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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'd 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 them 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 wouldn't 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 weren't 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 so, had to plead the Fifth. Anyone named before the committee faced likely repercussions in their private life, with firings common and evictions from housing and even threats of violence not unheard of.
There's 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 U.S.A. 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.
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.
In retrospect, it's 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've 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 weren't 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 August 29th, 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 14 years in prison.
Shocking as Fuchs' 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' 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've been used against the United States if the two countries had gone to war.
So, 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?
We'll leave that up to you to decide.
Communists represented a small, but significant, minority within the burgeoning labor movement of the late 1930s and early 1940s, especially within the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which arose after 1935 to rival the older and more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Communists believed, as a matter of ideological conviction, that anti-capitalist revolution must begin with the working class; therefore, they threw themselves into the task of organizing workers into industrial unions with great enthusiasm.
Communists never comprised more than a tiny proportion of America's trade unionists, even within the CIO. But they did have a disproportionate impact. Several of the CIO's most militant and—for a time—successful unions had outright communist leadership. These included the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Many other CIO unions, including some of the largest unions in the country—the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers (USW), and United Mine Workers (UMW)—had non-communist leaders but employed effective communist organizers at lower levels within their organizations.
The CIO was never, as its critics frequently alleged, a mere front for Communist Party agitation. But the CIO did, for a long time, tolerate the presence of communists within its ranks and benefit from communists' commitment and organizing prowess.
Through the end of World War II, the CIO's model of Red-tolerant trade unionism was relatively successful. Between 1935 and 1945, millions and millions of American workers joined unions for the first time—both in the CIO and in the AFL, which began organizing aggressively to counter competition from the CIO. Unions raised wages, reduced work hours, and won improvements in working conditions.
By 1945, more than 35% of the American workforce was unionized, and labor leaders hoped for a future in which unions shaped not only workplace conditions but also public policy and even business decision-making. In 1946, the UAW attempted to introduce into its negotiations with General Motors not only an agreement on wages but also on the price GM would charge for cars.
In retrospect, we can now see that the end of World War II marked not the beginning of a golden age for American labor but instead, the beginning of the end. The proportion of American workers who belong to unions began to fall in 1946 and hasn't stopped. Today, fewer than 12% of all workers—and fewer than 8% in the private sector—are union members.
The collapse of American labor began with the Taft-Hartley Labor-Management Relations Act, a piece of legislation that can only be understood in the context of the Cold War.
Taft-Hartley, passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman's veto in 1947, used the threat of communist subversion to justify rolling back many of the advantages labor had gained in the 1935 Wagner Act. Most of the bill's provisions—banning closed shops, secondary strikes, and the spending of dues for political purposes, while allowing states to pass union-busting "right to work" laws—had no Cold War purpose. They represented a long-stymied pro-business Republican agenda that had suffered under FDR's New Deal administration.
But these anti-labor provisions, which caused labor leaders and even Truman himself to denounce Taft-Hartley as a "slave-labor bill," were sold by Republicans as necessary to the national defense under the new conditions of the Cold War. The communists tolerated within many unions were no longer mere radical agitators, but potential fifth columnists in the service of our new mortal enemy, the Soviet Union.
Taft-Hartley targeted communists within the labor movement by requiring union officers to sign affidavits affirming they weren't members of the Communist Party. Any union that failed to sign the affidavits lost its right to a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board, and thus effectively lost any protection under federal law.
Taft-Hartley's anticommunist affidavits made it impossible for American unions to avoid a direct reckoning with the communist problem, and that reckoning shattered the CIO.
Several of the CIO's left-leaning unions, which rejected anticommunism as an illegitimate labor-splitting tactic, refused to sign the affidavits, threatening to undermine the CIO's legal status. In 1949 and 1950, the CIO responded by purging its communists from its ranks, firing left-wing officials and expelling 12 unions that refused to abandon their communist-tolerant ways.
The expulsions protected the CIO from charges that it threatened national security, but they also robbed the CIO of much of its original vitality. The expelled unions included some of the federation's most successful and militant—including the powerful ILWU and the UE, the third largest union in the entire CIO. The post-purge CIO lost the expansive sense of mission that had driven its rapid growth in the 1930s. The CIO after 1950 wasn't much different from the once-hated AFL. When the two organizations merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO, the new labor federation bore a much closer resemblance to the cautious old AFL than to the militant CIO of the Depression years. For more than 50 years now, the AFL-CIO has presided over the steady erosion of the American labor movement.
Taft-Hartley may not have been a "slave labor" law, but it certainly succeeded in its primary goal of weakening trade unionism in the United States. The communist problem, immeasurably heightened by the emerging Cold War, made it impossible for American unions to continue their broadly successful Red-tolerant policies of the 1930s and early 1940s and provided the perfect wedge for conservatives to divide and conquer the labor movement.
Hollywood dominated American popular culture at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1946, cinema box offices swallowed up an astonishing 90% of Americans' total spending on entertainment, with weekly attendance at the nation's movie houses approaching 90 million at a time when the entire population of the country was only 140 million.blank">McCarthy era, with alien invaders secretly occupying human bodies and turning them into soulless "pod people." Viewers at the time and ever since have seen the film as a historical allegory. But of what? Are the pod people meant to represent communists, secretly infiltrating American society with an alien ideology that robs them of free thought and individual liberty? Or are they meant to be McCarthyites, so desperate to prove their anticommunist bona fides that they embrace a conformity that robs them of free thought or individual liberty?
Either way, few cultural artifacts capture the fearful mood of the early Cold War era as well as the final reel of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. "Look!" screams the hero, staring directly into the camera, "You fools! You're in danger! Can't you see? They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives...our children...they're here already! You're next!"
The Cold War dawned with the United States facing a crisis in political leadership.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our first and only four-term president, had dominated American politics for a generation. For many Americans during the Great Depression and World War II, FDR wasn't merely the head of the United States government—FDR practically was the United States government.
Roosevelt's sudden death in April 1945, just months before World War II ended and the Cold War began, left a tremendous void—a void which new President Harry S. Truman struggled to fill.
Truman hadn't been close to Roosevelt. In fact, FDR much preferred Truman's predecessor as vice president, former Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, an old Iowa Progressive who was a fervent devotee of the New Deal program.
Roosevelt had only dumped Wallace as his vice presidential nominee in 1944 to appease Southern Democrats who threatened to split the party at the Democratic Convention if FDR didn't allow them to install a more conservative VP. If FDR had decided to burn his political capital by fighting for his first-choice vice president, or if he'd simply died a few months earlier, the critical decisions of the early Cold War period would've been made not by Truman, but by President Henry Wallace.
And in light of Wallace's fervent belief in cooperation rather than competition with the Soviet Union, there may never have been a Cold War at all. Of course, whether Wallace's policies would've led to peace and prosperity or to Soviet conquest of the entire globe is impossible to say. But one way or the other, the history of the second half of the 20th century would have been very different.
But Roosevelt decided that he couldn't risk alienating the Southern conservatives within his New Deal coalition, so he demoted Wallace to the position of Secretary of Commerce in order to offer the vice presidency to Harry S. Truman.
But FDR apparently felt that Truman's usefulness to him ended with the 1944 campaign. During the 82 days that passed between Truman's inauguration as vice president and FDR's death, Truman played no important role in the government. (Which really, isn't that out-of-the-blue for a vice president.) Roosevelt excluded Truman from the critical negotiations with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in February 1945, and he didn't even let Truman in on the nation's greatest secret—the atomic bomb.
Then, FDR died.
Suddenly, Harry Truman became president, assuming the burden of preserving and extending Roosevelt's policies in the postwar era. Only, he'd never really been "in the loop" on exactly what those policies would've been.
Truman soon decided to deal with Stalin as he believed Roosevelt had dealt with Hitler—with a tough policy of confrontation and resistance.
Truman never thought twice about dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he saw as useful not only to hasten Japanese surrender, but also to intimidate the Soviets. In his very first meeting with Stalin's foreign minister, V.M. Molotov, Truman unleashed a barrage of criticism that caused Molotov to protest, "I have never been talked to like that in my life."blank">Thomas Dewey, but even to segregationist "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond, who'd split from the Democrats in protest against Truman's modest support for civil rights.
Henry Wallace's humiliating defeat proved that questioning the basic premises of the country's anticommunist policies had moved beyond the pale of acceptable political opinion in the Cold War era. After Wallace, every major candidate of both parties would be a committed Cold Warrior. The two parties would compete not over whether to wage Cold War against the Soviet Union, but instead over who could be trusted to wage Cold War tougher. A corollary to both parties' commitment to defeat the Soviet Union was both parties' commitment to root out communist subversives at home—a commitment that quickly escalated into the Red Scare and McCarthyism.