Post–World War II America: 1945–1959

McCarthyism and the Red Scare

Fear of communist infiltration of American government and society spurred the rise of McCarthyism, which demonized deviance from American values.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a cold war, a restricted war with very limited combat fought on political and economic fronts using propaganda. As the Cold War began, fear of communism pervaded American society just as it had 30 years earlier, after the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. This period of widespread fear of communists was known as the Red Scare. The Red Scare that followed World War II, coupled with the pervasive pressure to conform, allowed the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee and of the charismatic Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been established in the House of Representatives in 1938 to investigate alleged communist activity in the U.S. government and society at large. In post–World War II America, the cultural focus on conformity and repression of individuality and civil rights contributed to the political atmosphere that made these hearings possible. Communists were seen as the enemies of democracy and traditional American values. The paranoia surrounding communist infiltrators reached a peak when Joseph McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin elected in 1946, began his campaign to find communists embedded in the government. He was never able to prove any of the allegations he made about the supposed communists he targeted. Yet many public hearings took place during which the accused were defamed and made to defend themselves against baseless allegations of un-American communist activities. These trials, which took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the activity surrounding them became known as McCarthyism. The term McCarthyism is still used to refer to the practice of attempting to discredit a person or suppress their civil rights by making accusations of political disloyalty. In October 1947 a group of 10 screenwriters, directors, and producers were questioned by the HUAC regarding possible communist affiliations. Known as the Hollywood Ten, these motion-picture professionals were sentenced to prison for a time and blacklisted by the film industry. Many never worked in Hollywood again. Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible likened the HUAC trials to the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which the accused were pressured to name other "witches." After the HUAC trials ended, many witnesses came forward to say they had been placed under similar pressure.
In October 1947 Ronald Reagan, who was president of the Screen Actors' Guild, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about a group of communist troublemakers in his union.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 75857101
Yet it was true that some communist agents were at work in the United States. They had stolen classified materials about the development of nuclear weapons during World War II. Alger Hiss had infiltrated the State Department. Nevertheless, many in the government, notably President Dwight Eisenhower, disapproved of McCarthy and the HUAC activities. When in 1954 McCarthy turned his attention on members of the administration and of the U.S. Army, the president and other highly placed individuals counterattacked. They accused McCarthy and one of his associates of abuse of power, weakening McCarthy's standing. Meanwhile, admired news commentators such as Edward R. Murrow reported on the unfair treatment by the committee of accused government employees. The HUAC hearings regarding communists in the U.S. Army were televised, and when Americans saw McCarthy at work, his popularity fell. Eisenhower then issued a statement that neither members of his administration nor other executive branch employees would respond to a subpoena to testify before HUAC. Without witnesses, the trials could not continue. Finally, in December 1954 the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy's conduct as "unbecoming" and "contrary to Senatorial traditions." While he did not resign, McCarthy lost all influence. He died less than three years later.