Study Guide

Have You No Sense of Decency? Themes

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

Advertisement - Guide continues below

  • Betrayal

    Cassius, Judas, Benedict Arnold, Nicholas Brody, Lando Calrissian—history's filled with traitors. Nobody's more despised than a turncoat.

    Try putting a Yankees bumper sticker on your car in Southie and you'll know what we're talking about.

    At the core of McCarthy's outrage is the idea that thousands upon thousands of Americans had betrayed the United States by joining the Red team. Starting in 1947, President Truman, worried about Communist infiltration, required all government employees to sign a loyalty oath pledging their allegiance to the U.S. and denying membership in any organization seeking to undermine the nation. Loyalty oaths became all the rage in the 1950s; anyone who refused to sign, even if they saw it as a violation of their civil liberties, was immediately suspect.

    "Traitor" was one of the Senator's favorite terms to describe his political opponents. Even people just trying to make sure that their civil liberties weren't being trampled by loyalty oaths and committee investigations could be viewed as betraying their country. Either you were a patriot or a traitor: there was no middle ground.

    And don't even get us started on Johnny Damon…

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Isn't the right to believe whatever you like what makes the U.S. exceptional? Doesn't that include Communist ideas?
    2. Are there political viewpoints so toxic they override any right Americans might have to express them? Does this include Communism?
    3. If Communism really did pose this existential threat, then were McCarthy's tactics ultimately excusable?

    Chew on This

    McCarthy needed a refresher course on the Bill of Rights. He was betraying the basic freedoms of Americans.

    McCarthy was used to calling people traitors and having it stick. That's why Welch's response was so effective.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    The sic 'em Senator and his minions were known to be ruthless bullies, who believed that anyone with Communist sympathies deserved no compassion.

    And they believed almost everyone had Communist sympathies.

    Welch's entire thesis is that McCarthy lacks compassion and forgiveness, which to anyone watching, was kind of like, "Well, duh." It would be like accusing Snickers of having peanuts. We know, it's right there on the label. Still, the act of calling him out was a big deal just because no one else had the guts to do so in public.

    With his show of compassion for the maligned Fred Fisher, Welch got the sympathies of many of the people present at the hearings, as well as a TV audience of millions. He tapped into the fear they felt about being seen as unpatriotic, and scored big-time empathy points. Compassion was in short supply in the McCarthy era, and Welch gave the public a much-needed infusion.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Was McCarthy's accusation of Fisher out of bounds? If the man was a Communist and was assigned to the committee, wouldn't he possibly have been able to affect the hearings' outcome?
    2. Welch appeals nakedly to emotion. Does emotion have a place in justice?
    3. From a purely political standpoint, was McCarthy finished the moment he smeared Fisher, or could he have salvaged his career if he backed off?

    Chew on This

    In highlighting the senator's utter lack of compassion (framed as "decency"), Welch struck a blow for justice, but he did so in as underhanded a manner as McCarthy's initial smear tactics.

    McCarthy was proud of his lack of compassion for Communists; ruthlessness was his trademark.

  • Fear

    It wasn't called the "Red Frolic." It was the Red Scare.

    During the Cold War Era, Americans were terrified about a Communist takeover, as they saw increasing Soviet influence around the globe and feared that Soviet technology was surpassing our own. McCarthy played on this fear like a virtuoso, using it to accumulate power entirely out of proportion to his position. He was a Senator, so it wasn't like he was a guy on the street, but even President Eisenhower was leery of challenging him. He banished him to a minor Senate committee and hoped he'd stay out of trouble.


    American citizens ended up being almost more afraid of McCarthy than of the Soviets. His committee, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, were ruthless bullies, destroying the careers and personal lives of thousands of Americans and scaring the daylights out of everyone else. A single insinuation of Communist sympathies was all it took to ruin someone's life.

    It finally took someone who wasn't afraid to stand up to him. It's like with bullies: they're more scared of you than you are of them.

    Wait—that might be snakes. We don't remember.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Was the Red Scare justified? How big a threat did Communism pose to the United States?
    2. Do you think Welch was afraid to confront McCarthy? Does Welch appear worried during this exchange?
    3. What was the evidence of McCarthy's fear tactics in this transcript? Is fear ever a helpful ally against a political opponent?
    4. From your reading, who seems to be the most fearful individual in these hearings?

    Chew on This

    Welch seemed totally fearless in this hearing.

    Welch was masking his fear with his flippant badgering of Roy Cohn.

  • Patriotism

    "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." That's Samuel Johnson writing in 1775 about false patriotism, but he could have been talking about 1954, when McCarthy's brand of flag-waving, take-no-prisoners patriotism was about to be exposed as a sham. If anything, the Army-McCarthy hearings taught Americans that they didn't have to paint their faces red, white, and blue or demonstrate blind faith in their leaders to be real patriots.

    In some ways, the battle between McCarthy and Welch is all about the true meaning of patriotism. Any failure to condemn Communism was by definition not patriotic. Whether or not that's factually true doesn't really matter; the point is that the public believed it. During the McCarthy era, any indirect association with anything even vaguely related to Communism was just as bad as being Marx or Lenin. You can imagine what McCarthy thought of Fisher's Lawyers Guild, which valued human rights over property rights—Marxist to the max.

    Patriotism is a good thing. But throughout American history, appeals to patriotism have been used to justify questionable government actions from slavery to Jim Crow laws to torture to electronic surveillance of private citizens. Don't like these policies? Think the ACLU has a point? Well, then, you're unpatriotic. It's a troubling issue; Americans are supposed to be able to criticize their government without being accused of being unpatriotic. It's what makes our democracy strong and our country special.

    And if you want to paint your face red, white, and blue, go ahead.

    Just be sure to moisturize afterwards.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. Why does McCarthy immediately begin to discredit Secretary Stevens' patriotism? Do you buy it?
    2. At what point in the proceedings does McCarthy question Fisher's patriotism?
    3. Does McCarthy ever question Welch's patriotism?

    Chew on This

    McCarthy, in relentlessly searching out people who wanted to overthrow the government, was being patriotic, even if he was something of a jerk. 

    By trampling First Amendment rights, McCarthy was the opposite of patriotic.

  • Freedom and Tyranny

    The beauty of America is that we're allowed to act stupid. Want to publish a newspaper claiming that Justin Timberlake is an alien? No problem. Want to dress up like an organic cucumber to protest GMOs? Bring it on. We're also allowed to act smart, voting for the candidates of our choice or marching in the streets and occupying Wall Street if we believe we're opposing income inequality or injustice. For a country that got started with a bunch of guys dressing up like Native Americans and dumping tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes, anything goes—as long as nobody gets hurt. Protest is one of our basic rights.

    When it comes right down to it, the Red Scare was all about freedom vs. tyranny. The idea was that the West, with America as the shining city on the hill, was free. You could do what you liked for the most part, earn a living at a job of your choice, practice whatever religion you preferred, and have access to a free press and due process. Meanwhile, in the totalitarian east, you did and heard what the Communist government told you to do and wanted you to hear. Civil liberties were curtailed, the government watched every move you made, and dissenters were banished to labor camps or murdered.

    The irony that, in an effort to preserve that freedom, the United States government went on a witch hunt focused on rooting out dissident political thought... well, let's just say it was pretty much lost on McCarthy. The wonderful paradox of true freedom is that it has the freedom to tolerate dissenting beliefs, even in the extreme and with weird costumes.

    Questions About Freedom and Tyranny

    1. Was McCarthy's witch hunt on the side of freedom or tyranny? What side did he think he was on?
    2. Was Welch truly striking a blow for freedom by defeating McCarthy? Was he also supporting orthodoxy in a different way?
    3. In what ways was the United States government tyrannical in the 1950s? In what ways was it supporting freedom?

    Chew on This

    Some loss of freedom is a necessary price to pay for an otherwise free society.

    McCarthyism was the epitome of tyranny.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...