The term “McCarthyism” is bandied around and many of the younger generations do not really know what it means.  What is McCarthyism?  To explore the term and the actions and consequences from its origins takes us back to the 1950s and the Second Red Scare; the days of the cold war. At the time there was heightened fear of communist influence on American institutions and of Soviet agents being embedded in American society.

Origins of McCarthyism

Before Senator Joseph A. McCarthy (Republican from Wisconsin) became involved, many factors created the atmosphere that eventually brought him to the forefront of the storm.   In the First Red Scare (1917-1920), Communism began to emerge as a political force in the United States, in part because the party had much success in organizing labor unions.  The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) steadily increased its membership with about 75,000 members recorded in 1940-1941.[1]

The CPUSA didnThe Second Red Scare;  Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons’t cause too much concern until after World War II when the Cold War began.  The Soviet Union installed Communist puppet regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, while the United States backed anti-communist forces in China and Greece. The Soviet threat was a grave concern when the Igor Gouzenko affair came up in 1945 and was fueled further by Elizabeth Bentley, which many historians cite as the trigger for the Cold War.  In 1949 the Soviet tested a nuclear bomb and the Communist party gained control of mainland China. In 1950 the Korea War started, with the United States backing South Korea against the Communist forces of North Korea and China.  Klaus Fuchs confessed to espionage activities for the Soviet Union while working on the Manhattan Project during the war.[1]  In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after their 1950 arrest for stealing atomic bomb secrets for the Soviet Union.

Conservatives were uneasy as far back as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies in the 1930s, seeing them as Socialism or Communism.  They cited the policies as the government being influenced by Communist policy-makers in the Roosevelt administration.[1]  This is where Senator McCarthy became publically involved.  In 1950 in a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, he held up a piece of paper and claimed it contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department.  This created a firestorm from the press and propelled McCarthy to the front of recognizable politicians in the United States.

Editorial cartoonist Herbert Block (aka Herblock) is credited with the first recorded use of the term “McCarthyism.”[1] He published a cartoon on March 29, 1950 depicting a reluctant elephant being pushed by four leading Republicans towards an unstable stack of tar buckets with the top bucket labeled “McCarthyism.”  And so investigations started.

McCarthyism; Cartoon by Herbert Block  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Cartoon by Herbert Block Source: Wikimedia Commons


Investigation and the Investigators into Communist Activities

Government agencies at all levels, federal, state and local, formed a variety of anti-Communist groups to carry out investigation of Communist activities.  In addition, both large and small companies followed suit to quell concerns about their work forces.  In Congress, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (commonly referred to as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)), the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations were the primary bodies of investigation.  From 1949 to 1954, 109 investigations were conducted by these and the other Congressional committees.

In 1947 President Harry Truman initiated a loyalty review program for federal employees which called for dismissal if there were reasonable doubts about the employee’s loyalty to the United States government.  In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower extended and strengthened the review program. The new rules stripped security clearance from J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project who had received top security clearance in 1947.

Similar reviews were carried out at the state and local levels and some private companies throughout the United States.  An estimated one out of every five employees were subjected to some sort of loyalty review in 1958.[1]  If a person lost a job due to a failed review, it was difficult to get hired elsewhere.

In 1942 the Department of Justice began to keep a list of organizations it deemed subversive. At one point it contained 154 organizations and identified 110 of them as Communist.[1]  Anyone who was a member of a listed organization was immediately suspicious, though the list was not meant to be proof of disloyalty.

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were very much involved in the loyalty program investigations.  Hoover actually designed the Truman aspects of the program and FBI agents carried out background investigations on federal employees.  Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI conducted various illegal activities in his quest to rid the United States of communism.  In 1956, Hoover initiated the COINTELPRO program which was a series of covert and sometimes illegal activities aimed at surveying, discrediting, infiltrating, and disrupting domestic political organizations.

Senator McCarthy (Joseph R.);  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress; source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: source: Wikimedia CommonsSenator McCarthy headed the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953 and 1954.  During those years, he conducted a number of Communist-hunting investigations which included the Voice of America and the overseas library program of the State Department.   This led to the State Department eventually removing material by controversial authors from the libraries.  The Subcommittee went on to investigate the United States Army which led to the Army-McCarthy hearings.  The hearings were officially inconclusive. The 36-day hearings were teleSenator McCarthy During Hearing of McCarthy vs Army;  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress; Source: Wikimedia Commonsvised nationwide and Senator McCarthy realized a sharp decline in his popularity with the American people.  On December 2, 1954 the Senate voted 67 in favor to condemn McCarthy for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute.”[7]




Hollywood Red Probe Begins (October 20, 1947)


The HUAC and the Hollywood Ten

Probably the most well-known aspect of McCarthyism is the investigations into the Hollywood industry and the ensuing blacklisting of well-known actors, directors, writers and other professionals in the industry.  The HUAC was the most prominent government committee in the anti-Communist investigations. The committee was formed in 1938 and at that time investigated German-American Nazis during World War II among other activities; but it soon focused on Communist activities.

In October 1947, the HUAC started to subpoena professionals in the movie industry to testify about their known or suspected membership in the Communist Party, support of its beliefs, or association with its members. Those who had to testify before the HUAC were asked what became known as the $64 million dollar question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”  The professionals in the industry who were among the first group to be subpoenaed decided not to cooperate and became known as “the Hollywood Ten.”[1]  The ten cited the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, believing this would protect them.  The ten were charged with contempt of Congress and two were sentenced to six months in prison and the other eight to one year behind bars. 

Support for McCarthyism

The Second Red Scare During McCarthyism;  Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe United States Government had several laws on the books to aid in their efforts to stop the Red Scare.  Many defendants, especially leaders of the Communist Party were convicted under the Smith Act of 1940 which set penalties for advocating the overthrow of the United States government.  The act also required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the government. Other laws were designed to target the Communist Party, but some were not enforced and some were later deemed unconstitutional. Therefore, many of these laws had little or no effect other than to harass citizens.

Groups such as the American Legion supported McCarthyism. One core element was a variety of militantly anti-communist women’s groups.[1]  Far-right radicals were not the only supporters.  Groups opposed to New Deal policies, the United Nations, and efforts viewed as progressing towards socialisms were also supporters. A Gallup poll taken in January 1954 showed 50% of the American public supported McCarthy, while 29% had an unfavorable opinion of the senator. [1]

Further evidence is sited by supporters of McCarthyism as the CPUSA was shown to be under control of Moscow when documents from the KGB archives were made public.  Also cited as support of their views is many former members of the Communist Party testified as expert witnesses in the hearings and trials during the investigations.  In addition, it was a popular belief that members were not allowed to resign from the Party and therefore, even if they were a member decades before, they should still be as suspect as a current member.

Consequences of McCarthyism

Hundreds of people were imprisoned due to the investigations during McCarthyism and thousands lost their jobs.  For some simply being subpoenaed by HUAC or one of the other committees was cause for termination of employment.   Some of the people did have connections past or present with the Communist Party, but the majority did not, and even those that did were not necessarily threats to the country.

The film industry saw over 300 professionals denied work in the United States because of the unofficial Hollywood blacklist. Blacklists weren’t just prevalent in Hollywood; universities and schools, the legal profession and other prominent career fields were also subjected to blacklists.  Accusers through the loyalty-reviews were not identified. In the same vein, a port security program initiated by the Coast Guard not long after the Korean War started, required a review of maritime workers who loaded or worked aboard any American ship. Almost 3,000 longshoremen and seamen lost their jobs because of this program.[1]

The End of McCarthyism

In the late 1950s McCarthyism started to decline partially due to changes in public sentiment and partially due to challenges at the Supreme Court level.  Individuals who confronted the practice in court were eventually rewarded in many cases.  One of the first to take his employer to court was John Henry Faulk, a host of an afternoon radio show who was fired by CBS Radio.  In 1957 he sued AWARE Inc., one of the private firms that investigated individuals for signs of disloyalty and had marked Faulk as “unfit.”  He won the case in 1962.[1]  After this, most of the blacklisting stopped.

Decades later, the repercussions of McCarthyism can be felt.  One camp presents the declassified documents from the Soviet Union archives as  proof the CPUSA was largely funded and its policies controlled by Moscow; and accusations members were recruited as spies was cited as evidence McCarthyism was necessary.  Another camp acknowledges McCarthyism went too far, but believes contemporary historians underplay the depth of Soviet espionage in the United States.  Another camp opposes both those views and claims starting in the 1940s the CPUSA was not effective and merely a “fringe” group and any damage done by Soviet spies after World War II was minimal. [1]

Many contemporary historians draw parallels to the government of today with the McCarthyism era.  The United States is politically divided as it was then with new issues to confound the situation as well as old ones.  Some laws, or sections of laws, instituted during McCarthyism are still on the books both federally and in state government; in California, all government officials and employees are required to take a loyalty oath.  Ensuring the rights of its civilians and keeping the nation safe is a balance the United States government often finds itself trying to keep.  


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