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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 (19092001) in a March 29, 1950, Washington Post cartoon lampooning the anticommunist campaigns of Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy (19081957), 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. McCarthys list later shrunk to eighty-one, then fifty-seven, but McCarthys 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 (19001989), Lillian Hellman (19051984), Langston Hughes (19021967), and Dorothy Parker (18931967) 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. McCarthys inquiries soon led to investigations of a number of army officers.

Journalist Edward R. Murrow (19081965) broadcast a critical analysis of Senator McCarthys 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 McCarthys claims that the army was promoting Communists in its ranks. The hearings were nationally televised, allowing the nation to witness McCarthys bullying and fabricating of evidence. On June 9, 1954, McCarthys rapid descent began after a televised hearing showed army special council Joseph Welch (18901960) 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 (18901969), 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 (18951972) 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. McCarthyisms 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 (19152005) 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.

McCarthyisms mechanisms of social control extend beyond the mid-twentieth centurys 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): 420424.

Harris, Benjamin. 1980. The FBIs Files on APA and SPSSI. American Psychologist 35: 11411144.

Keen, Mike. 2004. Stalking Sociologists: J. Edgar Hoovers 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 FBIs 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


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Despite the fact that Americans pride themselves on constitutional protections for free speech, there have been many attempts to limit speech in the United States. Beginning in 1789 with the First Sedition Act, Congress has passed laws banning diverse kinds of speech: criticism of the government, speaking out against war, associating with the Communist party, obscenity, slander, libel, "fighting words," and seditious speech that attempts to overthrow the government. None of these limits have been so controversial or so damaging as the attempt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to purge the United States of anyone remotely connected with the Communist party. His unsubstantiated charges led to wrecked lives and careers in all walks of life. The inherent irony of McCarthyism—the name given to the attempts to seek out and criminalize those suspected of sympathizing with communism—was that by the time of his "Red Scare," American Communism was all but dead. The lesson to be learned from his hysteria and the ensuing witch hunt is that even when speech is protected to the extent that it is in the United States, it is still vulnerable to attacks from those who wish to limit the right of others to disagree with them.

During the early days of industrialization in the United States, the country played host to a large, active Socialist party. American workers began to join labor unions and engage in strikes. The surge of immigrants who brought with them a tradition of radicalism influenced native workers who felt exploited by low wages and long working hours to protest against the factory owners. By the 1930s, the American Communist party was in full swing. Socialist leader Eugene Debs called it "the red decade," and author Daniel Aaron dubbed it "a time of smelly orthodoxies." The 1930s began with worldwide depression and ended with storm clouds of war around the world. In the throes of economic famine, the country was vulnerable to differing visions and ideologies created by upheaval and despair. American intellectuals—introspective, disillusioned, and articulate—became the voice of a people whose world had ceased to be the expected bulwark against want, instability, and insecurity. American Communists believed that Soviet communism could provide a model for economic stability and social justice. The heyday of the American Communist party began with a party that was 70 percent foreign-born and ended with a party that was 44 percent professional and white collar natives.

A large number of Americans joined the Communist party for social as well as ideological reasons. Clubs, such as the John Reed Clubs, provided a home for fledgling writers and artists and those who needed to belong to something in which they could believe. Speeches by Communist party officials frequently centered around the defeat of fascism and had mass appeal to the disillusioned portion of the American population. Richard Crossman writes in The God That Failed that such individuals "had lost faith in democracy and were willing to sacrifice bourgeois liberties in order to defeat fascism. Their conversion, in fact, was rooted in despair—a despair of Western values."

However, as the 1930s progressed, many Americans began to reexamine their attraction to communism. A number of events influenced the decline in communism's popularity, including the Joseph Stalin's purges within the Soviet Union and the Non-Aggression Pact he signed with Adolph Hitler in 1939. Alfred Kazin spoke for American Communists as a whole when he cried: "It was wrong to make common cause with Hitler, wrong to expose the world to war." Following World War II, the fear of communism became an entrenched element in American society as the Soviet-American alliance slowly deteriorated. In 1947 President Harry Truman signed an executive order that barred communists, fascists, and other totalitarians from the national payroll. Also included in the ban were individuals who were guilty of "sympathetic association" with undesirables or their organizations. The stage was set for Joseph McCarthy.

Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was born near Appleton, Wisconsin. He received a law degree in 1935 but was not a success as a lawyer. McCarthy handled only four cases in his nine months of practice, bragging that he supported himself by playing poker. While practicing law, McCarthy was accused of destroying judicial records. He won his first election by claiming that his 66-year-old opponent was "73" or "89" and was too old to govern. He joined the Marines during World War II but left early to launch an unsuccessful bid for the Senate. He would later falsely claim that he had been wounded in action.

After winning an election to the Senate, McCarthy paid little attention to the early days of the so-called Red Scare. But as the Cold War escalated, Americans felt more vulnerable to the threat of communism. China fell to the communists, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, and Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of spying for the enemy. After being identified as the worst United States senator in a 1949 poll, McCarthy mentioned to supporters that he needed a cause to improve his image. He found it with the threat of communism and erroneously stated that 284 communists were employed by the State Department. Despite the fact that none of these individuals remained at the State Department, McCarthy declared on the floor of Congress that he had "proof" of widespread communist activity in the government of the United States.

Throughout the Red Scare, McCarthy never documented a single communist in a government job. However, he amassed enormous power with his false claims. He insisted that the past twenty years of Democratic government had been "a conspiracy so immense, an infamy so black as to dwarf any in the history of man." In 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act, virtually outlawing communism in the United States. This was followed in 1954 with the Communist Control Act, forbidding communists from running for political office. Constitutional scholars acknowledge that both laws were clearly in violation of the First Amendment's protection of freedom of association. Limiting access to the ballot is always a distinctive threat to democracy. Nonetheless, in Barenblatt v. United States in 1959, the Supreme Court insisted that its repeated refusal to view the Communist Party as an ordinary political party left it without First Amendment protections. Mandated loyalty oaths for government employees, including teachers, also violated protected freedom of association. Following the example of Congress, many states passed their own loyalty oaths. In New York state, as many as 58 teachers and 200 college professors lost their jobs. Approximately 20 percent of those eventually called to testify before state and congressional investigating committees were college teachers and graduate students.

By 1954, a blacklist was in place in both the fields of education and entertainment. Few who lost their jobs in either field were ever reinstated. The political witch hunt promoted by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s caused great harm and suffering. Beloved entertainers, such as Charlie Chaplin, were forced out of the United States because of the hysteria. Producers, actors, and writers, were blacklisted. Without jobs, many were unable to support their families. Most of the people who McCarthy injured were just people who dared to question the capitalist status quo. Many scholars believe that McCarthy, motivated by a desire for personal recognition, was trying to overthrow the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and establish the Republicans as the majority party. In such an environment, policy makers of both parties were afraid to suggest alternatives to both foreign and domestic policy for fear of being charged with subversion.

McCarthy's tactics proved successful, and in 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, bringing with him a Republican-controlled Congress. Out of 221 Republicans in the House of Representatives, 185 asked to serve on the House Un-American Activities Committee. Indeed, Richard Nixon had used his Senate seat to fight communism and ended up with the vice presidency in 1952 and 1956. Once the Republican party was in control, McCarthy could no longer rail against communist conspiracies in the government. So he turned his attention to the army, and that proved to be his downfall. Outraged Americans joined with the military and johnny-come-lately politicians to denounce McCarthyism. Joseph McCarthy was censured in 1954 and died three years later, a bitter outcast. Despite this, he has become a cult hero to the New Right and would have felt vindicated by the renewed articulation of the communist threat under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

The United States Constitution and the First Amendment can only protect the rights of American citizens when they are willing to stand up for the right to engage in free speech, to openly criticize the government and its policy makers, and to demand the inherent democratic right to disagree with others. McCarthyism was only able to gain a foothold in the United States because people were afraid to challenge the loud voices who claimed that democracy was most vulnerable to outside forces. Democracy in the United States has always been most vulnerable to forces within in who do not accept the right of dissent. This is the lesson to be learned from Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Adams, John G. Without Precedent: The Story of the Death of McCarthyism. New York and London, W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Crossman, Richard. The God That Failed. New York, Regnery Publishers, 1982.

Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left. New York and London, W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.

Fried, Albert, editor. McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare; A Documentary History. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Heale, M. J. McCarthy's Americans: Red Scare Politics in State and Nation, 1935-1965. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Klingaman, William K. Encyclopedia of the McCarthy Era. New York, Facts on File, 1996.

Lately, Thomas. When Angels Wept: The Senator Joseph McCarthy Affair—A Story Without A Hero. New York, William Morrow and Company, 1973.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. New York, Stein and Day, 1982.

Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1994.

——. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston, Little, Brown, 1998.


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A term coined in 1950, McCarthyism described the escapades of Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin (1908–1957). It was later applied to the broader excesses that characterized anti-Communism in America during the Cold War (1946–1991). McCarthy won notoriety by charging that federal government employees, especially in the State Department, served the interests of the Soviet Union. To critics McCarthyism suggested wild, often baseless and shifting charges of Communist Party membership or sympathy for Communist objectives or the USSR, made against one's political opponents. To McCarthy and his admirers, it meant "Americanism with its sleeves rolled up." The more negative connotation eventually prevailed, but only after McCarthy held the spotlight and defined the nation's political debate for five years.

In his heyday, McCarthy's charges helped explain to many Americans the adverse turn the Cold War took at mid-century and the nation's seeming inability to enjoy the fruits of victory won in 1945. He picked a ripe moment, February 1950, to claim he had a list of State Department employees (the numbers fluctuated—at times 205, or 57, or 81) steering foreign policy in a pro-Soviet direction. In 1949 Mao Zedong's Communist forces had won China's civil war. The Soviets had developed an atom bomb, ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly. In January 1950 former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for denying involvement with the Soviet espionage apparatus. These events jolted confidence in President Harry S. Truman's efforts to "contain" Soviet expansionism and made his Democratic Party vulnerable to charges of being "soft" on Communism. Many Republicans, after seeing Democrats win the presidency five times in a row, eagerly embraced a political issue that offered hope of victory at last. Thus, events and partisanship bolstered McCarthy's ambitions and ushered in a half-decade of shouted charges and countercharges of disloyalty and softness on communism.

Talent as well as timing served McCarthy. He played the media skillfully, particularly the press, sometimes holding one press conference to announce another (at which charges would be made), thus capturing headlines in both morning and evening papers. He kept changing charges, numbers, targets, making it hard for journalists—and victims—to keep up. His agility and brazenness in political roughhousing allowed him to keep ahead of his critics.

It should be noted, however, that a framework of laws, political force fields, anti-Red rhetoric and theatrical anti-Communist methods predated McCarthy's rise. He was first to discover neither the presence nor political value of the Red Menace. From 1938 to 1942, in the era of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the onset of World War II, the federal government's legislative and executive branches had set up programs to exclude Communists (and fascists) from federal jobs. The House of Representatives launched the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1938. The 1940 Smith Act outlawed seeking or advocating overthrow of government by force or violence. In 1942 a loyalty program was instituted to weed Communists and other "subversives" out of government jobs. The Cold War heightened pressures to rein in Communist influences. President Truman instituted a tougher loyalty program in 1947. In 1948 his Justice Department prosecuted leaders of the Communist Party under the Smith Act. Congress passed the Internal Security Act in 1950.

Although McCarthy's claims gave Republicans partisan leverage, Democrats sensed—wrongly—that they could be easily exploded, and with them the Communist issue. A Senate subcommittee probed McCarthy's meandering charges in the spring of 1950. Its Democratic majority found them baseless (the Republican members

labeled the inquiry incomplete). However, the onset of the Korean War (1950–1953) and other jolts like the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of nuclear spying for the Soviets kept McCarthy afloat. Indeed, Korea weakened the Democrats and made his charges plausible. The public was clearly worried about Communist influences, and because McCarthy, if nothing else, made clear that he was too, they gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Publication in the 1990s of the fruits of Venona, the top-secret project that decoded Soviet intelligence reports from the United States to Moscow, suggested that the threat from hidden Communist agents was not just speculative. But McCarthy had no access to such information (so tightly held that not even Truman was told). He never found a real Communist on his own. However, the initial promise of his efforts prompted some Republicans to tolerate his antics on the chance that he might unearth another Hiss. He never did. Then, when it appeared that his campaigning led to the 1950 reelection defeats of several critics, his seeming political muscle discouraged his colleagues from challenging him. He spent the next two years tormenting Democratic leaders such as Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Secretary of Defense General George C. Marshall with various charges.

decline of mccarthyism

The 1952 election victory of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Republicans brought a shift in McCarthy's status. Though senior colleagues thought they had sidetracked him by making him chair of the minor Government Operations Committee, he outwitted them. He used its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to range far afield, probing charges of Communist activities in numerous government agencies. He continued to monopolize headlines.

It seemed not to faze him that his own party now controlled the government, and his continued blunder-buss charges began to weary fellow-Republicans. When he accused the army of harboring Communists, blocking his inquiries, and holding a young committee aide hostage by drafting him into military service, these and the army's countercharges led to a set of sensational hearings aired on television from April to June 1954. The Army-McCarthy hearings were not conclusive, but the bullying impression McCarthy made on viewers reduced his popularity.

That partial fall from grace and the apparent damage he was doing to his own party gave fellow senators enough nerve to discipline him. Led by Senator Ralph E. Flanders (Republican of Vermont), the Senate grudgingly came to judgment, voting in December 1954 to condemn McCarthy—not for violating civil liberties or defaming people, but for trampling the Senate's gentlemanly customs and courtesies. He lost no formal power through this censure resolution, but his power had always depended on appearances, and this slap on the wrist was enough to deflate it. Colleagues and newsmen now avoided him. Prone to abuse of alcohol, he suffered a physical decline linked to his political fall and died on May 2, 1957.

All American leaders, including McCarthy's foes, stressed their anti-Communism. But gradually after 1954, the Cold War atmosphere lightened. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren began to curb the reach of investigative bodies and the loyalty-security machinery. Hollywood blacklisting (in which McCarthy took no part) and other repressive actions against Communists or others on the Left took longer to recede. By the 1960s, when dissent bloomed in every corner, efforts to inhibit it routinely were labeled McCarthyism. It reveals McCarthy's Humpty-Dumpty-like fall that his name became a term of almost universal vilification. And it was a measure of his political talents that his name came to cover a broad set of political trends that he rode but did not invent.


Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red: Perspectives on the McCarthy Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Haynes, John Earl, and Klehr, Harvey. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Herman, Arthur. Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Latham, Earl. The Communist Controversy in Washington from the New Deal to McCarthy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Oshinsky, David M. A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.

Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

Richard M. Fried

See also:Americanism vs. Godless Communism; Civil Liberties, 1946–Present; Communism and Anticommunism; Marshall, George C.; Rosenberg, Hiss, Oppenheimer Cases; Truman, Harry S.


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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 twoEthel and Julius Rosenberghad 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 punishedusually 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, 19301960. 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.

Ellen Schrecker

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 .


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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 6722.



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 (19451950), The Start of the Atomic Age
KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security )
Rosenberg (Ethel and Julius) Espionage Case


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On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that 205 communists were presently "working and shaping the policy of the State Department." Although McCarthy produced no documentation for this preposterous charge, he quickly emerged as the nation's dominant Cold War politician—the yardstick by which citizens measured patriotic or scurrilous behavior. McCarthy's popularity was not difficult to explain. Americans were frightened by Soviet aggression in Europe. The years since world war ii had brought a series of shocks— the Hiss trial, the fall of China, the korean war—which fueled the Red Scare and kept it alive.

president harry s. truman played a role as well. In trying to defuse the "Communist issue," he established a federal loyalty-security program with few procedural safeguards. The program relied on nameless informants; it penalized personal beliefs and associations, not just overt acts; and it accelerated the Red hunt by conceding the possibility that a serious security problem existed inside the government and elsewhere. Before long, state and local officials were competing to see who could crack down hardest on domestic subversion. Indiana forced professional wrestlers to sign a loyalty oath. Tennessee ordered the death penalty for those seeking to overthrow the state government. Congress, not to be outdone, passed the internal security act of 1950 over Truman's veto, requiring registration of "Communist action groups," whose members could then be placed in internment camps during "national emergencies."

Despite his personal commitment to civil liberties, President Truman appointed four Supreme Court Justices who opposed the libertarian philosophy of william o. douglas and hugo l. black. As a result, judicial review was all but abandoned in cases involving the rights of alleged subversives. The Court upheld loyalty oaths as a condition of public employment, limited the use of the Fifth Amendment by witnesses before congressional committees, and affirmed the dismissal of a government worker on the unsworn testimony of unnamed informants. As robert g. mccloskey noted, the Court "became so tolerant of governmental restriction on freedom of expression as to suggest it [had] abdicated the field."

By the mid-1950s, the Red Scare had begun to subside. The death of Joseph Stalin, the Korean armistice, and the Senate's censure of Senator McCarthy all contributed to the easing of Cold War fears. There were many signs of this, though none was more dramatic than the Supreme Court's return to libertarian values under Chief Justice earl warren. In Slochower v. Board of Higher Education (1956) the Court overturned the discharge of a college teacher who had invoked the Fifth Amendment before a congressional committee. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1956) it reversed the conviction of a Marxist professor who had refused, on first amendment grounds, to answer questions about his political associations. In watkins v. united states (1957) it held that Congress had "no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification.…" "No inquiry is an end in itself," wrote Warren. "It must be related to and in furtherance of a legitimate [legislative] task of Congress."

The reaction in Congress was predictable. A South Carolina representative called the warren court "a greater threat to this union than the entire confines of Soviet Russia." Bills were introduced to limit the Court's jurisdiction in national security cases, and legislators both state and federal demanded Warren's impeachment. Although this uproar probably caused some judicial retreat in the late 1950s, the Supreme Court played an important role in blunting the worst excesses of the McCarthy era.

David M. Oshinsky


Oshinsky, David M. 1983 A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: Free Press.


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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.


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McCarthyism a vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the US government and other institutions carried out under the American Republican politician Senator Joseph McCarthy (1909–57) in the period 1950–4. Many of the accused were blacklisted or lost their jobs, though most did not in fact belong to the Communist Party. The campaign ended when McCarthy received public censure in December 1954.

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