McCarthyism and the Red Scare ap language and Composition

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McCarthyism and the Red Scare

AP Language and Composition

The Coils of Cold War

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States took a turn to the economic and political right. Nothing demonstrated this shift more than the Second Red Scare. The trials, denouncements, black lists, and paranoia about Communism in the Second Red Scare showed the domestic face of the Cold War--the international struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States for world dominance. This lecture traces how the Cold War transformed anti-Communism from a right-wing to a mainstream ideology.

The Second Red Scare

On May 26, 1938, Congress organized the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate American Fascists and Communists, although its focus soon became strictly anti-Communist. During WWII, HUAC concentrated on labor unrest, but after the war's end, it gained strength and began to investigate left-wing Americans who might be communist sympathizers. This search led HUAC to Hollywood in 1947, where left-leaning actors, writers, and directors were allegedly spreading subversive communist messages through their movies. One young actor who was ready to name names was future President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had come to Hollywood as an ardent New Deal Democrat, but when the political winds began to shift, he became a conservative Republican. HUAC did not uncover any of the systematic subversion it had alleged in Hollywood. Nevertheless, since being questioned or mentioned during a hearing was, in the minds of many studio executives, an indication of guilt, many suspected leftists found themselves on a blacklist that shut them out of jobs in cinema, radio, television, and theater for the next ten years.

The Trial of Alger Hiss

The Alger Hiss case that took place from 1948 to 1950 was another HUAC investigation and the second event that fueled the Second Red Scare. Hiss was a Harvard-educated New Dealer who had come to Washington during the Roosevelt administration. At the time of his trial, he was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His accuser was a self-described "dumpy, middle-aged, unhappy scoundrel" named Whittaker Chambers, who would go on to become a senior editor of Time magazine. Chambers accused Hiss of having spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s when Hiss had been employed at the State Department. Chambers claimed that he and Hiss had belonged to the same espionage ring and that Hiss had given him copies of secret State Department documents. A young California Congressman named Richard M. Nixon took up the case and soon captured national attention. When Chambers claimed that a he had hidden a microfilm of the secret documents in a pumpkin field near his farm, Nixon took members of the press with him to document the uncovering of the microfilm. The statute of limitations for an espionage charge had expired, so the federal government prosecuted Hiss was for perjury. The result of the first trial was a hung jury. After the second trial, a jury found Hiss guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. When Hiss was finally released from prison, he struggled to prove his innocence for decades. That moment finally came in 1992, when Hiss was 87. A Russian general in charge of Soviet intelligence archives declared that Hiss had never been a spy, but rather a victim of Cold War hysteria. Hiss died on November 15, 1996, just four days after his 92 birthday.

Truman Loyalty Program

In 1947, as part of this growing anti-communist hysteria, President Harry Truman ordered the Justice Department to draw up a list of possible "subversives" in government. Under the terms of this loyalty program, the federal government could dismiss an employee "if reasonable grounds exist for belief that the person involved is disloyal." Truman not only associated Communism with Fascism and Nazism, but believed that Communism was the worst of the three.


Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was a Republican Senator from Appleton, Wisconsin, who did the most to whip up anti-communism during the 1950s. McCarthy was a WWII veteran who liked to call himself "Tailgunner Joe," although he actually flew more desk than plane during the war. First elected to the Senate in 1946, McCarthy did little during the first four years of his term. He failed to attach his name to any significant bills and even the Republican party leadership considered him a legislative lightweight. Then, on February 9, 1950, he dropped a political bombshell. McCarthy gave a speech at the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claimed to have a list of 205 Communists in the State Department. No one in the press actually saw the names on the list, but McCarthy's announcement made the national news.

McCarthy continued to repeat his groundless charges and the number of Communists on his list fluctuated from speech to speech. Senior Republicans didn't care for McCarthy, but appreciated his attacks on the Truman administration. McCarthy labeled Secretary of State Dean Acheson "Red Dean." He also claimed that World War II General George Marshall had been "hoodwinked into aiding a great conspiracy." Furthermore, McCarthy argued that Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson--who would run for president on the Democratic ticket in 1952--"endorsed and would continue to endorse the suicidal, Kremlin-directed policies of this nation." The fact that the United States wasn't winning the Korean War (1950-53) also gave credibility to the argument that "subversives" were at work in the government.


McCarthy's attacks emerged within a climate of political and social conformity. During this time, for example, one state required pro wrestlers to take a loyalty oath before stepping into the ring. In Indiana, a group of anti-communists indicted Robin Hood (and its vaguely socialistic message that the book's titular hero had a right to rob from the rich and give to the poor) forced librarians to pull the book from the shelves. Baseball's Cincinnati Reds renamed themselves the "Redlegs." Cosmetics companies recalled a face powder called "Russian Sable" and renamed it "Dark Dark." Starting in Dearborn, Michigan, and spreading to other parts of the country, "Miss Loyalty" beauty contests became the rage.

McCarthy's Supporters

The ranks of McCarthy's supporters were generally defined along political, religious, and occupational lines. They typically included:

  • Republicans

  • Catholics

  • Conservative Protestants

  • Blue-collar workers

One prominent Democrat who supported McCarthy was Joseph Kennedy. In fact, the senior Kennedy secured for his son, Robert, a job in Washington as an investigator for McCarthy.

McCarthy continued his anti-communist barrage until 1954. Unlike other congressional investigators, McCarthy seemed not to notice that the administration had changed in 1952. With Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House, McCarthy's campaigns against subversion in the government became an attack on his own party and an increasing liability for Republicans. In the spring of 1954, however, the tables turned when McCarthy charged that the United States Army had promoted a dentist accused of being a Communist. The ensuing hearings proved to be McCarthy's downfall. For the first time, television broadcast allowed the general public to see the Senator as a blustering bully and his investigations as little more than a misguided scam. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure him for his conduct and to strip him of his privileges. McCarthy died three years later, but the term "McCarthyism" lives on to describe anti-Communist fervor, reckless accusations, and guilt by association.

"The Trial of Arthur Miller"

    In the following essay from the June 1957 Esquire, John Steinbeck eloquently defends American playwright Arthur Miller and excoriates the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Curiously, Steinbeck here uses the rhetoric of patriotism to counter McCarthy's and HUAC's patriotic rhetoric. This typifies Steinbeck's approach to social problems, to turn the rhetoric used injustly against itself. The text comes from Contemporary Moral Issues (Belmont, CA, 1963. 72-74).

      The trial of Arthur Miller for contempt of Congress brings close to all of us one of the strangest and most frightening dilemmas that a people and a government has ever faced. It is not the first trial of its kind, nor will it in all probability be the last. But Arthur Miller is a writer--one of our very best. What has happened to him could happen to any writer; could happen to me. We are face to face with a problem by no means easy of solution....

      No man knows what he might do in a given situation, and surely many men must wonder how they would act if they were in Arthur Miller's shoes. I wonder what I would do.

      Let me suppose that I were going to trial for contempt of Congress as he is. I might be thinking somewhat as follows:

      There is no doubt that Congress has the right, under the law, to ask me any question it wishes and to punish my refusal to answer with a contempt charge. The Congress has the right to do nearly anything conceivable. It has only to define a situation or an action as a "clear and present danger" to public safety, public morals, or public health. The selling or eating of mince pie could be made a crime if Congress determined that mince pie was a danger to public health--which it probably is. Since many parents raise their children badly, mother love could be defined as a danger to the general welfare.

      Surely, Congress has the right to ask me anything on any subject. The question is: Should Congress take advantage of that right?

      Let us say that the Congressional Committee feels that the Communist Party and many groups which have been linked with it--sometimes arbitrarily--constitute a clear and present danger to the nation. Now actually it is neither virtue nor good judgment on my part that has kept me from joining things. I am simply not a joiner by nature. Outside of the Boy Scouts and the Episcopal choir, I have never had an impulse to belong to things. But suppose I had. And suppose I have admitted my association with one or more of these groups posted as dangerous. As a writer, I must have been interested in everything, have felt it part of my profession to know and understand all kinds of people and groups. Having admitted these associations, I am now asked by the Committee to name individuals I have seen at meetings of such groups. I hope my reasoning then would go as follows:

      The people I knew were not and are not, in my estimation, traitors to the nation. If they were, I would turn them in instantly. If I give names, it is reasonably certain that the persons named will be called up and questioned. In some cases they will lose their jobs, and in any case their reputations and standing in the community will suffer. And remember that these are persons who I honestly believe are innocent of any wrongdoing. Perhaps I do not feel that I have that right; that to name them would not only be disloyal but actually immoral. The Committee then is asking me to commit an immorality in the name of public virtue.

      If I agree, I have outraged one of our basic codes of conduct, and if I refuse I am guilty of contempt of Congress, sentenced to prison and fined. One way outrages my sense of decency and the other brands me as a felon. And this brand does not fade out.

      Now suppose I have children, a little property, a stake in the community. The threat of the contempt charge jeopardizes everything I love. Suppose, from worry or cowardice, I agree to what is asked. My deep and wounding shame will be with me always.

      I cannot be reassured by the past performance of the Committee. I have read daily for a number of years the testimony of admitted liars and perjurers whose charges have been used to destroy the peace and happiness of people I do not know, and many of whom were destroyed without being tried.

      Which path am I to choose? Either way I am caught. It may occur to me that a man who is disloyal to his friends could not be expected to be loyal to his country. You can't slice up morals. Our virtues begin at home. They do not change in a courtroom unless the pressure of fear is put upon us.

      But if I am caught between two horrors, so is the Congress caught. Law, to survive, must be moral. To force personal immorality on a man, to wound his private virtue, undermines his public virtue. If the Committee frightens me enough, it is even possible that I may make up things to satisfy the questioners. This has been known to happen. A law which is immoral does not survive and a government which condones or fosters immorality is truly in a clear and present danger.

      The Congress had a perfect right to pass the Alien and Sedition Act. This law was repealed because of public revulsion. The Escaped Slave laws had to be removed because the people of the free states found them immoral. The Prohibition laws were so generally flouted that all law suffered as a consequence.

      We have seen and been revolted by the Soviet Union's encouragement of spying and telling, children reporting their parents, wives informing on their husbands. In Hitler's Germany, it was considered patriotic to report your friends and relations to the authorities. And we in America have felt safe from and superior to these things. But are we so safe or superior?

      The men in Congress must be conscious of their terrible choice. Their legal right is clearly established, but should they not think of their moral responsibility also? In their attempts to save the nation from attack, they could well undermine the deep personal morality which is the nation's final defense. The Congress is truly on trial along with Arthur Miller.

      Again let me change places with Arthur Miller. I have refused to name people. I am indicted, convicted, sent to prison. If the charge were murder or theft or extortion I would be subject to punishment, because I and all men know that these things are wrong. But if I am imprisoned for something I have been taught from birth is a good thing, then I go to jail with a deep sense of injustice and the rings of that injustice are bound to spread out like an infection. If I am brave enough to suffer for my principle, rather than to save myself by hurting other people I believe to be innocent, it seems to me that the law suffers more than I, and that contempt of the law and of the Congress is a real contempt rather than a legalistic one.

      Under the law, Arthur Miller is guilty. But he seems also to be brave. Congress feels that it must press the charge against him, to keep its prerogative alive. But can we not hope that our representatives will inspect their dilemma? Respect for the law can be kept high only if the law is respectable. There is a clear and present danger here, not to Arthur Miller, but to our changing and evolving way of life.

      If I were in Arthur Miller's shoes, I do not know what I would do, but I could wish, for myself and for my children, that I would be brave enough to fortify and defend my private morality as he has. I feel profoundly that our country is better served by individual courage and morals than by the safe and public patriotism which Dr. Johnson called "the last refuge of scoundrels."

      My father was a great man, as any lucky man's father must be. He taught me rules I do not think are abrogated by our nervous and hysterical times. These laws have not been annulled; these rules of attitudes. He taught me--glory to God, honor to my family, loyalty to my friends, respect for the law, love of country and instant and open revolt against tyranny, whether it come from the bully in the schoolyard, the foreign dictator, or the local demagogue.

      And if this be treason, gentlemen, make the most of it.

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