' Skip To Content
McCarthy | Article

More Than Just a Man

Anti-communist political repression went far beyond Senator Joseph McCarthy

More than Just a Man Alger Hiss GettyImages-514882578.jpg
Alger Hiss, accused of Communist espionage, takes an oath during hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He denied Whittaker Chambers' accusation that he was a Communist, Getty

For several years before Joseph McCarthy first waved around his ever-changing list of supposed Communists in the State Department at a Republican dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950, the Cold War red scare to which he gave his name had been producing headlines—and victims. McCarthyism, as we understand it today, encompassed much more than the antics of one notorious senator from Wisconsin. It was the longest-lasting and most widespread episode of political repression in American history.

Designed to eliminate the influence of the Communist Party (CP) from American life, McCarthyism affected thousands of people directly and untold numbers indirectly. Unlike political repression in many other societies, there was little or no violence. Only two people were executed—Ethel and Julius Rosenberg—several hundred sent to prison and thousands more were fired. Because so much of what happened was secret, even today we actually have no reliable accounting. Even more important, however, than the individual suffering McCarthyism caused was its political impact. It created what the Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, called “the black silence of fear,” narrowing the spectrum of acceptable ideas, while demonizing left-wing dissent.

When I teach about the subject, I always ask my classes to talk about opposition to the Korean War, a conflict that was every bit as unpopular as the one in Vietnam. The silence that greets my question is the right answer. McCarthyism squelched most serious criticism of American society and of the government’s conduct of the Cold War.  Even after it disappeared from the main stage, the political timidity that it encouraged continues to haunt us all. 

An Easy Target
Because Joseph McCarthy fingered so many innocent people, it was common at the time to assume that most of the Cold War red scare’s other victims were also “innocent liberals.” They were not, though they were unjustly treated. Most belonged to—or, more commonly, once belonged to—the Communist Party or to one or more of the organizations within its penumbra, the so-called “front groups,” that appealed to many people who never became Communists. Though politically stigmatized, they had done nothing illegal. And, by the time Senator McCarthy made headlines, they posed no real threat to national security.

Communism had never been popular in the United States. The Communist Party’s revolutionary rhetoric and ties to the Soviet Union had invited political repression from the start. Even so, during its heyday in the 1930s and the early 1940s, the party attracted an entire generation of idealists who wanted, among other things, to fight fascism, organize labor unions and struggle for racial equality.

Once the Cold War broke out, the Communist Party’s connections to the Soviet Union made it easy to portray the members of that small, secret, and unpopular party as a threat to American security. Ambitious politicians, journalists and officials like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover exaggerated that danger in order to implement their own personal and political agendas, claiming that the situation was dire.

It was also plausible. To begin with, the party’s secrecy, though understandable as a protection against repression, created an aura of conspiracy. In addition, some American Communists had spied on behalf of the Soviet Union during World War II when the two countries were allied against Hitler. As a result, in the tense atmosphere of the early Cold War, the fear of Russian agents triggered the political repression that ruined thousands of lives and suppressed dissent but never uncovered an active spy or saboteur.

The Machinery of McCarthyism
At its peak in the early Cold War, McCarthyism took many forms. The very multiplicity of its operations added to its clout. Though Joseph McCarthy gave that movement his name, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, more than anyone else, bore responsibility for shaping it. A reactionary ideologue as well as ambitious bureaucrat, Hoover hyped the danger of communism in order to increase the power and prestige of his agency. Not only did the FBI design the political tests for employment that became central to the Cold War red scare, but it also fingered many of its victims.

The most crucial early component of McCarthyism was the federal government’s 1947 Loyalty-Security Program. Not only did it legitimize a crudely political test for employment, but it also created a model that other official and unofficial entities soon copied. Designed by the Truman administration to head off the more repressive measures that a recently elected Republican-controlled Congress might impose, the Loyalty-Security program required all federal employees to be checked out by the FBI. If any “derogatory information” turned up, the individuals in question could lose their jobs. Because the Bureau insisted that the sources of that information had to remain anonymous to protect national security, the accused public servants could not always defend themselves against false allegations.

To help the government’s investigators uncover Communist party members and sympathizers, the Attorney General released a list of supposedly subversive organizations. Besides the Ku Klux Klan and a few Nazi and fascist outfits, most of the organizations on the list were the front groups associated with the Communist Party. As a result, government employees could lose their jobs if, for example, they had joined a defunct hiking group that was on the Attorney General’s list, or signed a petition calling for nuclear disarmament, or socialized with people of other races. Within a few years, similar loyalty-security programs had spread from the nation’s capital to local governments, school systems, movie studios, defense plants and beyond. One authority claimed that by the late 1950s such anti-Communist tests for employment reached one-fifth of the nation’s work force.

Most of McCarthyism’s political purges followed a two-stage procedure. First, the alleged subversives were identified, then they were punished. That first stage of exposing suspected Communists was normally administered by an official body like the FBI or a state or congressional investigating committee. The second-stage application of sanctions was usually handled by a different set of actors who fired and often blacklisted the politically tainted men and women identified during the first stage. 

The FBI was central to this process. It obtained evidence wherever it could, both legally and not. It developed and cosseted dozens, if not hundreds, of informants, some of whom were professional witnesses who made a living from testifying at trials, deportation hearings and congressional investigations. Among them were a few who occasionally embroidered their stories to keep themselves on the Bureau’s payroll. The information these informants supplied enabled Hoover’s agents to tip off employers about supposed subversives on their payrolls as well as to give information about them to sympathetic journalists, politicians and congressional committees. Those leaks, it should be noted, were secret, since operating a blacklist was hardly within the FBI’s official jurisdiction.

As the Cold War intensified during the late 1940s, the FBI pressed the Truman administration to bring criminal charges against the Communist Party. Although the party had broken no laws, thanks to the testimony of some dodgy professional witnesses and the invocation of an international crisis, the government successfully prosecuted the nation’s top Communists under the 1940 Smith Act for teaching and advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Citing national security, the Supreme Court upheld their conviction, thereby legitimizing McCarthyism’s assault on civil liberties. After all, once Communists could be viewed as criminals, it was easier to deprive them of the constitutional protections that the rest of the nation’s law-abiding population enjoyed.

Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee visit the home of Chairman John Parnell Thomas; (l-r) Rep. Richard B. Vail, Rep. Thomas, Rep. John McDowell, Robert Stripling, chief counsel, and Rep. Richard M. Nixon] 1948, Getty

The Congressional Inquisition
Outside of the courtroom, an even more powerful narrative about the dangers of domestic communism was emerging from the highly publicized congressional hearings of the late 1940s and 1950s. The sensational stories that the committees’ ex-Communist witnesses told about their own clandestine activities during the 1930s fleshed out the charges of Republican politicians and other conservatives that the New Deal had been harboring reds.

The oldest and most important of these committees was the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC as it was called. Established in 1938, its mission was to look into extremist activities on the right as well as the left. But under the control of conservative politicians from both parties, it targeted alleged Communist influence within the Roosevelt administration. 

After the war, with the covert assistance of the FBI, HUAC took the lead in exposing Communists throughout American society. In the fall of 1947, the committee hit the jackpot with Hollywood. For several days of raucous hearings, HUAC’s staffers and members questioned a group of Communist and ex-Communist screenwriters and directors. When 10 witnesses refused to cooperate, claiming that the committee’s questions about their politics violated their First Amendment rights, the committee charged them with contempt of Congress.

The conviction of the Hollywood Ten, as they were called—and the Supreme Court’s refusal to take their appeal—meant that, at least in the heyday of McCarthyism, witnesses could not rely on the First Amendment if they refused to answer a committee’s questions. The only way such witnesses could avoid going to prison for contempt was to invoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection against testifying against themselves.

Nine of Ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers cited for contempt of Congress, await fingerprinting in the U.S. Marshall's Office after they surrendered, Getty

They could not, however, avoid unemployment. Because the Supreme Court ruled that people who answered any of the committees’ political questions had waived the Fifth Amendment, most of the committees’ witnesses faced an untenable situation. They were present and former party members who had committed no crimes and would have voluntarily discussed their own political activities and affiliations if the investigating committees did not invariably ask them about their former colleagues. Unwilling to become informers, these witnesses’ only option was to refuse to answer the incriminating question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” To a public, unaware of the niceties of constitutional law, that refusal looked as if witnesses were hiding some terrible secret. Or, as Joseph McCarthy was wont to declare, “A witness’s refusal to answer whether or not he is a Communist …is the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a Communist.” Few so-called “Fifth Amendment Communists” managed to keep their jobs. 

The Hiss Affair
Even more important hearings took place a year after that of the Hollywood Ten, when Richard Nixon, a newly elected Republican congressman from Southern California, pursued the case of Alger Hiss. A respected Washington insider with impeccable Ivy League credentials, Hiss had worked for the State Department during the war and had actually accompanied President Roosevelt to the 1945 Yalta Conference with Stalin. In the summer of 1948, HUAC took testimony from Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist who identified Hiss and a few other New Deal officials as party members. When called before the committee, Hiss did not take the Fifth Amendment. He claimed, in fact, that he did not know Chambers. And most people believed him. He was, after all, a well-connected and articulate member of the Eastern establishment, whereas Chambers, while a brilliant editor and writer for Time Magazine, was also a rather unkempt former member of the Communist underground. 

As we now know, thanks to the so-called VENONA decrypts of KGB telegrams intercepted by the U.S. Army and declassified in the mid-1990s, most of the people Chambers identified had, in fact, been sending information to Moscow during the war. Hiss was also involved, though he apparently worked with the Soviet military intelligence agency rather than the KGB and so was only obliquely referred to in VENONA. As the case unfolded, the FBI secretly fed material to Nixon that undermined Hiss’s credibility. Finally, at a confrontation staged by Nixon, Hiss admitted that he may have once known Chambers under another name. Soon thereafter, Chambers upped the ante by dramatically leading HUAC investigators to his Maryland farm, where he pulled undeveloped microfilm from inside a hollowed-out pumpkin. The film contained, he claimed, official documents that Hiss had given him for the Russians. Espionage was now the issue. But since the statute of limitations for it had run out, the government indicted Hiss for perjury on the grounds that he had lied about knowing Chambers in the thirties. Convicted after a second trial, he served three and a half years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.

Besides making the career of Richard Nixon, while conferring clout and respectability to the previously disreputable House Un-American Activities Committee, the trial and conviction of Alger Hiss reinforced McCarthyism by granting credibility to the partisan charges that the government was riddled with reds. By 1949, as the Cold War intensified, those charges seemed to provide explanations for what to many Americans was the otherwise inexplicable expansion of the Communist world after the Second World War. According to the fallacious scenario pushed by the New Deal’s right-wing opponents, Hiss’s presence at the Yalta Conference in 1945 had somehow enabled Stalin to hoodwink an ailing FDR into surrendering China and Eastern Europe. Although the Communist gains in both areas occurred for very different reasons, the Hiss case gave plausibility to the allegations that subversive officials within the State Department had facilitated the spread of Soviet power. And, for politicians like Nixon and McCarthy, Hiss’s downfall represented a populist triumph over an elite establishment that had apparently betrayed their country.

Far East expert Owen Lattimore, who was accused by Senator McCarthy as being Russia's top spy in America, appears before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee for questioning about the Institute of Pacific Relations, Getty

Losing China
By the time McCarthy emerged, the main parameters of the witch-hunt had been established. Ambitious investigators at both the national and local level tried to ferret out supposed subversives everywhere. Mainstream institutions like universities, bar associations, the press, the labor movement and the entertainment industry not only shrank from confronting McCarthyism, but all too often collaborated with it by imposing sanctions on the individuals identified as politically undesirable. The courts provided little protection. And, though President Truman deplored McCarthyism’s depredations against civil liberties, he did little to oppose them especially after the Korean War broke out, and a panicky Congress overrode his veto of the repressive Internal Security Act of 1950.

By then, the Cold War red scare had become a partisan crusade. The Republican Party’s unexpected loss in the presidential election of 1948 encouraged its members to amplify their charges that the Truman administration was soft on Communism. At the same time, a series of untoward events—the detonation of a Soviet nuclear weapon, the Communist victory in China, the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and, in June 1950, the outbreak of the Korean War—made it seem as if the United States was losing the Cold War. And there were many Republican politicians who claimed that a Communist conspiracy within the highest circles of the government was at fault. 

Actually, even before McCarthy took up the issue, the “loss of China” had become a popular trope among the administration’s critics who insisted that a group of China experts within the State Department had betrayed that nation to Mao Zedong. McCarthy joined that chorus in March, 1950, when he named Owen Lattimore, one of the nation’s leading Asian scholars, “the top espionage agent in the United States, the boss of Alger Hiss.” An investigation of the Wisconsin senator’s unfounded charges by a polarized committee chaired by the Democratic senator from Maryland, Millard Tydings, did not tamp them down. On the contrary, not only was Tydings defeated in the 1950 election, but McCarthy’s allegations were revivified when the newly created Senate Internal Security Subcommittee under Senator Patrick McCarran looked into them.

Again, there was an element of plausibility to McCarran’s probe. In the years before universities engaged in area studies, the main source of expertise about Asia was the Institute for Pacific Relations. Its staff did, in fact, contain Communists; and Lattimore had edited its journal. The McCarran committee seized the organization’s records, using them to produce enough supposedly damning evidence about the Communist connections of the Institute’s members and their alleged subversion of America’s China policy to give the misleading “loss-of-China” narrative the credibility that the erratic McCarthy could not. Not long after the Republicans regained the White House in 1953, most of the State Department’s knowledgeable China hands were purged.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg leave federal court after being indicted on charges of espionage in the Klaus Fuchs atomic spy ring, 1953, Getty

The Beginning of the End
Even as McCarthy’s bizarre antics were beginning to erode support for the broader anti-Communist crusade, that crusade continued. Congressional and state investigating committees, FBI interventions, Smith Act prosecutions, loyalty-security programs and so on did not disappear. Still, with a Republican president in the White House, the partisan rancor of the earlier purges abated. Moreover, many Cold War liberals who had originally tolerated the witch-hunt as long as it spared non-Communists, began to turn against it. For many, the clearly perjured testimony of key professional witnesses as well as the denial of a security clearance to the so-called “Father of the Bomb,” the nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, showed that McCarthyism was out of control.

Once Senator McCarthy self-destructed before a national television audience in the spring of 1954, the movement that bore his name no longer dominated domestic politics. The witch hunters had run out of witches, while the Communist Party was essentially defunct, weakened by repression and the 1956 revelations about Stalin’s crimes. The Supreme Court finally began setting limits on the inquisition. Even so, the Cold War Red Scare had not completely disappeared. HUAC’s power had ebbed, but as late as the 1960s, people could still go to prison for contempt if they took the First Amendment before the committee or lose their jobs if they took the Fifth. 

To a certain extent, assessing the legacy of McCarthyism requires looking at things that didn’t happen – the movies that were not made, the books that were not published, the political movements that were not organized. Policies and ideas that had previously been supported by Communists as well as by other leftists and even liberals like President Truman—universal health care, for example—disappeared from mainstream political debates. Leaders of the Civil Rights movement, terrified of red baiting by their opponents, purged their ranks and narrowed their demands. They focused on overcoming the legal barriers to racial equality, while abandoning their earlier struggle against the economic constraints that condemned most African Americans to poverty. And within the government, the loss of its experienced China hands may well have contributed, at least in part, to the missteps that brought on the war in Vietnam.

Could it happen again? Probably not in the same way. The Cold War is over, and Communism is gone. But the demonization of unpopular groups in the name of national security has been present throughout our nation’s history – and still exists today.  McCarthyism was not an extremist movement. It was supported by the main institutions of American life. Were a similar challenge to arise today, would the nation’s political leaders respond to it with more foresight and courage than they did during the McCarthy era? It is by no means clear. After all, despite the stated opposition of much of the American establishment to McCarthy and the movement associated with him, when confronted by a situation that required its members to transform that opposition into a seemingly unpopular action, they almost always caved in.


More than Just a man Author Ellen Schrecker.jpg
Ellen Schrecker

A retired professor of history at Yeshiva University, Ellen Schrecker has written extensively about the Cold War red scare and American universities. Among her books are No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986), Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998), and The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the University (2010). She is currently writing about professors and politics in the 1960s and 70s.


Support Provided by: Learn More