Joseph McCarthy, and Other Facets of the 1950s Red Scare

Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Senate hearings Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Senate hearings (click for source)

To this day, "McCarthyism" survives as an epithet for unfounded fear-mongering about subversion in government and society. It refers, of course, to Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who reached his political apogee in the early 1950s. McCarthy made many inflammatory speeches and unfounded accusations in the Senate, ultimately being censured and losing his influence. He was famous for having "lists" of communists in the U.S. government or military that turned out to be entirely fabricated. The number of people he accused was constantly shifting as well.

In some portrayals McCarthy is seen as desperate for news press and attention, and essentially an impotent and solitary actor. This might help to lower McCarthy's stature in the history books, but it ignores a much wider wave of paranoia that swept the United States in the early 1950s. The Second Red Scare (the first occurring in 1919) involved a substantial part of the American population, and featured some who would enjoy political careers long after McCarthy's death in 1957. And in fact, there were significant breaches of the State Department and atomic program that fed these overreaching accusations.

One such example was Alger Hiss, who worked in the State Department for several years. In 1948, Hiss was accused before the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a Communist by Whittaker Chambers, and was promptly brought in to testify. He denied all allegations, and Chambers provided additional details and evidence. Eventually Hiss was sentenced to ten years in prison for perjury, and his name was used an example of much more far-reaching infiltration in the U.S. Government.

In the present day, Hiss's guilt is accepted by most on the strength of the Venona counter-intelligence program. In the 1950s, his name raised an exaggerated specter of massive communist espionage. It was an anxiety that was also stoked by the fall of China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe to the advance of communism, by the rapid development by the Soviet Union of an atomic bomb (almost certainly aided by espionage), and by the ongoing war in Korea that claimed over 33,000 American lives.

Politicians across the United States made anti-communism the centerpiece of their identity. Richard Nixon owed his early career to this strategy. In 1946, he scored a victory against Jerry Voorhis, a five-term incumbent Democrat, by hammering away on the communism issue. He used the same strategy to win his 1950 Senate campaign against the progressive Helen Gagahan Douglas. During this time he served on the HUAC and played the anti-communism card repeatedly, while shrewdly avoiding the overreach of McCarthy. By 1953, he had parlayed his reputation into the Vice Presidency. Dwight Eisenhower strongly disliked McCarthy, but Nixon was able to duplicate the anti-communist appeal in a more mainstream political package.

Anti-communism sentiment was particularly strong among the Catholic community. John F. Kennedy was one who looked the other way during McCarthy's heyday, rather than aggressively criticize him. However much Kennedy's personal feelings played into this decision (he was never shy in criticizing communism, and McCarthy was a family friend), he also had a constituency to appeal to. And in the early 1950s, in Kennedy's state and district, support for McCarthy was strong. In 1954 Kennedy was the only Democrat not to vote for McCarthy's censure. Kennedy later defended himself by saying, "Hell, half my voters in Massachusetts look on McCarthy as a hero."

McCarthy's run as a leading demagogue came to a close in 1954, when he went against the U.S. Army. A series of hearings over the course of two months, televised on ABC, of various witnesses turned up little but greatly reduced McCarthy's popularity. It was in these hearings that the famous, "Have you no sense of decency?" exchange occurred between McCarthy and Army counsel Joseph Welch. Having seen McCarthy's tactics first-hand, the public's approval of him fell precipitously, and it was at the end of that year that he was censured.

McCarthy-like rhetoric survived among the far right for many years. In the late 1950s, many accused any liberal movement of being a Communist plot. The Civil Rights movement was described as the work of Communists. Martin Luther King Jr. was described as a Communist. John F. Kennedy was described as a secret Communist after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Even Dwight Eisenhower was subject to accusations. The John Birch Society was a well-known organization that disseminated these attacks. Founded in 1958, it quickly approached 100,000 members and kept the torch of virulent anti-communism burning amongst the true believers after it had receded from the national consciousness.

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