A Grandmother On 'No Sense of Decency'

"Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
Joseph H. Welch, Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954

I can still hear Dad's voice that fall night in 1950 as he sat my next sister and me down after dinner to tell us what might happen. I was sixteen.

"If Senator McCarthy has another list, I will be on it."

The United States was engulfed in Cold War hysteria, enflamed by Congressional witch-hunts for Communists purported to be infiltrating the government and media and thus an imminent danger to the nation. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) was a bullying, much feared demagogue with a five o'clock shadow and accusatory voice. Almost daily, he fulminated with fresh assertions of people he contended were Communists. "I have a list," he blustered, shaking a sheaf of papers.

Each new list was presented without source or substantiation. Many of the people he named, like our father, were "China Hands" -- government employees and journalists, experts in the language and culture who knew both the pre-war Nationalist government and the Communists who had taken over the country in 1949.

Dad was a teaching missionary before World War II. During the war he worked in Chungking (then in Free China behind the Japanese lines) for the Office of War Information. Because his Chinese was fluent and he knew the country well, he developed material to support the Chinese and Allied cause against the Japanese. His office produced a cartoon filmstrip for wide distribution within China that was also reprinted in Life. The Americans were portrayed as helmeted eagles. The Chinese were many valiant sparrows. Both were swooping to attack the Japanese, depicted as turtles. Calling someone a turtle was a serious curse word in Chinese, so I was told.

When he returned from China after the war, he wrote what at the time was one of the prime books on the country: China: The Land and the People. The book, in fact, was my future husband's first contact with our family. Several years before we met, he bought it as an assigned text for a university course.

When Dad's book was published, I was in the seventh grade and our family lived in a walk up on the upper west side in New York. One morning, we passed Doubleday's Fifth Avenue store. Dad's book wasn't in the window. I went in, looked around, didn't see it there either, and marched up to the counter: "My Dad has just published a book on China" and gave them the name of it. "Why isn't it in your window?"

Beyond that, Dad had written about the country for various journals. And he knew and had worked with many of the people on the earlier lists whose lives and careers were in tatters from McCarthy's accusations. So he wanted us to be forewarned, in case.

Fortunately for our family, there wasn't another list. Many others were not so lucky. When she was a child, a friend's father's career was shattered as part of the Hollywood blacklist. "Guilt by association," she bitterly puts it these sixty-odd years later.

Truth of the accusations wasn't the point. McCarthy was preying on and fanning widespread fears of Communism primarily for his own aggrandizement.

He didn't get his comeuppance until 1954 when he took on the military during the Army-McCarthy hearings. By the end of the hearings in June, my husband-to-be and I were courting, spending as much time together as we could. And for us at least part (but only part) of that meant we were glued to the black and white television in his family's upstairs den. The high point (of the hearings, not the courting) was seeing McCarthy's bullying crumble under Joseph Welch's withering: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

Like many other almost childhood memories, the night Dad sat us down has rarely been in the front of my mind. My main sense of that time is that the atmosphere was poisonous -- even without widespread TV and no social media. Because we were caught up in fringes of that maelstrom, from then on I have had a gut-level aversion to demagogic accusations that have the power to ruin lives and undermine a civil, democratic society.

But that memory resonates when McCarthy-like politics rears its ugly head. I have the same gut-level feeling today, building as McCarthyism did over months and years. Not so much about ideology or policy -- those are legitimate political discussions and the purpose of hard-fought elections. But that the atmosphere is again poisonous with something deeper, more anti-democratic and anti-American. Promises of walls to keep people out, misogynist name-calling, the most overt racism since my southern childhood, bullying threats against Muslims by a presumptive nominee. The permission a supporter presumes, consequently, to jerk off a woman's hijab. Birther nonsense to demean the validity of a popularly elected president. Lie heaped upon lie about individuals and facts until the lies become "truth." Overwhelming an election for our president.

As our media repeats these sound bites again and again and social media is flooded with it, I find myself echoing Joseph Welch: "Have we no sense of decency?"

This is blog excerpted from writer, artist and international consultant Margaret Sullivan's book in progress, Reflections on a Mobile Life.