The Red Scare and the Legacy of McCarthyism | History Hit

The Red Scare and the Legacy of McCarthyism

Celeste Neill

17 Apr 2023
Sen. Joseph McCarthy before Senate Committee, 1950s, pointing to U.S. map
Image Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

In the years following World War Two, Senator Joseph McCarthy instigated a wave of paranoia about Soviet spies in the United States government, culminating in the infamous Red Scare. McCarthyism, which refers to the making of unfounded accusations in government, had reached its peak in 1950 when McCarthy accused the US Department of State of harbouring secret Communists.

With the USSR emerging as the real winner of World War Two and the spread of Communism in Europe, it’s no wonder tensions and suspicions were high.

Cover to the 1947 propaganda comic book ‘Is This Tomorrow’. Image credit: Catechetical Guild, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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 and climate of fear that spread across America.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Image Credit: United Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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 or socialism 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 United Kingdom and becoming the inspiration behind the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

After World War 2, America feared communist infiltration of its institutions, including Hollywood.
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The ‘Lavender Scare’

The ‘Lavender scare’ was a purge on homosexuals that occurred alongside McCarthyism. The term was coined by journalist Jack Nichols, and it refers to the mass firings and blacklisting of homosexuals in the United States government. In the early 1950s, gay men were associated with Communism after the revelation of a Soviet spy ring in the United Kingdom that included openly gay Guy Burgess. McCarthy’s supporters were zealous in firing large numbers of homosexuals, even those with no connection to Communism.

Homosexuality was viewed with suspicion, and in 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which barred any gays from working in the Federal Government. This order remained in place until 1995.

Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the Army–McCarthy hearings. Image credit: United Press International telephoto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

McCarthy’s downfall

Although evidence showed that the US had been infiltrated by Soviet spies, McCarthyism eventually lost its momentum. A series of events contributed to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s downfall.

The first was the Army-McCarthy hearings, which focused on his conduct during an investigation into the spread of communism in the army. Televised and highly publicized, the hearing revealed McCarthy’s overzealous tactics.

The second was the suicide of Senator Lester Hunt in June. Hunt, an outspoken critic of McCarthyism, was blackmailed by McCarthy’s supporters who threatened to arrest and publicly prosecute his son over allegations of homosexuality. After being bullied for months, Hunt committed suicide, which led to the end of McCarthy.

In December 1954, the US Senate passed a vote to censure McCarthy for his actions. He died of suspected alcoholism three years later. The fear and paranoia of communism spread by McCarthy in the 1950s lingered in America, where communism is still often viewed as the ultimate enemy.

Celeste Neill