McCARTHYISM has been misnamed. Often identified with the bizarre antics of the Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, the anticommunist political repression to which he gave a name had been in operation for years before he appeared at a Republican banquet in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. And it was to continue for several years after he self-destructed before the nation's television viewers at the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954. There was nothing unique about McCarthy's charges of subversion in high places. Ever since the 1930s, conservative politicians and journalists had been attacking the New Deal administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman for being "soft on communism." But it took the Cold War to bring the originally partisan issue of anticommunism from the margins into the political mainstream.
Although McCarthyism came in many flavors, all its adherents agreed that it was essential to eliminate the danger of American communism. They differed, however, in their assessment of what that danger was. Right-wingers, hostile to everything on the left, attacked liberals
as well as communists, while moderates, who were willing to purge actual Communist Party members, tried to protect noncommunists from unfounded persecution. They did not always succeed. In the supercharged atmosphere of the early Cold War, the anticommunist crusade spun out of control, creating the most widespread and longest lasting episode of political repression in American history.
By the time that repression sputtered to an end in the late 1950s, thousands of men and women had lost their jobs, hundreds had been deported or sent to prison, and two—Ethel and Julius Rosenberg—had been executed. Most, but not all, of these people had once been in or near the American Communist Party. Because that party had been the most dynamic organization on the American left during the 1930s and early 1940s, thousands of activists gravitated into its orbit, attracted by its opposition to war and fascism and its support for the labor movement and racial equality. Most of these men and women were idealistic individuals who had not anticipated that their political activities would get them into trouble years later, when anticommunism came to dominate American politics.
What made McCarthyism so powerful was that so many different agencies and individuals took part in its operations. It functioned in accordance with a two-stage procedure. The supposed communists were first identified; then they were punished—usually by being fired. Most of the time, an official body like the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) handled the first stage, while a public or private employer took care of the second. Because it was common to identify McCarthyism only with the initial identification stage of the procedure, many otherwise moderate and even liberal Americans were able to collaborate with it. Claiming to deplore the excesses of the congressional investigations, they nonetheless applied sanctions against the people McCarthy and his allies had fingered.
They now realize they were wrong. The sanctions imposed on thousands of school teachers, longshoremen, film directors, union officials, civil servants, automobile workers, and housewives during the late 1940s and 1950s seriously violated those people's constitutional rights. But at the time, most Americans believed that communists were Soviet puppets who might subvert the government, steal official secrets, or sabotage defense plants whenever their Kremlin masters gave the word. Since some American communists had spied for the Soviet Union during World War II, that demonized stereotype, though exaggerated, was quite plausible. The highly publicized cases of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs reinforced the stereo-type, convincing liberals and conservatives alike that communists were so dangerous they did not deserve the same rights as other Americans. That consensus made it possible for a wide range of government officials and private employers to punish people for their political views and affiliations.
Washington led the way. Not only did the federal government create and carry out some of the earliest anticommunist purges, but it also developed the ideological justification for them. The FBI and its militantly anticommunist director, J. Edgar Hoover, oversaw the process. Much of the information about communism that fed the loyalty-security investigations, criminal prosecutions, and congressional hearings that dominated the McCarthy era came from the FBI and reflected that organization's distorted view of the red menace. In addition, because Hoover and his men were so eager to eradicate American communism, they supplemented their normal operations with a wide range of unauthorized and even illegal activities, including wiretaps, break-ins, and leaks to right-wing journalists and politicians.
HUAC and the other congressional investigators were among the main recipients of those leaks. Not only did the committees identify specific individuals as communists, but they also helped disseminate the anti-communist scenarios that fueled the purges. Friendly witnesses told stories about their experiences in the Communist Party and identified its members, while unfriendly witnesses remained silent. Most of them would have been willing to talk about their own political activities, but they balked at describing those of others. However, because the Supreme Court did not protect people accused of communism during the late 1940s and early 1950s, witnesses who did not want to name names had to rely on the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to answer any question that might subject them to prosecution. Although they did not go to prison, most of these "Fifth Amendment" witnesses lost their jobs.
The most well-known unfriendly witnesses were the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who had defied HUAC on First Amendment grounds in 1947. Even before they went to prison, the Ten were on the street, early victims of an informal but highly effective blacklist that kept hundreds of men and women out of the entertainment industry during the 1950s. Similar blacklists emerged in other sectors of the economy, thus ensuring that most of the people who tangled publicly with an anticommunist investigation or were targeted by the FBI would lose their jobs. As the repression spread, unorthodox opinions or controversial activities could also invite dismissal.
The threat of unemployment was a powerful deterrent. People shrank from involvement in anything that could conceivably be linked to the left. Because of the stigma and secrecy that surrounds McCarthyism, it is hard to assess its impact. If nothing else, it narrowed the political spectrum, marginalizing if not silencing all critics of the status quo.
Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979.
Oshinsky, David M. A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.
Theoharis, Athan G., and John Stuart Cox. The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
See also Anticommunism ; Blacklisting ; Communist Party, United States of America ; Federal Bureau of Investigation ; Hiss Case ; House Committee on Un-American Activities ; Rosenberg Case ; and vol. 9: Censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy ; Senator Joseph McCarthy: The History of George Catlett Marshall .
"McCarthyism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mccarthyism
"McCarthyism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mccarthyism
█ JOSEPH PATTERSON HYDER
In the early 1950s, Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, conducted highly publicized congressional hearings to uncover subversive elements within American culture, government, and military. For over three years, McCarthy used questionable means to uncover information about suspects. The McCarthy era represents the height of the post-war "Red scare" and demonstrates the degree to which paranoia about subversive communist activities had gripped America.
The wartime Alien Registration Act of 1940 laid the foundation for McCarthyism. This act required that all aliens over the age of 14 residing in the United States register with the American government. Each resident alien had to file a report detailing his or her political beliefs and work status. The act also made it illegal for anyone to plan to overthrow the government of the United States.
The Alien Registration Act had a twofold purpose. First, with American involvement in World War II likely, Congress hoped the act would help identify potential wartime saboteurs. The government wanted to avoid a repeat of the situation in World War I, when German-supported saboteurs and German sympathizers targeted
American industry and shipping that aided the European war effort. By acquiring a detailed work history of aliens, the government sought to identify potential problems before they occurred. The second and primary objective of the Alien Registration Act was to identify elements of the American Communist Party or other socialist organizations.
It was subsequently determined that the existing House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) would serve as the body that would seek out subversive elements. In 1947, HUAC began a campaign to rid Hollywood of all leftist elements. In a series of highly publicized congressional hearings, some individuals in the entertainment industry identified their peers as belonging to questionable leftist organizations, including the American Communist Party.
In an effort to avoid further embarrassing hearings and to regain public trust, Hollywood studios drew up a blacklist of individuals suspected of belonging to or having an interest in subversive organizations. These individuals found it difficult to work in Hollywood until they had cleared their names before HUAC. The blacklist included many well-known celebrities, including Charlie Chaplain, Burl Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, and Arthur Miller.
The Hollywood blacklist and the HUAC hearings fed the atmosphere of suspicion that gripped American society. To the public, the threat of a complex communist plot to infiltrate American society and government seemed tangible. The high-profile HUAC hearings, combined with the well-publicized Rosenberg and Alger Hiss trials, served to reinforce this sentiment. In the fall of 1949, the government began a crackdown, arresting most of the leadership of the American Communist Party and charging them under the Alien Registration Act.
In February 1950, Joseph McCarthy became involved in the search for subversive elements within the government. McCarthy claimed to have a list containing the names of State Department employees belonging to the American Communist Party. McCarthy's list did not contain any arcane knowledge, having been compiled by the State Department several years earlier following an internal investigation. Additionally, most of the names were on the list for other questionable behaviors. Few members on the list had any current or previous ties to the Communist Party.
McCarthy took to the pulpit when he became chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. Using his position, McCarthy began investigating possible Communist infiltration of various government agencies. McCarthy worked closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and his close friend, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI supplied McCarthy with the information that he needed to keep his committee hearings effective. Government employees found to have ties to the Communist Party or other left-wing groups were removed from office and forced to divulge the names of other individuals affiliated with leftist organizations.
McCarthy's committee also targeted the Overseas Library Program. The Government Committee on Operations of the Senate identified and banned over 30,000 books thought to have been written by communist sympathizers or to contain procommunist themes. Many public libraries across the United States removed these books from their shelves.
McCarthy's operations further expanded into the realm of American politics. His committee conducted disinformation campaigns to thwart the reelection bids of politicians that opposed him. McCarthy even targeted the Truman administration, including President Harry S. Truman himself and cabinet member George Marshall, the renowned architect of the postwar Marshall Plan, for supporting the New Deal and for being perceived as soft on communism in Korea. McCarthy supported Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential campaign in 1952, and in return, Eisenhower allowed McCarthy to continue his anti-Communist hearings.
In October 1953, after nearly three years of targeting civilian agencies, McCarthy set his sights on identifying and removing subversive elements within the United States Army. Eisenhower, a former army general, decided to stop him. Vice-president Richard M. Nixon spoke out, asserting that McCarthy was motivated not by concern for his country but by a desire for personal aggrandizement. It was revealed that McCarthy had tried to prevent the army from drafting one of his staff members, G. David Schine. After failing in that attempt, McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, had petitioned Stevens to grant special privileges to Schine. The Schine affair prompted McCarthy to target Secretary Stevens: when Stevens refused his request, McCarthy claimed that the army was holding Schine hostage in order to prevent his committee from uncovering communist elements within their ranks.
McCarthy determined that Congress should investigate the matter. He also sealed his fate by allowing television cameras to air the Army-McCarthy hearings. During the hearings, McCarthy and Cohn sought to characterize the army as an organization riddled with subversive elements. Throughout the hearings, McCarthy appeared rude to an attentive television audience. On the other hand, a personable attorney, Joseph Welch, represented the army. It was Welch who ultimately destroyed McCarthy's credibility with his retort to McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" A bewildered McCarthy did not realize that the power that he once wielded had been crushed before a national television audience. In December 1954, Congress censured Joseph McCarthy by a vote of 67–22.
█ FURTHER READING:
Fried, Albert. McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare: A Documentary History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. Madison, WI: Madison Books, 1997.
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.
Cold War (1945–1950), The Start of the Atomic Age
KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security )
Rosenberg (Ethel and Julius) Espionage Case
"McCarthyism." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mccarthyism
"McCarthyism." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mccarthyism
The term McCarthyism refers to an accusatory campaign based on unfair allegations, fear tactics, innuendo, and sensationalized threats of guilt by association. McCarthyism was coined by political cartoonist Herbert Block (1909–2001) in a March 29, 1950, Washington Post cartoon lampooning the anticommunist campaigns of Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy (1908–1957), a Republican from Wisconsin, in the 1950s. McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946 and rose to national prominence after newspapers reported on a speech he made in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, in which he claimed to have a list of 205 State Department employees who were members of the Communist Party. McCarthy’s list later shrunk to eighty-one, then fifty-seven, but McCarthy’s facts mattered little to the press or his public.
When McCarthy became the chair of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations in 1952, he used this position to investigate alleged Communists. In 1953 the committee identified “subversive” books held at American embassy libraries around the world. Books by authors such as Owen Lattimore (1900–1989), Lillian Hellman (1905–1984), Langston Hughes (1902–1967), and Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) were removed from libraries because of allegations that the authors were either fellow travelers or Communists. In late 1953 McCarthy investigated the U.S. Army after an army dentist was promoted despite his refusal to answer questions on a federal loyalty oath. McCarthy’s inquiries soon led to investigations of a number of army officers.
Journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) broadcast a critical analysis of Senator McCarthy’s tactics in March 1954 on the CBS program See It Now. This broadcast brought increased public scrutiny of McCarthy. In April 1954 the Senate began the Army-McCarthy hearings, investigating McCarthy’s claims that the army was promoting Communists in its ranks. The hearings were nationally televised, allowing the nation to witness McCarthy’s bullying and fabricating of evidence. On June 9, 1954, McCarthy’s rapid descent began after a televised hearing showed army special council Joseph Welch (1890–1960) rebuffing McCarthy for his scurrilous tactics. Welch berated McCarthy before the cameras for his reckless bullying, rhetorically asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The Senate censured McCarthy on December 2, 1954, by a vote of seventy-six to twenty-two. McCarthy remained in the Senate, but his power was greatly diminished. He died of sclerosis of the liver in 1957. For all his bluster and claims to hold secret evidence of American Communism, McCarthy never identified a single Communist spy.
The social impacts of McCarthyism were significant. Some victims of McCarthyism lost jobs, were blacklisted, were alienated from friends and associates, or committed suicide. McCarthyism generated a climate of self-censorship. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), members of Congress, intellectuals, celebrities, and everyday citizens muted criticisms of McCarthy out of fear of being called procommunist (Schrecker 1998).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had a symbiotic relationship with Senator McCarthy. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) had conducted free-ranging investigations of the American political Left since the 1930s, and the FBI secretly and illegally provided Senator McCarthy with records and names of individuals.
Functionally, McCarthyism deadened what might have been a critical activist edge in American social science as those who fought for racial or economic justice or who studied social stratification were routinely interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or subjected to FBI surveillance and harassment (Harris 1980; Keen 2004; Price 2004). Proponents of McCarthyism were not simply interested in exposing and destroying Communists. McCarthyism’s outcomes were much broader and included attacking labor union leaders, as well as discrediting a wide range of social activists working for gender, racial, and economic equality.
Loyalty hearings made examples out of public figures associated with progressive causes. In 1952 playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005) began work on his play The Crucible, set during the 1692 Salem witch trials. The Crucible, which opened in New York in 1953, used the past to examine the 1950s climate of fear, accusations by informers, guilt by association, and the right of communities to bring moral judgments.
McCarthyism’s mechanisms of social control extend beyond the mid-twentieth century’s “Red Scare.” The use of fear, guilt by association, vague accusations, and claims that dissent is dangerously unpatriotic to generate silence and compliance is a recurrent instrument of social control employed in various societies before and since the 1950s (Garfinkel 1956).
Garfinkel, Harold. 1956. Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies. American Journal of Sociology 61 (1): 420–424.
Harris, Benjamin. 1980. The FBI’s Files on APA and SPSSI. American Psychologist 35: 1141–1144.
Keen, Mike. 2004. Stalking Sociologists: J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI Surveillance of American Sociology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Miller, Arthur. 1953. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts. New York: Viking.
Price, David H. 2004. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Schrecker, Ellen. 1998. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little, Brown.
David H. Price
"Mccarthyism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/mccarthyism
"Mccarthyism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/mccarthyism
Mc·Car·thy·ism / məˈkär[unvoicedth]ēˌizəm/ • n. a vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the U.S. government and other institutions carried out under Senator Joseph McCarthy in the period 1950–54. Many of the accused were blacklisted or lost their jobs, although most did not in fact belong to the Communist Party. ∎ fig. any similar practice that endorses the use of unfair allegations and investigations: he practiced McCarthyism long before there was a McCarthy. DERIVATIVES: Mc·Car·thy·ist adj. & n. Mc·Car·thy·ite / -[unvoicedth]ēˌīt/ adj. & n.
"McCarthyism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mccarthyism-0
"McCarthyism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mccarthyism-0
"McCarthyism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mccarthyism
"McCarthyism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mccarthyism