Study Guide

McCarthyism & Red Scare

McCarthyism & Red Scare Introduction

The Cold War wasn't just about faraway Europe and Asia: it impacted Americans at home, too. 

Most Americans believed that "the American Way"—democracy and capitalism—was the only way to go. Americans were ready to prove to the world they were a happy, wealthy, God-fearing, and united people. If the U.S. had to use its atomic weapons on the godless Soviet Union, then, boy howdy, that was how it had to be.

Most Americans didn't think it would come to that. They believed that the rest of the world would see how self-evidently great the American Way was and ally themselves with fun, free America against the scary, communist Soviet Union.

The U.S. claimed that communism was no match for the American Way, but at the same time, Americans were constantly warned that communists were infiltrating the U.S. on a daily basis and bringing it down from the inside, with stories about traitorous American citizens becoming Soviet spies and leaking all our atomic secrets to the Kremlin. You couldn't tell who was a real American and who was a commie-loving traitor—it could be your own wife!

This fear, called the Red Scare, even showed up in Hollywood horror movies, of all places. Movie after movie from the 1940s through the 1950s told stories of aliens invading the Earth, starting with America, of course. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the classic example: Aliens who look just like you and me sneak into every city and suck out people's minds and souls. One lone American who has not yet been taken over tries to warn everyone else: "Can't you see, everyone? They're here already! You're next! You're next!"

Americans who staggered out of movie theaters in a panic weren't scanning the skies for flying saucers. They were scanning their fellow movie-goers for "commies."

And so as the postwar years progressed, the U.S. would find itself with a kind of double-identity. It really was rich and powerful and thriving, as its population and its economy grew to heights never seen before. But it was deeply afraid of being wiped out by a communist sneak attack started by its own traitorous citizens. 

All in all, the Red Scare led to some terrible violations of our Constitution before Americans came to their senses.

What is McCarthyism & Red Scare About and Why Should I Care?

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 were against communism, but they weren't particularly preoccupied with them.

Then, a few years after World War II, the United States found itself locked in a 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.

But uh, there still weren't many of them. They still had little power or influence. They still had a snowball's chance 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?

Can you smell the fear?

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. You know, like due process, civil liberties, and constitutional rights. Important things like that.

The culture of fear created a society of conformity and 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 was also effective. The Communist Party U.S.A. disintegrated. Soviet spies were brought to justice. Leftists were even purged from Hollywood. But was it worth it and was it necessary? 

"Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?" Would you answer?

McCarthyism & Red Scare Resources

Books

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950–2002 (2004)
A fascinating attempt to reconstruct the impact of the Hollywood blacklistees on half a century's worth of film and television. The blacklist was more influential on our popular culture than you probably realize.

John Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace (2001)
The best biography of one of the strangest and most fascinating public figures of the 20th century, Henry Wallace.

Arthur Herman, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator (1999)
Herman's biography thoughtfully transforms McCarthy from a monstrous caricature into a real human being by putting the senator's tumultuous life into rich historical context. While the biography isn't exactly a rehabilitation of McCarthy, it does complicate our picture of a man usually depicted as a cartoonish villain.

David McCullough, Truman (1993)
One of America's most popular historians offers a friendly biography of Harry Truman, a president much more popular among historians today than he was among his constituents while in office.

Victor Navasky, Naming Names (2003)
Naming Names is a deeply thoughtful exploration of the moral dilemmas that faced HUAC witnesses. Well-written and at times moving, Navasky's book is the best place to begin to study the moral ramifications of the Hollywood Ten hearings.

Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1999)
Many Are the Crimes is the best one-volume critical history of McCarthyism. Schrecker's analysis acknowledges the myriad shortcomings of American communists, but suggests that the apparatus of repression created in the McCarthy period to suppress communism was out of all proportion to the actual threat.

Music

Frank Sinatra, A Voice in Time: 1932–1952 (2007)
Who would've thought that Ole Blue Eyes had been a Red? Well, sort of. Sinatra was in fact suspected of communist ties, primarily because he spoke out against the witch hunts, which he felt were unjust and fueled by paranoia.

Pete Seeger, The Essential Pete Seegar (2005)
Blacklisted in the 1950s for his ties to the Communist Party U.S.A., folk singer Pete Seeger composed songs of both protest and patriotism. Originally a member of the Weavers, Seeger helped revive the American folk music scene in 1950s even while under HUAAC investigation.

Lena Horne, The Fabulous Lena Horne: 22 Hits, 1936–1946 (1997)
One of several African-American artists blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Lena Horne is a blues legend. This collection features many of her elegant early recordings, including "Stormy Weather," "As Long As I Live," and "St. Louis Blues."

Woody Guthrie, The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie, Vol. 1 (1971)
Not only does this collection feature some of this immortal folk musician's most memorable titles, including "This Land Is Your Land," "Hard Ain't It Hard," and "Roll On Columbia," it also features "Deportee (Plane Wreck)," a ballad he wrote in the late 1940s in response to a newspaper article about a plane crash in California; he was disturbed by the fact that the victims in the crash had been dismissed because they'd been "deportees."

Oscar Brand, Pie in the Sky (1969)
Like Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand was a musician blacklisted by anticommunist crusaders in the 1950s. His earliest songs often dealt with the plight of the working man, while his later albums delved more into the world of politics and power.

Images

Joe McCarthy
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy's name became synonymous with the ultra-aggressive style of anticommunism that marked much of the 1950s.

Hollywood Ten
The Hollywood Ten contested their convictions for contempt of Congress.

Committee for the First Amendment
Film industry defenders of the Hollywood Ten formed the Committee for the First Amendment to protest their conviction. Here Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead the Committee's delegation of protest to a Washington, D.C., hearing.

Ronald Reagan, Anticommunist Union Head
Ronald Reagan, President of the Screen Actor's Guild and secret FBI informer, testifies before HUAC in 1947.

President Harry S. Truman
President Truman won re-election in the election of 1948, defeating Republican Thomas Dewey, Progressive Henry Wallace, and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.

Harry Bridges
Harry Bridges, Red leader of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, one of 12 unions expelled from the CIO in 1949 and 1950 for being too soft on communism.

On the Waterfront
Marlon Brando starred in On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning cinematic defense of "naming names."

Pod People
Invasion of the Body Snatchers captured Cold War paranoia in a sci-fi milieu. But were the pod people soul-destroying communists or soul-destroying McCarthyite conformists?

Atomic Espionage
Klaus Fuchs, atomic scientist and Soviet spy. This photo taken from his identification badge at the top-secret Los Alamos labs.

Julius Rosenberg
Julius Rosenberg, sentenced to death for violating the Espionage Act by passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Ethel Rosenberg
Mugshot of Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for violating the Espionage Act.

Movies & TV

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
This historical drama, written and directed by George Clooney, tells the story of CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred W. Friendly, two men who risked their careers to expose McCarthy as a paranoid fearmonger.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
One of the greatest science-fiction films of all time, the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (there have been several remakes) captures better than any other film the pervasive sense of fear that defined the early Cold War era.

Storm Center (1956)
In contrast to Kazan's On the Waterfront, Storm Center delves into the ordeals faced by those who challenged McCarthy's anticommunist crusade. It stars Bette Davis as a heroic small-town librarian who refuses to pull a communist book off the shelves, even though the decision jeopardizes her job and makes her vulnerable to accusations of being a communist herself.

On the Waterfront (1954)
Marlon Brando delivers one of his finest performances ever as the conflicted hero of On the Waterfront, director Elia Kazan's allegorical defense of his own choice to "name names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Roman Holiday (1953)
This hit romantic comedy features Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, two of the era's biggest stars. Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, crafted the film's screenplay under a pseudonym and ultimately won an Oscar for his work despite being unable to receive on-screen credit in his own name.

Websites

Truman Library
The Truman Library provides an excellent collection of primary sources from the Truman Presidency.

International Cold War history
CNN has built a very interesting, if a bit navigationally fussy, website on the Cold War Experience, which provides excellent insight into the cultural ramifications of the Cold War.

Birth of McCarthyism
History Matters provides the full text of Senator Joseph McCarthy's career-making 1950 speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, which propelled him to national fame as the most bombastic practitioner of the anticommunist tactics which came to bear his name.

Video & Audio

Split in the New Deal Ranks
Newsreel: Henry Wallace Stirs Foreign Policy Debate, 1946

Truman Doctrine
President Truman's "Truman Doctrine" Speech, 1947

The Hollywood Ten
Newsreel: HUAC Investigates Hollywood Reds, 1947

Committee for the First Amendment
Hollywood star Katherine Hepburn speaks out against HUAC's investigation of Hollywood, 1947

Historical Documents

Truman Doctrine
Here's the text of President Truman's 1947 address to Congress, the Truman Doctrine. Plus, we've got an entire learning guide on it.

Loyalty Oaths
Here's the full text of Executive Order 9835, which explains President Truman's Loyalty-Security Program, 1947.

Traitors or Martyrs
The FBI's file on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is available here.