"A re you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" This was the question members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) asked each American who was brought before them. The HUAC, reaching its peak of power between 1947 and 1953, was at the center of the Red Scare, a period in U.S. history when Americans felt highly threatened by communism. Communism is a system of government in which a single political party controls almost all aspects of society. A communist system eliminates private ownership of property and business. Goods produced and accumulated wealth are in theory shared relatively equally by all. Under communism, people are not guaranteed individual liberties. In communist countries religious practices are not allowed.
Americans feared communists would gain strength in their country and might eventually take over. "Reds under the beds" and "better dead than Red" were common catchphrases. (The term "Red" was used to refer to communists and communist sympathizers.) Americans became obsessed with the fear of communism and looked with suspicion on subversive, or revolutionary, groups within the United States. The HUAC was established to investigate and root out any communist influences within the country. In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, "McCarthyism"—unfounded accusations of disloyalty to the U.S. government—was strong and continued to grow stronger. Even the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined in the fight against the "Red Menace."
Communism and democracy
During the Red Scare, investigations and restrictions on liberties protected by the U.S. Constitution shook Americans. But Soviet and Eastern European citizens experienced far worse conditions under Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). Many years earlier, in November 1917, members of a rising political party in Russia, the Bolsheviks, had gained control of the Russian government. The Bolsheviks, later called the Communists, believed in the ideology of Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924), who established the Communist Party in Russia. The American public soon realized the communist system of government was uncompromisingly different from U.S. democracy. In the United States, property and businesses are privately owned, and the Bill of Rights protects individual liberties. Americans are free to worship as they wish.
The first Red Scare
Near the end of the 1910s, many Americans began to fear that communism might spread and take over the American
way of life. Late in 1918, anarchists, people intent on overthrowing the government by violence, bombed the homes of a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, businessman, a police official, and a state judge. Then, in June 1919, a bomb exploded outside the home of U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936), who was trying to make a name for himself by launching a major campaign against political radicals, or those advocating extreme change. Palmer and other politicians visiting his home at the time escaped injury, but the bomber was killed. Most Americans attributed the bombings to communists and immigrant anarchists because of Palmer's warnings to the public that the Bolsheviks were trying to overthrow the U.S. government. The first Red Scare swept across the country.
Attorney General Palmer announced to Congress that communists were intent on overthrowing the government as quickly as possible. Congress reacted by establishing the Anti-Radical Division within the Department of Justice. The name was soon changed to the General Intelligence Division (GID). Appointed to head the new division was twenty-four-year-old J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972). Hoover would later head the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972. Palmer and Hoover planned and carried out a series of raids known as the Palmer Raids in late 1919 and early 1920. During the raids, thousands of U.S. citizens, many of Russian ancestry, and aliens, or foreign-born people who live in the United States but are not citizens, were arrested across the country without warrants. Although most were released in a few days, hundreds of Russian immigrants, not yet citizens, were deported, or shipped back, to Russia. Many of them had no connection to any communist group and had not acted against the U.S. government in any way.
Later in 1920, the Red Scare subsided, but a pattern that would repeat many times in the future had been set. Fear of communism would rise and fall through the twentieth century. It would come to its most dangerous peak in the late 1940s and 1950s.
During the 1930s, Americans suffered through the longest and worst economic crisis in U.S. history, the Great Depression. By 1932, roughly 25 percent of the American workforce were unemployed. Among those who kept their jobs, incomes dropped an average of 40 percent between 1929 and 1932. Many Americans went hungry; in cities, people stood in long lines at food kitchens. The inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) as president of the United States in March 1933 brought renewed hope that the economic problems could be solved. Roosevelt devised a variety of social and economic programs, known as the New Deal, to bring relief to the American people and encourage economic recovery. Nevertheless, the Depression lingered on through the 1930s.
Because of the serious economic problems, many Americans, especially intellectuals and youths, rethought what they had been taught about the American political system, which was that the system offered the American dream in which anyone could reach financial security through hard work and resourcefulness. They attended meetings to learn about other systems of government and economics. At meetings led by communists, speakers called for more rights for workers and for spreading America's wealth more evenly. Americans interested in communism hoped it might provide some answers for Depression-era America; they had no doubt that they could freely express such ideas. However, many of those who showed an interest in communism in the 1930s would eventually be labeled as subversives and have to answer to government questioning. (A subversive is a person who attempts to overthrow or undermine an established political system.)
In 1938, Congress passed the Hatch Act (named after its author, U.S. senator Carl A. Hatch [1889–1963] of New Mexico), which prohibited Americans who joined the Communist Party from holding federal jobs. In May 1938, U.S. representative Martin Dies (1900–1972) of Texas managed to get congressional funding for his favorite special committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), often called the Dies Committee. The HUAC was asked to investigate subversive activities by organizations that might try to overthrow the U.S. government.
The Dies Committee claimed to find communists in labor unions and government agencies and among African American groups. Many of those who were accused of communist sympathies were fired from their jobs. Several members of Congress argued that HUAC was going too far and violating the civil rights of those accused. Nevertheless, in 1940 Congress passed the Alien Registration Act, better known as the Smith Act, which made it illegal to be a member of any organization that supported a violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The Communist Party was the principal organization lawmakers had in mind.
By 1939, World War II (1939–45) was raging in Europe, and in 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval station in Hawaii, thus bringing the United States into the war. Although America's attention turned to the war, Dies doggedly kept HUAC alive until 1944, when ill health and criticism of his often groundless accusations against fellow Americans finally caused him to step down. The HUAC ceased to function, and the hunt for subversives slowed.
War ends and the second Red Scare begins
During World War II, the United States found itself in the strange position of being an ally of the communist Soviet Union. These uneasy allies joined with Great Britain and France to halt the advance of the German troops of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). The Allied forces were successful in defeating Hitler, and as the war wound down in Europe, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) met in Yalta (a resort town in the Soviet republic of the Ukraine) in February 1945 to discuss postwar plans. All agreed that the European nations liberated from Germany's grasp would eventually have free elections, where citizens are free to vote for the candidate of their choice.
World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945, and shortly thereafter Stalin began ignoring postwar agreements. He established communist governments in the Eastern European nations of Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and finally Czechoslovakia. These Eastern European nations, along with Yugoslavia, became known as the Eastern Bloc. (Bloc refers to a group of nations.) Free elections were not held. Instead, Soviet leaders in Moscow controlled the communist governments that had been put in place. The United States became the leader of the Western European democratic nations.
Relations between the East and West were tense. A cold war replaced the hot war, an actual armed conflict. The Cold War was fought over ideologies—communism versus democracy. It was a war caused by mutual fear and distrust. To most Americans, describing someone as "communist" was the same as saying the person was un-American.
In the 1946 congressional elections, a number of politicians engaged in "Red-baiting"; that is, they attacked their opponents by accusing them of having communist leanings. Republicans charged that President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) and other Democrats were "soft" on, or indifferent to, communism. Robert McCormick (1880–1955), the longtime owner and editor of the Chicago Tribune and a leading Republican in Illinois, claimed that the Democratic Party was not firm against feared communist influences. Republican Joseph R. McCarthy (1908–1957) of Wisconsin, who would play a major role in the second Red Scare, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Organizations such as the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution, along with conservative newspaper chains such as Hearst and Scripps-Howard, contributed to the anticommunist hysteria again sweeping the nation.
President Truman listened to the remarks that Democrats were soft on communism. He also had intelligence reports that there were Soviet spies within the U.S. government. In March 1947, he responded with Executive Order9835. The order established a program to check on the loyalty of the 2.5 million federal employees and root out any subversives. Subversive activity included past or present membership in various organizations with communist-like ideologies. Attorney General Tom Campbell Clark (1899–1977) was ordered to draw up a list of subversive organizations; however, there were no set standards for judging organizations, and the groups named as subversive could not challenge the listing. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, checked out millions of federal workers over the next four years. (See box.) Most loyalty boards denied the accused people their right to know who accused them. Some people were even asked about books and artwork they owned, which was an infringement of their personal liberties. Privately, Truman was beginning to become quite uncomfortable with the FBI's methods.
Truman announced the Truman Doctrine the same month as he announced the loyalty investigation program. The Truman Doctrine promised that the United States would help any nation threatened by an attempted communist takeover. Truman also revived the Smith Act of 1940, which had been somewhat forgotten during the war. The 1948 presidential election was looming, and Truman's efforts were directed at disproving the charge that Democrats were soft on communists. Truman also hoped his loyalty program would help protect innocent federal workers from the invasive HUAC, which had again come to life.
A reinstated HUAC
Although HUAC had stopped operating after Martin Dies's departure in 1944, the committee was reestablished and made permanent in 1945 at the insistence of Democratic congressman John E. Rankin (1882–1960) from Mississippi. (Rankin led the proposal to reinstate the committee, and the House voted in favor of his idea.) HUAC received funding and orders to investigate any individuals or groups it deemed possible subversives. HUAC soon compiled a list of roughly forty groups that it labeled communist fronts. (A front is an organization or group that serves as a disguise for secret and/or illegal activities or business dealings.) HUAC alleged that the listed groups, despite their sometimes patriotic names, were really organizations intent on promoting communist ideas. One of HUAC's most aggressive and probing members was a young Republican congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994), who would become president of the United States nearly twenty-five years later. Nixon had charged that his Democratic opponent in the 1946 congressional election, Jerry Voorhis (1901–1984), was a communist sympathizer.
The Hollywood Ten
In October 1947, HUAC opened an investigation of America's film industry. Hollywood had released several movies portraying Russia in a favorable light, such as Song of Russia. Also, some Hollywood artists were known as current or former members of the U.S. Communist Party. Ten of Hollywood's producers, directors, and screenwriters (most of the group were screenwriters) were called before the committee to explain their politics and reveal what organizations they were part of. Eight of the ten had communist affiliations. At the same time, fifty Hollywood directors, writers, and actors, outraged at the probing of individual Americans' beliefs, chartered a plane and headed for Washington, D.C. The famous fifty included Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957), Lauren Bacall (1924–), Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), Danny Kaye (1913–1987), and Frank Sinatra (1915–1998). They stopped along the way for press conferences in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago. Their goal was to defend the Hollywood Ten's rights to free speech and free assembly (the right to meet with other people and groups).
The Hollywood Ten refused to answer HUAC's questions, calling the inquiry a clear violation of their constitutional rights. Ultimately all were convicted for contempt of court, or an act of disobedience against the court. After a U.S. circuit court of appeals in 1948 upheld the verdict, eight served one year in prison and two served six months. All were assessed $1,000 fines. None of them was able to get work after being released, because Hollywood's film producers had put all ten on a blacklist. (A blacklist is a list of names of people who are to be punished or boycotted.) The message was clear: Either cooperate with HUAC or risk being blacklisted. Some of the famous fifty retracted their support for the Hollywood Ten and said that the trip to Washington, D.C., was a mistake.
The blacklisting spread to radio and a new industry—television. Anyone found to be connected to a group that had anything to do with subversive activities, real or imagined, was blacklisted. For instance, if a group happened to have a communist as a member, everyone in the group could be blacklisted. The Red Scare had taken firm hold of the American public.
A fearful America
By spring 1948, Americans felt that if they were not constantly vigilant, the Cold War could be lost right on American soil. FBI director Hoover fueled fears by commenting that communism was not a political party (like the Democrats or the Republicans) but an evil way of life that could spread like a disease across America. Overseas, there were signs of communist aggression: The Soviets blockaded Berlin, which was located deep within Soviet-occupied East Germany. The only way to get food and supplies to Berliners living in the U.S., French, and British sectors of the city was by an American- and British-run airlift (see Chapter 3, Germany and Berlin). In China, a communist revolution that had been going on for many years began to look as though it would succeed. Led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), whose army was supplied by the Soviets, the communists were gaining wide support from the Chinese people.
Back in the United States in July 1948, after a year of investigation, twelve leaders of the American Communist Party were tried and convicted under the 1940 Smith Act. The Smith Act made it illegal to be part of an organization that supported the violent overthrow of the government. (In 1951, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act in Dennis v. the United States and refused to overturn the convictions.) Also in mid-1948, Elizabeth Bentley (1908–1963), an American who had been spying for the Soviet Union, turned against the Soviets. She testified before a Senate subcommittee and HUAC, giving them information about a Washington-based spy ring of which she had been a part. One individual she implicated was Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), a senior editor for Time magazine and a former communist.
The strange case of Alger Hiss
Chambers admittedly had been a communist through most of the 1920s and 1930s, but he denounced communism sometime in 1937 or 1938. During his years as a communist, he received and photographed secret U.S. government documents and passed the film on to the Soviets. In August 1948, Chambers went before HUAC. He testified that he knew of Communist Party members in high places in the U.S. government, including the State Department. The public as well as government leaders were particularly sensitive to and disturbed by accusations that communists had penetrated the highest ranks of government. Of all those Chambers named, most refused to respond to the charges and used the Fifth Amendment, which gives a person the right not to testify against oneself, when called before the HUAC. However, Alger Hiss (1904–1996), one of the people Chambers named, sternly denounced the charges. His adamant denial caught the attention of Congressman Nixon. Nixon firmly believed that those most guilty usually make the mistake of going overboard to deny any wrongdoing.
Hiss graduated from Harvard Law School in 1930. He served as a law clerk for Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1935) and also served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, joining the State Department in 1936. Hiss attended the Yalta Conference in 1945 (at which Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill discussed postwar plans), and that same year attended the United Nations (UN) organizing meeting in San Francisco. (The UN is a group of nations whose main goals are to maintain peace and security for its member nations, promote human rights, and address humanitarian needs.) Hiss left the State Department in 1946 to serve as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Despite his outstanding résumé, Hiss was called to testify in front of HUAC on August 5, 1948. Hiss again denied the charges made by Chambers. Hiss claimed he had never even seen Chambers. Nixon was not convinced. Called again before the HUAC on August 16, Hiss had to face Chambers in person. Hiss admitted that he knew Chambers, but said that he had known him by the name George Crosley. Chambers again asserted that Hiss had been a communist in the late 1930s. Hiss strongly denied the accusation one more time and then sued Chambers for libel. (Libel is an unjust published statement about a person intended to hurt or ruin the person's reputation.)
In December 1948, HUAC called on Chambers at his farm, and he took the committee out to his garden. Hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin were rolls of microfilm containing pictures of confidential government papers. Chambers claimed Hiss had given these to him in 1938 to be sent on to the Soviet Union. Nixon, relentlessly pursuing the case, believed the microfilm was evidence enough to convict Hiss. In summer 1949, Hiss was brought to trial on perjury charges (lying under oath) for denying he knew Chambers and for denying he gave away secrets to the Soviets. He could not be charged with spying, due to the statute of limitations, which states that certain crimes cannot be charged after a defined period of time has elapsed. The result was a hung jury, which is when a jury cannot reach a verdict.
In November 1949, Chambers gave the HUAC sixty-five pages of State Department documents allegedly copied by Hiss on a typewriter and several in Hiss's handwriting. Chambers claimed Hiss had given them to him in 1938. Hiss was brought to a retrial in late 1949, on the same perjury charges, and in January 1950 the jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to five years in prison and served three years and eight months. Hiss died in 1996 at the age of ninety-two, still proclaiming his innocence. However, when the U.S. National Security Agency released the decoded messages, they, along with documents released in the Soviet Union, appeared to point to Hiss, though there was not conclusive proof. The Hiss case aroused extreme emotions in the late 1940s and 1950s. Those convinced of his guilt berated those who thought he was innocent. It was a war of Cold War rhetoric, or bold words, within the United States. The winner in the whole episode was Richard Nixon, the California congressman. The public saw him as a young political warrior fighting the spread of communism in America.
Apprehensions about the security of the United States continued to grow and spread. In 1949, for example, the National Education Association, which represented public school teachers, declared it inappropriate for communists to teach in schools. Universities agreed that professors should not be communists and should be fired if they joined the Communist Party. Many states required loyalty oaths from public employees, who had to swear they were not part of any communist organization. Many people lost their jobs when they refused to take the oath on the grounds that it violated personal liberties.
Claims were also made that communists were influencing the civil rights movement among black Americans. The famous athlete Jackie Robinson (1919–1972), major league baseball's first African American player, testified before HUAC concerning claims that civil rights groups had a communist influence. Robinson denied this. The committee asked Robinson a hypothetical question: If World War III were to break out between the United States and the Soviet Union, would black Americans in the United States fight against the Soviets? Robinson stated he did not think it would be a problem for blacks to fight against communist countries.
The most chilling news to reach the American public came in September 1949, when President Truman revealed that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. The United States was no longer the only country that possessed the ultimate destructive weapon. Worse still, the Soviets had apparently built their bomb using technical information they received from spies within the Manhattan Project, a top-secret U.S. government program in which scientists designed and built the country's first atomic weapon. Americans realized with horror that their country had indeed been betrayed from within (see Chapter 6, Espionage in the Cold War).
President Truman appointed a high-level committee to reevaluate the security of the United States in light of the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb. In spring 1950, the committee issued its report. Known as NSC-68—short for National Security Council Document 68—the report stated that the communist Soviet Union posed a risk to all civilization. The report called for heightened U.S. intelligence-gathering around the world and recommended quadrupling the U.S. defense budget. Although Truman and Congress were not ready to take these new bold measures, the report could not be ignored; it was another troubling cloud hanging over the American public.
By 1950, U.S. citizens had become accustomed to their fellow citizens being questioned about their allegiance to America. Many had been falsely accused of communist affiliations, sometimes by members of Congress or by leaders of organizations seeking to root out subversives. The accused were generally considered guilty until proven innocent. Most of them lost their jobs and friends.
No one better illustrated the actions of this troubled time than Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin. McCarthy went on a four-year witch-hunt, hoping to expose American traitors—that is, communists. He manipulated the American public's fear of communism for his own political purposes (up to this point, his career in the U.S. Senate had been relatively uneventful). He made false accusations and claims to convince Americans that a massive communist conspiracy threatened to take over the country; he warned them that they would lose their democratic way of life. The term "McCarthyism" came into use by 1950 and is still in use in the twenty-first century. It is used to describe a political attitude of intolerance or hostility toward potentially subversive groups. In the 1950s, McCarthyism was characterized by slander, false public accusations that damage the reputations of those accused.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1946, McCarthy had led the voters to believe he flew dive-bombers in World War II and that he had been wounded in action. McCarthy had been in the Marine Corps but held a desk job as an intelligence officer. At that time, McCarthy went along as an observer on flights that held no danger and rode in the "tail gunner" (back) section. However, he made sure he was photographed sitting behind the aircraft's guns; he later used the photographs in his election campaign. His only injury during the war came onboard a ship when he missed a rung of a ladder during a party and broke his foot.
McCarthy was a weak senator for Wisconsin. In fact, he had developed a reputation as a troublemaker. He was up for reelection in 1952 but had little support from his state. Searching for an attention-grabbing issue, McCarthy decided to play on America's fear of communism. McCarthy made his famous kickoff speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, before the Women's Republican Club. He claimed the U.S. State Department was full of Communist Party members or those loyal to the communists. He dramatically held up a list that he claimed contained 205 names of State Department communists. (Sometime later, it was discovered that the list had been his laundry list.) McCarthy refused to reveal his sources and gave only a few names from the alleged list of 205. No one he named was ever proved guilty. However, he had struck a chord with the public with his strong stand against communism. Money poured in (and went to his personal bank account), and he received support letters from around the country.
McCarthy's strategy was attack followed by avoidance. He attacked by casting doubt on a person's political loyalties, forcing accused individuals to defend themselves publicly; then he avoided producing any real evidence. Yet he stayed on the attack by suggesting that anyone who criticized his tactics must be a communist. HUAC energetically investigated all those McCarthy named as suspects. Among those McCarthy attacked were Senate Majority Leader Scott Lucas (1892–1968) of Illinois; Senator Millard Tydings (1890–1961) of Maryland; Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall (1880–1959), a retired army general; and even President Truman himself. McCarthy's talent lay in attacking in such a way that he repeatedly grabbed headlines. He became the center of Red Scare hysteria.
McCarthy was reelected to his senate seat in 1952. After Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) was elected president in 1952, McCarthy was assigned to the unimportant Government Operations Committee; Eisenhower and other Republicans hoped that would keep him out of the spotlight. But McCarthy turned the insignificant position into something grander. He established the Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations, hired a bright young lawyer named Roy Cohn (1927–1986), and went after the State Department again. The subcommittee became known as the "McCarthy Committee." He almost destroyed the Voice of America, a broadcasting service that transmitted its democratic message to over eighty countries; McCarthy claimed that a communist plot within the State Department was influencing the programming. The McCarthy Committee also turned its attention to libraries, demanding that any book that seemed to support communism be burned. President Eisenhower, incensed by McCarthy's actions, nevertheless avoided public confrontations with him because of the strong support he enjoyed from the conservative wing of the party. Rampaging on, McCarthy planned to investigate the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but was not successful because the CIA would not cooperate with the hearings. Criticism of McCarthy began to rise in 1953. Famous television journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) convincingly contended that McCarthy was exploiting America's fears and intimidating countless honest U.S. citizens, causing viewers to change their minds about McCarthy. Finally, McCarthy pushed too far: He declared that the U.S. Army's base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, harbored a communist spy ring. No evidence was found. Ultimately, in the spring of 1954, army lawyer JosephN. Welch (1890–1960) was able to bring McCarthy's long stream of unjustified attacks to an end by publicly exposing the lack of evidence behind his claims.
The Senate voted to censure, or officially reprimand, McCarthy, recognizing that his behavior from 1950 to 1954 had been highly dishonorable. While still in office, McCarthy died of an inflamed liver on May 2, 1957, at the age of forty-eight.
The "Great Terror" of Stalin
The Red Scare and McCarthyism shook the foundation of individual liberties in America. Yet these troubles paled in comparison to what people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe endured under the rule of Soviet Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin. Stalin took control of the Soviet Union in 1924. To him, freethinking was intolerably threatening. He demanded that the people under his rule conform to the uniform thinking of the Communist Party, which Stalin alone dictated. Dissent, or public disagreement, was never allowed. Any dissenting person would be rooted out and most likely executed or, at the very least, sent to a labor camp, where the person would have to endure hard work under difficult conditions. When appointing officials, no matter how essential they were to the working of the party, Stalin considered no qualities or qualifications other than complete loyalty to him alone.
Violence defined the period of Stalin's reign. Beginning in 1929 through 1933 and resuming in 1937 until his death in 1953, Stalin directed purges that killed millions and sent many more millions to isolated, harsh labor camps. The purges were known as Stalin's "Great Terror." In the early 1930s, most of the people who had planned the 1917 revolution in Russia (the Bolsheviks) were killed for reasons no one but Stalin understood. In fact, most of those extinguished in the purges were supporters of Stalin, but Stalin devised elaborate false accusations, then extracted confessions to the false charges with threats of torture. The accused would be cruelly beaten, jailed in extremely hot and/or extremely cold cells, and threatened with the execution of their wives and children. When tried at Stalin's "show trials," most of the accused people were sentenced to death. A show trial occurs when an accused person is put on trial in a court of law but not given a chance to challenge the charges against him or her. The outcome is often determined beforehand, based on political factors rather than legal ones. Those who received prison sentences were, in fact, usually executed without delay. About fifty show trials occurred during Stalin's Great Terror. Yet millions of men, women, and children disappeared, going either to their deaths or to the labor camps.
By late 1938, roughly eight million were in the labor camps and one million in prison (based on the known capacity of the prisons and the fact that those prisons were over-crowded). Approximately two million died in the labor camps in 1937 and 1938. Political prisoners—also called "enemies of the people" or "politicals"—were mixed in with criminals. The millions of slave laborers in the labor camp system, which was known as the Gulag, became a necessary part of the Soviet economy. They worked always under inhumane conditions, erecting industrial and mining facilities, building and maintaining camps, manufacturing camp necessities, mining, lumbering, and doing various government projects.
By 1948, the communist governments in Eastern Europe were tightly controlled by Moscow. Stalin imposed absolute authority over the Soviet satellite countries, except Yugoslavia, which was under the leadership of Josip Tito (1892–1980). Between 1948 and Stalin's death in 1953, harsh treatment and threats of violence kept the people obedient to Stalin. He ordered more show trials in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Roughly 150,000 Czech citizens became political prisoners.
In 1946, Stalin had launched a campaign against several film and theater people who he said went beyond the bounds set by the Communist Party. In early 1949, he followed up this campaign with a terrifying move against the often free-thinking Leningraders: Over two hundred were implicated in anti-Soviet activity aimed at undermining the Soviet Central Committee, which oversees the day-to-day activities of the Soviet Communist Party. The charges were made up to suit Stalin. All the accused people were shot in Leningrad. The massacre was followed by more violence, this time against acquaintances of the people just executed. The purges were bizarre—no real threats were being made against Stalin. The Soviet Union had recovered amazingly well from World War II, and there was strong stable support of Stalin. Yet Stalin turned to coercion and violence, as he had for the past quarter of a century. Stalin's pattern was apparently the only style of governing he knew.
After the Leningrad purge, Stalin concentrated on what he called "cosmopolitanism" or anti-Soviet foreign influence. He looked with suspicion on the Jews in the Soviet Union because most had relatives living in other countries. He contended that anti-Soviet foreign influence no doubt
flowed through the Jewish community. A number of prominent Jews, mostly Yiddish-language writers, were arrested and shot. Just before his death, Stalin imagined yet another plot against his government, the "doctors' plot." In January 1953, nine Moscow doctors, most of them Jews, were arrested and charged with scheming to kill Soviet leaders. In February, twenty-eight more doctors and their wives were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. A show trial was under way when Stalin suffered a fatal stroke on March 1 and died March 5, 1953. The "doctors' plot" trial immediately ceased.
It was widely accepted in Russia at the beginning of the twenty-first century that at least twenty million died during Stalin's reign. The total number of people who were "repressed" (which included death and exile) was approximately forty million, roughly half from 1929 to 1933 and the other half from 1937 to 1953.
For More Information
Barson, Michael, and Steven Heller. Red Scared! The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.
Cohn, Roy. McCarthy. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Hiss, Tony. The View from Alger's Window: A Son's Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
"Hollywood Blacklist." In Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2nd ed. Edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Laqueur, Walter. Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
Sherrow, Victoria. Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1999.
Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
"HUAC and Censorship Changes." Moderntimes Classic Film Pages.http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/huac.htm (accessed on July 25, 2003).
"Senator Joe McCarthy—A Multimedia Celebration." Webcorp.http://www.webcorp.com/mccarthy/mccarthypage.htm (accessed on July 25, 2003).
Words to Know
Cold War: A prolonged conflict for world dominance from 1945 to 1991 between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The weapons of conflict were commonly words of propaganda and threats.
Communism: A system of government in which the nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls almost all aspects of society. Private ownership of property is eliminated and government directs all economic production. The goods produced and accumulated wealth are, in theory, shared relatively equally by all. All religious practices are banned.
Hollywood Ten: Ten producers, directors, and screenwriters from Hollywood who were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to explain their politics and reveal what organizations they were part of. Eight of the ten had communist affiliations.
House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC): A congressional group established to investigate and root out any communist influences within the United States.
Red Scare: A great fear among U.S. citizens in the late 1940s and early 1950s that communist influences were infiltrating U.S. society and government and could eventually lead to the overthrow of the American democratic system.
People to Know
Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961): A journalist who admitted at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings that he had once been a communist but had later denounced communism; he named Alger Hiss as a communist.
Martin Dies (1900–1972): U.S. representative from Texas, 1931–44, 1953–58; chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), often called the Dies Committee.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969): Thirty-fourth U.S. president, 1953–61.
Alger Hiss (1904–1996): U.S. State Department official who was accused of being a communist; he served three years and eight months in prison after being convicted of perjury.
Joseph R. McCarthy (1908–1957): U.S. senator from Wisconsin, 1947–58; for four years, he sought to expose American communists by manipulating the public's fear of communism and by making false accusations and claims that a massive communist conspiracy threatened to take over the country.
Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994): Republican congressman from California, 1947–50; member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and closely involved with the investigation of accused communist Alger Hiss; was later a U.S. senator, vice president, and president.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945): Thirty-second U.S. president, 1933–45.
Joseph Stalin (1879–1953): Dictatorial Russian/Soviet leader, 1924–53.
Harry S. Truman (1884–1972): Thirty-third U.S. president, 1945–53.
Protecting America from Communism, J. Edgar Hoover Style
In the mid-1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked J. Edgar Hoover, head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to monitor the activities of communists and any other subversives in the United States. Hoover undertook this mission with great enthusiasm. By the end of World War II, he had compiled an amazing amount of information, including files on the daily habits and group memberships of many people who he thought might turn into enemies of democracy.
The campaign against communism dominated Hoover's life and the activities of the FBI. In 1947, the FBI investigated the loyalty of two to three million federal employees at the request of President Harry S. Truman. Of those, six thousand were thoroughly investigated. About twelve hundred were dismissed from their jobs, but only 212 people were fired for loyalty issues. Hoover also uncovered alcoholics, homosexuals, and employees in great debt. Heavy debtors were considered a risk because they might sell U.S. government information to the Soviets. In all, about twelve hundred federal employees were let go. Hoover also eagerly supplied the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) with incriminating information on organizations such as labor unions. Hoover's FBI was in charge of the investigation and arrests of the "atomic spies," including Julius Rosenberg (1918–1953), Ethel Rosenberg (1915–1953), Harry Gold (c. 1911–1972), and David Greenglass (1922–), who had passed top-secret technical information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets.
To educate the public about the threat of communism within the United States, Hoover authored Masters of Deceit, published in 1958. In twelve years and twenty-nine printings, the book sold a quarter-million copies in hardback and two million in paperback. Something of a media hound, Hoover sought to maintain the FBI's and his own public prestige by collaborating on the production of radio and television programs and Hollywood movies. These productions included The FBI Story (1959), starring James Stewart (1908–1997), and a popular television series, The FBI, that ran from 1965 to 1974. Street with No Name (1948), a full-length movie from Twentieth Century Fox, had the FBI's full cooperation.
By the early 1960s, Hoover's ability to seek out and expose hidden threats was well recognized. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) ordered Hoover to target the Ku Klux Klan, a secret society and recognized hate group that promotes white supremacy and harasses African Americans and other minority groups. By then, Hoover was one of the most powerful figures in Washington, D.C., often appearing to be under the control of no one. Hoover's men monitored people who protested the Vietnam War (1954–75). They also watched the activities of civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), who Hoover claimed had communist ties. Viewing these people as subversives, Hoover's men kept extensive files on them all. By the mid-1960s, Hoover's tactics of widespread surveillance, wiretapping, and maintaining detailed files on innocent citizens seemed a threat to personal liberties. As a result, Hoover's popularity with the public and with many government officials dropped sharply.
Hoover remained the director of the FBI until his death in 1972, a total of forty-eight years. In 1975 and 1976, a Senate-appointed committee (the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) determined that Hoover's actions constituted more than harassment; he had violated citizens' constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly (the right to meet with other people and groups).