In retrospect, it is clear that the worst fears underlying McCarthyism—that domestic Communists would bore from within our own society to subvert our institutions and create a United Soviet States of America—were wildly overblown. There were never very many American Communists, and the few there were ended up spending most of their time trying to avoid persecution (and prosecution) from the solidly anticommunist majority. There was never any remotely realistic scenario in which American Communists could have overthrown the government of the United States.
If domestic Communists were overrated as a threat, however, the same could not be said for the foreign Communists in the Soviet Union. By the late 1940s, the USSR had become a very real, and very fearsome, enemy of the United States. The Soviet Union—and specifically Soviet nuclear bombs—absolutely did represent an existential threat to the American people.
And, as the historical record now makes inarguably clear, some American Communists did seek to aid the Soviets through espionage.
The vast majority of American Communists were not spies, remained loyal to the United States, and committed no crime other than espousing deeply unpopular political beliefs. But a small number of American Communists did become Soviet agents, passing highly sensitive American secrets—including nuclear secrets—to Russian spymasters.
On 29 August 1949, the Soviets successfully exploded their first atomic bomb, "Joe 1," which was a virtual replica of the American "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki four years earlier. The news that the Soviets had developed a working bomb shocked and terrified the American people; American intelligence had believed it would take the Soviets at least another five years to develop a nuclear weapon. Many Americans believed that the Soviets' rapid progress in atomic technology could only be explained by espionage: someone must have passed the priceless secrets of the Manhattan Project to the USSR.
That someone was Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs, a brilliant theoretical physicist, was a German-born Communist who fled his homeland after Hitler's rise to power. He obtained British citizenship and taught in British universities before moving to the United States in 1943 to join the top-secret Manhattan Project in its pursuit of the atomic bomb. From his 1944 arrival at the Los Alamos labs until 1949, Fuchs was also a spy, passing highly classified technical, theoretical, and strategic information on the American atomic program to the Soviet Union.
In early 1950, British intelligence agents confronted Fuchs with evidence of his espionage, and the physicist quickly confessed. A British court stripped Fuchs of his citizenship and sentenced him to fourteen years in prison.
Shocking as Fuchs's case was, his confession meant that there was nothing controversial about his trial. The same cannot be said for the two most notorious American Cold War espionage trials: the cases of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.
Alger Hiss was a high-ranking diplomat in the Franklin Roosevelt's State Department, a key player in the American delegation to the crucial Yalta Conference of 1945. In 1948 an ex-Communist named Whittaker Chambers accused Hiss of not only being a covert member of the Party, but also alleged that Hiss had joined Chambers in a Soviet spy ring before Chambers quit the Party in 1938. Hiss, called to testify before HUAC, denied all charges and denied having ever even met Whittaker Chambers before. Most observers felt that Hiss seemed a more credible witness than Chambers (who was a somewhat erratic character); President Truman dismissed the charges against Hiss as a "red herring."
Hiss, indignant at Chambers' allegations, sued his accuser for slander. At this point, Chambers suddenly produced shocking new evidence, which he said had been hidden—first behind the wall of the bathroom of his nephew's mother's Baltimore home, then (even more bizarrely) inside a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. The evidence: five rolls of microfilmed government documents, plus notes handwritten by Alger Hiss and typewritten State Department memoranda, all dating from the late 1930s. The so-called "pumpkin papers" threw new suspicion on Alger Hiss.
The statute of limitations protected Hiss from being prosecuted under the Espionage Act, but in 1950 Hiss was tried and convicted of perjury for giving false testimony before HUAC in 1948 when he denied any involvement in Communist activities. Hiss served four years in federal prison, but insisted upon his complete innocence until the day of his death in 1996. The Hiss case long served as a cause célèbre for American liberals and leftists, who remained convinced that the Hiss case was a classic example of McCarthyism run amok.
We now know that Alger Hiss was, in fact, almost certainly a Soviet spy. The end of the Cold War meant the opening up of the Soviet archives, which revealed documents describing a Soviet agent code-named "AMES," whose movements and activities fit those of Alger Hiss to a T.
After Hiss, the next sensational American espionage trial was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York couple that had met in the Young Communist League in 1936. In 1951, the government charged the Rosenbergs with being involved in the spy ring that conveyed Klaus Fuchs's atomic secrets to the Soviets. The prosecution's star witness was Ethel Rosenberg's brother, who admitted to his own role in the spy ring and turned state's evidence to protect himself and his family (though not his sister) from execution.
The prosecution had considerable evidence linking Julius Rosenberg to the spy ring, but very little on his wife. It seems that Ethel was charged mainly in order to put pressure on Julius to confess. He refused to do so, however, and in the end both Rosenbergs were convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to death. Failing to win a reprieve on appeal, the couple were executed via electric chair in June 1953. Ethel Rosenberg became the first woman to suffer capital punishment in America since 1865, when Mary Surratt was hanged for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
To many, the Rosenbergs' executions—especially that of Ethel—seemed especially harsh when compared to the mere jail sentences given to higher-ranking spies like Alger Hiss and Klaus Fuchs. The Rosenbergs became martyrs to many on the left, who insisted upon their innocence and viewed their executions as proof of the dangerous hysteria of Cold War American society. Some also detected the foul scent of anti-Semitism in the harsh justice meted out to the Rosenbergs, who—unlike Hiss and Fuchs—were Jewish. But there seems to be little evidence to support that charge. Both the lead prosecutor and the judge in the Rosenberg case were themselves Jewish, and most mainstream American Jewish groups—fearing that the Rosenberg case would actually incite new anti-Semitism by associating Jews with Communism in the public mind—rejected the Rosenbergs' claims of victimization and backed the prosecution. The American Jewish Committee went out of its way to send a friendly representative to HUAC to testify that "Judaism and Communism are utterly incompatible."
So if the Rosenbergs were victims, they were victims of their politics more than their religion or ethnicity. Still, for decades after their deaths, supporters—almost all of them political leftists—continued to insist upon their total innocence, often quoting Ethel Rosenberg's own defiant insistence, as she faced the electric chair, that she and her husband "must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism." But the end of the Cold War after 1990 allowed historians to reassess the Rosenberg case by allowing access to long-secret Soviet archives. And we now know that Julius Rosenberg was certainly a Soviet spy, and that Ethel Rosenberg was privy to (if not necessarily a participant in) his espionage activities. Whether their actions merited the death penalty remains debatable, of course, but their claims of total innocence no longer seem credible to most historians.
The release of Soviet documents in the wake of the USSR's collapse has proven, undeniably, that a small number of American Communists were, in fact, spying for the Soviet Union. Those secrets did help the Soviets to develop their nuclear weapons programs, and they surely would have been used against the United States if the two countries had gone to war.
Should the reality of Communist espionage cause us to reassess our views of McCarthyism in America? Many Americans today are critical of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s, decrying the systematic violation of civil liberties inherent in the anticommunist inquisition. But—considering the fact that some American Communists were, in fact, spying for the Soviets, and that McCarthyite proceedings did lead to convictions of real Soviet spies—is it possible that legitimate Cold War ends justified regrettable McCarthyite means?