The Cold War Red Scare, McCarthyism, and Liberal Anti-Communism

Joseph McCarthy Joseph McCarthy, Republican Senator from Wisconsin, fueled fears during the early 1950s that communism was rampant and growing. This intensified Cold War tensions felt by every segment of society, from government officials to ordinary American citizens. Photograph of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, March 14, 1950. National Archives and Records Administration.

Joseph McCarthy burst onto the national scene during a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950. Waving a sheet of paper in the air, he proclaimed: “I have here in my hand a list of 205…names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping [US] policy.” Since the Wisconsin Republican had no actual list, when pressed, the number changed to fifty-seven, then, later, eighty-one. Finally he promised to disclose the name of just one communist, the nation’s “top Soviet agent.” The shifting numbers brought ridicule, but it didn’t matter, not really: McCarthy’s claims won him fame and fueled the ongoing “red scare.”

Within a ten-month span beginning in 1949, the USSR developed a nuclear bomb, China fell to Communism, and over 300,000 American soldiers were deployed to fight land war in Korea. Newspapers, meanwhile, were filled with headlines alleging Soviet espionage.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg The environment of fear and panic instigated by McCarthyism led to the arrest of many innocent people. Still, some Americans accused of supplying top-secret information to the Soviets were in fact spies. The Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage and executed in 1953 for giving information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. This was one case that has proven the test of time, for as recently as 2008 a co-conspirator of the Rosenbergs admitted to spying for the Soviet Union. Roger Higgins, “[Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury],” 1951. Library of Congress.
During the war, Julius Rosenberg had worked briefly at the US Army Signal Corps Laboratory in New Jersey, where he had access to classified information. He and his wife Ethel, who had both been members of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in the 1930s, were accused of passing secret bomb-related documents into the hands of Soviet officials. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were indicted in August 1950 on changes of giving ‘nuclear secrets’ to the Russians. After a trial in March 1951, the Rosenbergs were found guilty and executed on June 19, 1953.The Rosenbergs offered anti-communists such as McCarthy the evidence they needed to allege a vast Soviet conspiracy to infiltrate and subvert the US government, allegations that justified the smearing all left-liberals, even those resolutely anti-communist. In the run-up to the 1950 and 1952 elections, progressives saw this not as a legitimate effort to expose actual subversive activity, but rather a campaign to tarnish the reputations of ‘New Dealers’ in the Democratic Party.Alger Hiss was another prize for conservatives, who identified him as the highest-ranking government official linked to Soviet espionage. While working for the State Department’s Office of Far Eastern Affairs, Hiss had been a prominent member of the US delegation to Yalta before serving as secretary-general of the UN Charter Conference in San Francisco, from April-June 1945. He left the State Department in 1946. Hounded by a young congressman named Richard Nixon, public accusations finally won results. On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers gave testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) claiming that he and Hiss had worked together as part of the secret ‘communist underground’ in Washington DC during the 1930s. Hiss, who always maintained his innocence, stood trial twice. Following a ‘hung jury’ decision in July 1949, he was finally convicted on two counts of perjury, the statute of limitations for espionage having expired.Although later evidence certainly suggested their guilt, the prominent convictions of a few suspected spies fueled a frenzy by many who saw communists everywhere. Not long after his February 1950 speech in Wheeling, Joe McCarthy’s sensational charges became a source of growing controversy. Forced to respond, President Truman arranged a partisan congressional investigation designed to discredit McCarthy. The Tydings Committee held hearings from early March through July, 1950, then issued a final report admonishing McCarthy for perpetrating a “fraud and a hoax” on the American public.American progressives saw McCarthy’s crusade as nothing less than a political witch hunt. In June 1950, The Nation magazine editor Freda Kirchwey characterized “McCarthyism” as “the means by which a handful of men, disguised as hunters of subversion, cynically subvert the instruments of justice…in order to help their own political fortunes.”  Truman’s liberal supporters and leftists like Kirchwey hoped that McCarthy and the new ‘ism’ that bore his name would blow over quickly. Yet ‘McCarthyism’ was ultimately just a symptom of the widespread anti-communist hysteria that engulfed American society during the first Cold War.Faced with a growing awareness of Soviet espionage, and a tough election on the horizon, in March 1947 Truman gave in to pressure and issued Executive Order 9835, establishing loyalty reviews for federal employees. In the case of Foreign Service officers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was empowered to conduct closer examinations of all potential ‘security risks’; congressional committees, namely the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (SPSI), were authorized to gather facts and hold hearings. Following Truman’s “loyalty order,” anti-subversion committees emerged in over a dozen state legislatures, while review procedures proliferated in public schools and universities across the country. At the University of California, for example, thirty-one professors were dismissed in 1950 after refusing to sign a loyalty oath. The Senate Internal Security (McCarran) Act passed in September 1950 mandated all “communist organizations” to register with the government and created a Senate investigative subcommittee equivalent to HUAC. The McCarran Act gave the government greater powers to investigate sedition and made it possible to prevent suspected individuals from gaining or keeping their citizenship. Between 1949 and 1954, HUAC, SPSI, and a new McCarran Committee conducted over one hundred distinct investigations of subversive activities.

There had been an American communist presence. The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) formed in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks created a Communist International (the Comintern) and invited socialists from around the world to join as they raised the red banner of revolution atop the palace in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg). During its first two years of existence, the CPUSA functioned in secret, hidden from a surge of anti-radical and anti-immigrant hysteria, investigations, deportations, and raids at the end of World War I. The CPUSA began its public life in 1921, after the panic subsided. Communism remained on the margins of American life until the 1930s, when leftists and liberals began to see the Soviet Union as a symbol of hope amid the Great Depression.

During the 1930s, many communists joined the “Popular Front,” an effort to adapt communism to the United States and make it mainstream. During the Popular Front era communists were integrated into mainstream political institutions through alliances with progressives in the Democratic Party. The CPUSA enjoyed most of its influence and popularity among workers in unions linked to the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Communists also became strong opponents of southern ‘Jim Crow’ segregation and developed a presence in both the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The CPUSA, moreover, established “front” groups such as the League of American Writers, in which intellectuals participated without direct knowledge of its ties to the Comintern. But even at the height of the global economic crisis, communism never attracted many Americans. Even at the peak of its membership, in 1944, the CPUSA had just 80,000 national “card-carrying” members. From the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, “the Party” exercised most of its power indirectly, through coalitions with liberals and reformers. But in the late 1930s, particularly when news broke of Hitler and Stalin’s non-aggression pact of 1939, many fled the Party, a bloc of left-liberal anti-communists purged remaining communists in their ranks, and the Popular Front collapsed.

Lacking the legal grounds to abolish the CPUSA, officials instead sought to expose and contain CPUSA influence. Following a series of predecessor committees, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established in 1938, then reorganized after the war and given the explicit task of investigating communism. By the time the Communist Control Act was passed in August 1954, effectively criminalizing Party membership, the CPUSA had long ceased to have meaningful influence.

Anti-communists were driven to eliminate remaining CPUSA influence from progressive institutions, including the NAACP and the CIO. The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) gave union officials the initiative to purge communists from the labor movement. A kind of “Cold War” liberalism took hold. In January 1947, anti-communist liberals formed Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), whose founding members included labor leader Walter Reuther and NAACP chairman Walter White, as well as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Working to help Truman defeat former vice-president Henry Wallace’s popular front-backed campaign in 1948, the ADA combined social and economic reforms with staunch anti-communism.

The domestic Cold War was bipartisan, fueled by a consensus drawn from a left-liberal and conservative anti-communist alliance that included politicians and policymakers, journalists and scientists, business and civic/religious leaders, and educators and entertainers.

Led by its imperious director, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI took an active role in the domestic battle against communism. Hoover’s FBI helped incite panic by assisting the creation of blatantly propagandistic films and television shows, including The Red Menace (1949), My Son John, (1951), and I Led Three Lives (1953-1956). Such alarmist depictions of espionage and treason in a ‘free world’ imperiled by communism heightened a culture of fear experienced in the 1950s. In the fall of 1947, HUAC entered the fray with highly publicized hearings of Hollywood. Film mogul Walt Disney and actor Ronald Reagan, among others, testified to aid investigators’ attempts to expose communist influence in the entertainment industry. A group of writers, directors, and producers who refused to answer questions were held in contempt of Congress. This ‘Hollywood Ten’ created the precedent for a ‘blacklist’ in which hundreds of film artists were barred from industry work for the next decade.

HUAC made repeated visits to Hollywood during the 1950s, and their interrogation of celebrities often began with the same intimidating refrain: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Many witnesses cooperated, and “named names,” naming anyone they knew who had ever been associated with communist-related groups or organizations. In 1956, black entertainer and activist Paul Robeson chided his HUAC inquisitors, claiming that they had put him on trial not for his politics, but because he had spent his life “fighting for the rights” of his people. “You are the un-Americans,” he told them, “and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” As Robeson and other victims of McCarthyism learned first-hand, this “second red scare,” in the glow of nuclear annihilation and global “totalitarianism,” fueled an intolerant and skeptical political world, what Cold War liberal Arthur Schlesinger, in his The Vital Center (1949), called an “age of anxiety.”

Paul Robeson Many accused of Communist sentiments vehemently denied such allegations, including the one of the most well-known Americans at the time, African American actor and signer Paul Robeson. Unwilling to sign an affidavit confirming he was Communist, his U.S. passport was revoked. During the Cold War, he was condemned by the American press and neither his music nor films could be purchased in the U.S. Photograph.

Anti-communist ideology valorized overt patriotism, religious conviction, and faith in capitalism. Those who shunned such “American values” were open to attack. If communism was a plague spreading across Europe and Asia, anti-communist hyperbole infected cities, towns, and suburbs throughout the country. The playwright Arthur Miller, whose popular 1953 The Crucible compared the red scare to the Salem Witch Trials, wrote,“In America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell. Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congerie of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”

Rallying against communism, American society urged conformity. “Deviant” behavior became dangerous. Having entered the workforce en masseas part of a collective effort in World War II, middle class women were told to return to house-making responsibilities. Having fought and died abroad to for American democracy, blacks were told to return home and acquiesce to the American racial order. Homosexuality, already stigmatized, became dangerous. Personal secrets were seen as a liability that exposed one to blackmail. The same paranoid mindset that fueled the second red scare also ignited the Cold War “lavender scare.”

American religion, meanwhile, was fixated on what McCarthy, in his 1950 Wheeling speech, called an “all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.” Cold warriors in the US routinely referred to a fundamental incompatibility between “godless communism” and god-fearingAmericanism. Religious conservatives championed the idea of traditional nuclear god-fearing family as a bulwark against the spread of atheistic totalitarianism. As Baptist minister Billy Graham sermonized in 1950, communism aimed to “destroy the American home and cause … moral deterioration,” leaving the country exposed to communist infiltration.

In an atmosphere in which ideas of national belonging and citizenship were so closely linked to religious commitment, Americans during the early Cold War years attended church, professed a belief in a supreme being, and stressed the importance of religion in their lives at higher rates than in any time in American history. Americans sought to differentiate themselves from godless communists through public displays of religiosity. Politicians infused government with religious symbols. The Pledge of Allegiance was altered to include the words “one nation, under God” in 1954. “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official national motto in 1956. In popular culture, one of the most popular films of the decade, The Ten Commandments (1956), retold the biblical Exodus story as a Cold War parable, echoing (incidentally) NSC 68’s characterization of the Soviet Union as a “slave state.” Monuments of the Ten Commandments went to court houses and city halls across the country.

While the link between American nationalism and religion grew much closer during the Cold War, many Americans began to believe that just believing in almost any religion was better than being an atheist. Gone was the overt anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic language of Protestants in the past. Now, leaders spoke of a common “Judeo-Christian” heritage. In December 1952, a month before his inauguration, Dwight Eisenhower said that “our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Joseph McCarthy, an Irish Catholic, made common cause with prominent religious anti-communists, including southern evangelist Billy James Hargis of Christian Crusade, a popular radio and television ministry that peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. Cold War religion in America also crossed the political divide. During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower spoke of US foreign policy as “a war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery, Godliness against atheism.” His Democratic opponent, former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson said that America was engaged in a battle with the “Anti-Christ.” While Billy Graham became a spiritual adviser to Eisenhower as well as other Republican and Democratic presidents, the same was true of the liberal Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the nation’s most important theologian when he appeared on the cover of Life in March 1948.

Though publicly rebuked by the Tydings Committee, McCarthy soldiered on. In June 1951, on the floor of Congress, McCarthy charged that then-Secretary of Defense (and former secretary of state) Gen. George Marshall had fallen prey to “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” He claimed that Marshall, a war hero, had helped to “diminish the United States in world affairs,” enable the US to “finally fall victim to Soviet intrigue… and Russian military might.” The speech caused an uproar. During the 1952 campaign, Eisenhower, who was in all things moderate and politically cautious, refused to publicly denounce McCarthy. “I will not…get into the gutter with that guy,” he wrote privately. McCarthy campaigned for Eisenhower, who won a stunning victory.

So did the Republicans, who regained Congress. McCarthy became chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (SPSI). He targeted many, and turned his newfound power against the government’s overseas broadcast division, the Voice of America (VOA). McCarthy’s investigation in February-March 1953 resulted in several resignations or transfers. McCarthy’s mudslinging had become increasingly unrestrained. Soon he went after the U.S. Army. After forcing the Army to again disprove theories of a Soviet spy ring at Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey, McCarthy publicly berated officers suspected of promoting leftists. McCarthy’s badgering of witnesses created cover for critics to publicly denounce his abrasive fear-mongering.

On March 9, CBS anchor Edward Murrow, a cold war liberal, told his television audience that McCarthy’s actions had “caused alarm and dismay amongst … allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.” Yet, Murrow explained, “He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’”

Twenty million people saw the “Army-McCarthy Hearings” unfold over thirty-six days in 1954. The Army’s head counsel, Joseph Welch, captured much of the mood of the country when he defended a fellow lawyer from McCarthy’s public smears, saying, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” In September, a senate subcommittee recommended that McCarthy be censured. On December 2, 1954, his colleagues voted 67-22 to “condemn” his actions. Humiliated, McCarthy faded into irrelevance and alcoholism and died in May 1957, at age 48.

By the late 1950s, the worst of the second red scare was over. Stalin’s death, followed by the Korean War armistice, opened new space—and hope—for the easing of Cold War tensions. Détente and the upheavals of the late 1960s were on the horizon. But McCarthyism outlasted McCarthy and the 1950s. McCarthy made an almost unparalleled impact on Cold War American society. The tactics he perfected continued to be practiced long after his death. “Red-baiting,” the act of smearing a political opponent by linking them to communism or some other demonized ideology, persevered. McCarthy had hardly alone.

Congressman Richard Nixon, for instance, used his place on HUAC and his public role in the campaign against Alger Hiss to catapult himself into the White House alongside Eisenhower and later into the presidency. Ronald Reagan bolstered the fame he had won in Hollywood with his testimony before Congress and his anti-communist work for major American corporations such as General Electric. He too would use anti-communism to enter public life and chart a course to the presidency. In 1958, radical anti-communists founded the John Birch Society, attacking liberals and civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. as communists. Although joined by Cold War liberals, the weight of anti-communism was used as part of an assault against the New Deal and its defenders. Even those liberals, such as historian Arthur Schlesinger, who had fought against communism found themselves smeared by the red scare. Politics and culture both had been reshaped. The leftist American tradition was in tatters, destroyed by anti-communist hysteria. Movements for social justice, from civil rights to gay rights to feminism, were all suppressed under Cold War conformity.

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