Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: How did McCarthyism
limit American political debate and freedom
of speech in the 1950s?

Reading: Nightmare in Red (web); Hoover "The
Communist Menace" (web)
; McCarthy "Communist
Threatens America" (web)
; McCarthyism Threatens
America (web)
; Americans accused of Communism

Video:  CNN: McCarthyism during the
Cold War

Daily Class Web Links

McCarthyism in 1950s America

How McCarthyism Worked in
1950s America

McCarthyism and Individual Americans

Daily Class Outline

1. McCarthyism and Conformity in 1950s America

2. McCarthyism and Anti-communist Paranoia

3. McCarthyism's affect on
Americans' lives

Daily Class Questions

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 freedom?

4. What does the Tydings Committee mean when they accuse Senator McCarthy of using the "Big Lie" to smear Americans?

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?

Daily Class Notes

Although Truman 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 of the
'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 by
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 South.

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 and society.

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 agent:

"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 her.

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.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 28 Oct. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/mccarthy.htm
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