's famous, McCarthy wasn't the one on the stand here. Cohn was the guy being interrogated. McCarthy was objecting to Welch's questioning, which was intentionally ridiculing the senator's methods. Welch was sarcastically demanding to know how many Communists were in specific places, so they could waste no time in getting rid of them.

    McCarthy then stepped in to bash Fred Fisher, a young attorney in Welch's firm, whom he accused of belonging to a Communist organization and wanting to spy on McCarthy's subcommittee investigations. That's when Welch got serious. He dropped the sarcasm with Cohn and confronted the senator for his cruel, reckless tactics. To McCarthy's shock, people cheered. McCarthy attempted to regain the upper hand, but it didn't work. At all.

    TL;DR

    Frustrated by Welch's ridiculing of Roy Cohn, McCarthy attempted a baseless smear on a young guy who worked in Welch's office…and McCarthy got schooled—hardcore.

      
  • Questions

    1. Was it inevitable that someone was going to stand up to McCarthy eventually? If not, what would have changed?
    2. Were Welch's tactics acceptable? Should he have met McCarthy's demagoguery with reason rather than emotion?
    3. How does the transcript help illuminate the thought processes of both Welch and McCarthy? How rehearsed are they? How spontaneous? Does it matter?
    4. Welch's anguished "Have you no sense of decency?" strongly resonated with people at the time. What kind of reaction would it have now?
    5. Modern politics is often characterized as strongly partisan, but there's nothing like the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Have the tactics just grown more subtle?
    6. Is calling McCarthy's crusade a "witch hunt" unfair? Was Communism a dangerous enough enemy to warrant that?
    7. What made McCarthy think he could take on the Army?
    8. Is McCarthy's smear against Mr. Fisher at all relevant to anything? A legitimate strike against Welch?
    9. How might seeing this hearing on TV affected people's perception of what went down?