McCarthyism—the intense anticommunist inquisition that swept the country in the early Cold War years—took its name from its most flamboyant practitioner, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who liked to brandish lists of names of subversives while giving stemwinding speeches decrying alleged Communist infiltration of government agencies.
But in truth McCarthyism long preceded Joseph McCarthy. The most important institution of the McCarthy era was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which held dramatic public hearings across the country to investigate and expose Communist activities in government, education, entertainment, labor, and other fields of American life. But HUAC wasn't created by McCarthy, the Republican Party, or even by anticommunists. It was born in the mid-1930s, after Representative Samuel Dickstein—a liberal New York Democrat and (ironically, given HUAC's later anticommunist purpose) a Soviet spy—became deeply concerned by the anti-Semitism of American Nazi sympathizers. Dickstein's efforts to expose "un-American" Nazis soon morphed into a hunt for "un-American" Communists. From 1938 to 1944, HUAC was usually called the Dies Committee, after its chairman, conservative Texas Democrat Martin Dies, who began investigating Communist activity in the New Deal's Works Progress Administration.
In time, HUAC's investigations became standardized and took on an almost ritualistic quality. Individuals named as Communists or sympathizers by police informants or other HUAC witnesses were subpoenaed to testify in hearings, where they would surely be asked the dreaded question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" "Friendly" witnesses, who often testified under great coercion, would admit their past Party membership, renounce the Party, and "name names" of other people they knew to have been Communists. Only full cooperation with HUAC—including informing on others—was enough to cleanse the witness of Communist taint and allow him or her to re-enter respectable society. "Unfriendly" witnesses, whose adherence to either the Communist Party or to a civil libertarian understanding of the Constitution of the United States would not permit them to testify, could refuse to "name names" only by invoking the Fifth Amendment, which would subject them to penalties ranging from ridicule by HUAC members to Contempt of Congress charges to the loss of work and blacklisting from future employment.
HUAC's investigations hardly represented a paragon of impartial justice. Since the hearings were considered to be civil rather than criminal proceedings, witnesses enjoyed none of the due process protections of the criminal justice system. The committee practiced guilt by association as a matter of course, and often relied upon dubious testimony by paid, anonymous informants. Witnesses had no right to confront their accusers, and there was no particular standard of evidence; hearsay was rampant. Witnesses were not allowed to testify only about their own activity; if they cooperated at all, they were forced to "name names" as well. Many who were willing to testify about themselves refused to inform on others, and thus had to plead the Fifth. Anyone named before the committee faced likely repercussions in his or her private life, with firings common and evictions from housing and even threats of violence not unheard of. There is no way to know how many entirely innocent Americans—to say nothing of those guilty of being Communists, which wasn't actually a crime—had their lives ruined by HUAC's investigations.
But as a political project, as opposed to a judicial one, HUAC was highly successful. First and foremost, HUAC succeeded in its primary objective, all but destroying the Communist Party USA. The Party had always been a marginal force in American life, but the pressures brought to bear by the anticommunist inquisition caused it to virtually disappear by the late 1950s. More contentiously, it could be argued that HUAC helped to propagate a culture of fear that enhanced the electoral prospects of hard-line politicians and intimidated dissidents from speaking out against the emerging Cold War consensus.
The Red Scare atmosphere cultivated by HUAC was only heightened by President Truman's 1947 announcement of a new federal Loyalty-Security Program, which declared that, "the presence within the Government service of any disloyal or subversive person constitutes a threat to our democratic processes" and mandated a thorough investigation of each and every federal employee.15 Under Truman's program, the FBI opened files on thousands of innocent public servants trying to determine, for example, whether a citizen's past membership in a suspicious labor union or civil rights organization ought to disqualify him from becoming a postman. Truman hoped the program would pre-empt Republican charges that his administration harbored Communists within it, but in fact the sprawling loyalty apparatus only reinforced the public perception that Communists lurked around every corner.
Enter, at long last, Senator Joseph McCarthy. He arrived very late to the movement that came to bear his name, not bursting into the national consciousness until 1950, when during a speech in West Virginia he famously waved in the air a sheet of paper that he clamed bore the names of 205 Communists employed by the State Department. For the next several years, McCarthy continued to make ever more flamboyant claims about Communist subversion of the government under Democratic Party rule. McCarthy, an alcoholic and a demagogue, became more and more reckless with his charges. In one famous instance, he preposterously charged General George Marshall—Army Chief of Staff during World War II, and Secretary of State and Defense after it—of "having made common cause with Stalin" in "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any such venture in the history of man."16
McCarthy's paranoid, conspiratorial worldview may not have been especially well grounded in reality—the number of Communists who actually infiltrated the government was a tiny fraction of what McCarthy alleged—but it resonated with many Americans struggling to understand Cold War setbacks like the loss of China to Mao's Communists or the Soviets' detonation of an atomic bomb. For a season, McCarthy became one of the country's most powerful and feared political figures. Even popular Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, elected in 1952, feared to cross McCarthy, though he admitted privately that he loathed the Senator's tactics.
McCarthy finally met his downfall in 1954, when he attempted to take on that notable hotbed of left-wing subversion—the United States Army. The Army-McCarthy hearings, which lasted 36 days, were broadcast on live television to some 20 million American viewers. With McCarthy's recklessness, bullying, and dishonesty on full and prolonged display, public opinion shifted away from the Senator as many of his previous supporters turned away in disgust. When McCarthy responded to one of Army counsel Joseph Welch's questions by accusing one of Welch's young legal assistants of being a Communist, Welch delivered the knockout blow to McCarthy's political career: "Until this moment, Senator," Welch said, "I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness... Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"17 Most Americans came to agree with Welch that McCarthy, in his zeal to root out subversives, had exceeded the bounds of decent behavior. Within months, McCarthy's colleagues in the Senate censured him for "conduct contrary to Senatorial tradition." Within three years, Joseph McCarthy died of alcoholism-induced hepatitis.
But just as McCarthyism preceded Joe McCarthy, so did it survive him. HUAC, with the enthusiastic support of the FBI, continued in its work hunting potential subversives until 1975.