The onset of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II had major ramifications for American society, as the problem of how to deal with domestic Communists became a major political and social preoccupation.
Until the Cold War, Communists never made much of an impact on American life. There were never very many of them, and their dream of leading a proletarian revolution in the United States seemed so far-fetched that it bordered on the unthinkable. Most Americans despised the Communists, but weren't particularly preoccupied with them.
Then, a few years after World War II, the United States found itself locked in potentially mortal confrontation with the Soviet Union. Suddenly American Communists, that tiny fringe of wannabe revolutionaries, came to represent a major problem in American society.
There still weren't many of them. They still had little power or influence. They still had a snowball's chance in hell of creating a United Soviet States of America.
But what if they were agents of the Soviets, boring from within our open society to destroy us? What if they were spies? What if they were secretly seeking positions of influence within our society, subverting the work of our government, miseducating in our schools, propagandizing in our movies?
Fear—utterly justifiable fear—transformed American Communists from a minor nuisance into a national obsession. Fear created McCarthyism, an intense effort to root out Communists from every corner of American society by any means necessary—even if those means violated traditional American values: Due process. Civil liberties. Constitutional rights.
The culture of fear created a society of conformity, a politics of repudiation. The results weren't always pretty. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most prominent Communist-hunter of the period, was a reckless alcoholic demagogue. Unknown numbers of innocents had their lives ruined by a loyalty-security apparatus that knew few checks or balances.
But the culture of fear also worked. The Communist Party USA disintegrated. Soviet spies were brought to justice. Leftists were even purged from Hollywood.
Was it worth it?
"Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?" Would you answer?