What Was the Rise and Fall of McCarthyism?

History Hit

4 mins

11 May 2017

In the years after the end of World War Two, the US – inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy – was gripped with such paranoia about Soviet sympathisers and spies in the heart of government that to this day the term McCarthyism means the making of wild and boundless accusations in government.

This frenzy of anti-Russian fear, also known as The Red Scare, reached its height on the 9 February 1950, when McCarthy accused the US Department of State of being filled with secret Communists.

Given the geopolitical situation in 1950, it was hardly surprising that tensions and suspicions were running high however. The Second World War had ended with Stalin’s USSR – rather than the free Capitalist world – being the real winner, and Europe was locked in a new and silent struggle as the eastern half of it fell to the Communists.

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In China meanwhile, the openly US-backed opposition to Mao Zedong was failing, and tensions in Korea had exploded into full-scale war. Seeing how easily countries like Poland and now China and Vietnam had fallen, much of the western world was confronting the very real threat of Communism taking over everywhere – even the previously untouchable United States.

To make matters worse, a perceived Soviet scientific superiority had lead them to test their own nuclear weapons in 1949, many years earlier than US scientists had predicted.

Now nowhere in the world was safe, and if another war was to be fought between capitalism and communism, then it would be even more ruinous than the one which had defeated Fascism.

The expansion of Communism, with 1920s-30s in burgundy, 1940s-50s in red and 1960s-70s in pink.

McCarthyism in politics

Amidst this backdrop, Senator McCarthy’s 9 February outburst becomes a little more understandable. While addressing a Republican Women’s Club in West Virginia, he produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained the names of 205 known Communists who were still working in the State Department.

The hysteria that followed this speech was so great that from thereon the hitherto little-known McCarthy’s name was given to the mass anti-communist fervour across America.

Now a political celebrity, McCarthy and his mostly right-wing allies (men who had called President Roosevelt a Communist for his New Deal) engaged on a vicious campaign of public accusation against anyone who had any connection with left-of-centre politics.

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Tens of thousands lost their jobs as they came under suspicion, and some were even imprisoned, often with very little evidence to support such a move.

McCarthy’s purge was also unconfined to political opponents. Two other sections of US society were targeted, the entertainment industry and the then illegal homosexual community.

McCarthyism in Hollywood

The practice of denying employment to actors or screenwriters who had suspected ties with Communism became known as the Hollywood Blacklist, and only ended in 1960 when Kirk Douglas, the star of Spartacus, publicly acknowledged that former Communist Party member and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo had written the screenplay for the Oscar-winning classic.

Others on the list included Orson Welles, star of Citizen Kane, and Sam Wannamaker, who reacted to being blacklisted by moving to the UK and becoming the inspiration behind the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The “Lavender Scare”

More sinister was the purge on homosexuals, which became known as the “Lavender scare.” Gay men in particular were associated with Communism in the popular imagination after the revelation of a Soviet spy ring in the United Kingdom known as the “Cambridge five,” which included Guy Burgess, who was openly gay in 1951.

Kim Philby, one of the “Cambridge Five”, as depicted on a Soviet Union stamp.

Once this broke McCarthy’s supporters were zealous in firing large numbers of homosexuals even if they had absolutely no connection with Communism. In 1953 President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which barred any gays from working in the Federal Government. Astonishingly, this was not overturned until 1995.

McCarthy’s downfall

Eventually, however, McCarthyism ran out of steam. Though evidence has shown that the US had indeed been severely penetrated by Soviet spies, two key events in 1954 brought the Senator’s downfall.

The first was the Army-McCarthy hearings, with dealt with his conduct while investigating the spread of Communism into the army. The hearing was televised and got a huge amount of publicity, and the revelations about McCarthy’s overzealous methods contributed hugely to his fall from grace.

Anti-Communist firebrand Joseph McCarthy.

The second was the suicide of Senator Lester Hunt in June. An outspoken critic of McCarthyism, Hunt was preparing to stand for re-election when McCarthy’s supporters attempted to blackmail him out of it by threatening to arrest and publicly prosecute his son over allegations of homosexuality.

After being bullied like this for months, Hunt cracked and killed himself. Unsurprisingly, when details of this came to light, it meant the end for McCarthy. In December 1954 the Senate passed a vote to censure him for his actions, and he died of suspected alcoholism three years later.

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