for Discussion: How did McCarthyism
limit American political debate and freedom
of speech in the 1950s?
Reading: Nightmare in Red (web);
Communist Menace" (web); McCarthy
Threatens America" (web); McCarthyism
America (web); Americans accused of Communism
Video: CNN: McCarthyism
McCarthyism in 1950s America
How McCarthyism Worked in
McCarthyism and Individual
1. McCarthyism and Conformity in
2. McCarthyism and Anti-communist
3. McCarthyism's affect on
1. What does Senator McCarthy feel is the
major threat to American victory in the Cold War?
2. What does McCarthy mean when he says: "When
a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be because of enemies
from without, but rather because of enemies from within"?
3. Why does Senator Margaret Chase Smith fear
that McCarthy's anti-communism threatens American democracy and
4. What does the Tydings Committee mean when
they accuse Senator McCarthy of using the "Big Lie" to
5. Why does the Tydings Committee conclude
that McCarthyism is "what we would expect in a totalitarian
nation where the rights of the individual are crushed beneath the
juggernaut of statism and oppression"?
6. According to Richard Fried, how did McCarthyism
affect Americans' lives in the 1950s?
7. According to Fried, which groups of Americans
were hurt by charges of communism?
8. How did McCarthyism and the Cold War impose
conformity and an unquestioning support for the
United States government?
criticized the Committee, his own Attorney General had expressed,
in 1950, the same idea that motivated its investigations:
"There are today many Communists
in America. They are everywhere--in factories, offices, butcher
shops, on street comers, in private business--
and each carries in himself the germs of death for society."
.....Howard Zinn, A People's
History of the United States (1980)
"We have seen the technique
'Big Lie,' elsewhere employed by the totalitarian dictator with
devastating success, utilized here for the first time on a sustained
basis in our history....
....We have seen the character of
private citizens and of Government employees virtually destroyed
public condemnation on the basis of gossip, distortion, hearsay,
and deliberate untruths.....The spectacle is one we would expect
in a totalitarian nation where the rights of the individual are
crushed beneath the juggernaut of statism and oppression; it has
no place in America where government exists to serve our people,
not destroy them."
............The Tydings Committee Report on McCarthy's Charges(1950).
In the late 1940s and throughout
the 1950s, Americans suffered from a political and cultural hysteria
caused by fear and anxiety about the Soviet threat. Many Americans
came to believe that there were communists working within their
society to undermine the United States. Some Americans charged each
other with being communists or communist sympathizers. Under the
threat of this anti-communist hysteria, many Americans withdrew
from politics and kept their opinions to themselves, fearing that
they too would be accused of being communists. McCarthyism is the
use of the charge of communism to discredit political ideas, cultural
values, and individual's lives and reputations. At the height of
McCarthyism in the 1950s, Americans from all walks of life were
accused of being communist. As a result of this anti-communist hysteria,
many Americans were constantly looking over their shoulders wondering
whether their neighbors, friends, and government officials were
communists. In order to understand this growing cultural and political
hysteria about communism in the late 1940s and 1950s, we need to
examine how Americans reacted to the early years of the Cold War
after World War II.
After World War II, President Truman
and the United States was determined to stand up to the Soviet Union,
believing that America had won the right to be the political, economic,
and military leader of the world. Because the Soviets refused to
recognize our leadership and challenged our efforts to reconstruct
the global economy and society after World War II, the United States
began a Cold War struggle to reduce Soviet power and influence.
In order to convince Americans that the United States should engage
in this global struggle with the Soviets, President Truman was told
by advisors that he should "scare the hell out of the country."
In his speeches and declarations in the late 1940s and early 1950s,
Truman warned that there was a momentous global struggle between
the "free world" and the communist world. Truman and his
advisors used apocalyptic rhetoric about a dangerous and decisive
struggle between two "competing ways of life" to convince
Americans that we were confronting a dangerous enemy that needed
to be stopped. Reflecting this rhetoric, NSC 68 warned that the
"issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment
or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.
" It was in this context of increasing American alarm about
the Soviet threat that a series of events in the late 1940s caused
many Americans to wonder if the United States was beginning to lose
this global Cold War struggle to the Soviet communists.
It was a series of political and
military setbacks in the late 1940s and early 1950s that caused
Americans to become increasingly concerns about the growing Soviet
threat. In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb.
Also in 1949 China became communist, after the communist leader
Mao Tse Tsung took control over their government after a Chinese
Civil War. In June 1950, communist North Korea invaded South Korea
and tried to impose communism over all of Korea. But the President
Truman and the United States quickly declared a "police action"
and intervened in the Korean Civil War in order to prevent the communist
from winning. After some initial setbacks, the United States began
to push into North Korea, and attempted to destroy communist rule
in the North and reunify Korea under American control. But in October
of 1950, Communist China entered into the Korean war, fearing that
if the United States destroyed communism in North Korea it would
then march into China and try to destroy communist rule in China.
Between 1950 and 1953, the United States and China fought a bloody
war in Korea, with neither side able to win the upper hand. In 1953,
after President Eisenhower threatened to drop atomic bombs on China,
the Chinese agreed to an end to the war, which resulted in Korea
once again being divided into a communist North and a democratic
Faced with this growing communist
threat in the early 1950s, some American politicians began to charge
that it was traitors in the United States who were responsible for
these dangerous American setbacks in the Cold War. In his 1950 Wheeling
speech, Senator Joseph McCarthy charged that there were 205 communist
spies in the state department who were selling out the United States.
McCarthy warned that there were communist traitors in American government
and society that were threatening to destroy the United States.
He declared: "When a great democracy is destroyed, it will
not be because of enemies from without, but rather because of enemies
from within." McCarthy called for a "moral uprising"
of Americans to drive these dangerous communists out of government
Between 1950 and 1954, Senator McCarthy
and others held government hearings to reveal and weed out these
Communists traitors in government and society. McCarthy called prominent
American writers, actors, directors, government officials, and influential
American cultural and social leaders to testify before his committee
about their knowledge and involvement in this communist conspiracy.
In fact, in 1951 McCarthy charged that President Truman was a communist
"The President. He is their
captive. The President is not master in his own house. Those who
are master there not only have a desire to protect the sappers and
miners--they could not do otherwise. They themselves are not free.
They belong to a larger conspiracy, the world-wide web of which
has been spun from Moscow."
Responding to these charges that
he and his top aides were communist agents, President Truman charged
that McCarthy was "the greatest asset the Communist had."
But if the President of the United States and other prominent and
influential Americans were under suspicion of being communists,
any and every American could be a communist.
McCarthyism soon spread to every
part of American society and life in the early 1950s. Federal, state,
and local governments created blacklists of people and organizations
suspected of being communists. In addition to government blacklists,
private organizations also printed blacklists of their own. One
of the more prominent non-government blacklists was Red Channels,
which published lists of names of individuals and organizations
suspected of being communists. If your name was placed on one of
these blacklists, you could lose your job and your life and reputation
could be ruined. In fact, only ten percent of the actors, writers,
directors and producers on the Hollywood blacklist ever worked in
Hollywood again. To give you a sense of how these blacklists work,
let's look at the case of Nancy Reagan. In the early 1950s, Nancy
Davis discovered her name was on one of the blacklists and she could
not longer work as an actress. Nancy went to the President of the
Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, and begged him to take her name
of the list. Reagan got her name off the list, and he later married
Because of this growing anti-communist
hysteria in the early 1950s created by McCarthyism, Americans began
to look over their shoulders wondering whether if there weren't
in fact communists in their midst. Some people used the charge of
communism to defeat their enemies and their competition. Other Americans,
fearing that someone would point the finger at them, charged other
people with being communists. If you could prove that someone else
was a communist, no one would point the accusing finger at you.
As a result, Americans from all walks of life were accused of being
communists. Some accused the Girl Scouts of being a communist front.
Others charged that Rock and Roll musicians were communists. Some
accused people who supported putting fluoride in the water of being
communists. Political activists such as feminists and Black Civil
Rights and students were accused of being communists. Teachers and
University professors were accused of being communists, trying to
undermine the values of young Americans. One of the worst examples
of people who were damaged by McCarthyism was librarians. Librarians
were charged with being communists if they bought certain books
or allowed certain books to be checked out. Faced with these charges,
some librarians even allowed some of their books to be burned in
order to prove they weren't communists.
McCarthyism and the political and
cultural anti-communist hysteria it created threatened the the American's
basic rights. Many Americans in the 1950s were afraid to speak their
mind or talk about their opinions for fear that they would stand
out from the crowd and be called communists. As a result of McCarthyism,
America in the 1950s was overwhelmed by a stifling conformity. Because
Americans were afraid to voice their opinions, the United States
did not have a free and open debate about America's role in the
world and our aggressive Cold War policies. If Americans are afraid
to participate in public debate, then they can't shape and control
their lives, government, and society. Because of McCarthyism, America's
democratic institutions and basic civil and political rights were
violated. McCarthyism is a good example of how the Cold War damaged
and weakened America's democratic institutions. Only with the end
of the Cold War in the early 1990s do Americans really feel free
to speak their minds and voice their opinions, because with the
collapse of the Soviet communist threat no one will accuse them
of being communists.
As we will see in the next few weeks,
McCarthyism allowed the government to violate the basic civil and
political rights of Americans throughout the Cold War. In the 1950s
and 1960s, the FBI and the CIA opened people's mail, followed and
harassed political groups challenging government policy, and attempted
to "neutralize" Americans who did not support America's
aggressive Cold War policies. It was only in the mid-1970s that
Americans discovered the full extent to which the government violated
their basic rights under McCarthyism in the early years of the Cold
War. Revelations about government violations of the laws and of
American's basic rights caused many Americans to question their
government and its commitment to democracy. Despite McCarthyism
and anti-communist political and cultural hysteria, Americans have
the right to hold any political and social points of view they want.
The Constitution and our democratic institutions guarantee Americans
these basic rights which were threatened and weakened by McCarthyism
and the Cold War.