Learn about the Rosenberg trial, HUAC, and Joseph McCarthy.

Overview

  • Revelations that spies in the US atomic program had passed secrets to the Soviet Union set off a nationwide panic that communist spies might be infiltrating many American institutions.
  • Allegations that Hollywood was rife with communists led the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to investigate many actors, writers, and directors during the 1950s. Alleged communists were placed on a blacklist and barred from working in Hollywood.
  • Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of this widespread paranoia to advance himself politically by accusing State Department employees of communist leanings. McCarthy's accusations were unsubstantiated, and the Senate eventually censured him.

Red fears

In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device, ending the United States' short reign as the sole atomic power on Earth. The entry of the Soviets into the atomic club made Americans nervous, not to mention a little suspicious: how did the USSR get the bomb so fast?1^1
When it came to light that Soviet spies in the US atomic program had passed secrets to Russia, Americans began to worry that spies might be lurking in every corner of society. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were several highly-publicized espionage trials that convicted leading scientists and government figures of espionage, culminating in the 1953 execution of scientist Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel for passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia. These convictions served to justify fears that spies could be active throughout the country.2^2
In this atmosphere of mistrust, a broad range of institutions rushed to root out suspected communists from their ranks. The US government stepped up loyalty programs and purged itself of anyone deemed a security threat. Individuals believed to be particularly susceptible to bribery or blackmail, such as debtors or homosexuals, were summarily dismissed. Schools and universities fired teachers who refused to swear an oath that they were not communists. Even civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League moved quickly to rid themselves of communists, lest they be accused of subversion.3^3
Although it is true that Soviet spies were at work in the United States (recently declassified documents reveal that Julius Rosenberg was indeed sending atomic secrets to the Russians, though Ethel was innocent), only a tiny fraction of those who lost their positions were actually connected with the USSR in any way.4^4

HUAC

First formed in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or HUAC, was a special committee in the US House of Representatives tasked with investigating subversive individuals and organizations. In the 1950s, HUAC turned its attention to hunting reds (a slang term for communists, associated with the red flag of the Soviet Union).5^5
Influenced by a pamphlet called Red Channels, which alleged that communists had infiltrated the entertainment industry and intended to use the suggestive power of media to spread propaganda to American audiences, in 1950 HUAC began investigating Hollywood figures. Red Channels charged 151 actors, writers, and directors with having ties to the Communist Party. All of them were immediately blacklisted, whether or not the charges were substantiated. Studios refused to hire anyone on the blacklist, fearing backlash from sponsors and audiences, destroying the careers of many talented entertainers.6^6

Joseph McCarthy

Some politicians also profited from this Red Scare, notably Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Fearful that his weak record in the Senate would prevent his reelection, McCarthy cast about for an issue that would shore up his image to voters. He seized on communism. At a meeting of Republican women in 1950, McCarthy brandished a sheath of papers and declared that he had in his hand "a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department."7^7
In the US Senate chamber, Senator Joseph McCarthy points at a map of the United States labeled "Communist Party" while Chief Army Counsel Joseph Welch sits at a table with his hand on his head. A group of onlookers sits watching the proceedings.
Senator Joseph McCarthy (right) interviewing Chief Army Counsel Joseph Welch (left) during the Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954. Image courtesy US Senate.
McCarthy's allegations shocked the nation. Finding himself in the spotlight, McCarthy held hearings in the Senate, relying on innuendo and hearsay to condemn members of the State Department of communist ties. For more than four years, McCarthy railed against supposed communists, eastern "establishment" Democrats, and homosexuals. He never produced a shred of real evidence against anyone, but even those powerful enough to stop him were afraid McCarthy would turn his accusations against them if they spoke out. "I will not get in the gutter with that guy," President Eisenhower reportedly said of McCarthy, thus leaving McCarthy to operate without challenge.8^8
McCarthy finally went too far in 1954 when he initiated hearings against the US Army. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings showcased McCarthy's increasingly erratic behavior and reliance on guilt-by-association rather than evidence. In December 1954 the US Senate voted to censure McCarthy.9^9
McCarthy died of complications of alcoholism less than three years later, but use of the term McCarthyism to describe the practice of making unsubstantiated accusations has lived on.10^ {10}

What do you think?

Did the threat of Soviet espionage justify the reaction from HUAC and McCarthy?
What was the role of media (movies, radio, and especially television) in the rise and fall of the Red Scare?
Do you think President Eisenhower was right not to interfere in McCarthy's witch-hunt?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 852.
  2. See "The Rosenberg Case" and "Alger Hiss," Digital History, 2014.
  3. See Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 152; James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 184-185.
  4. For Ethel Rosenberg's probable innocence, see "The Rosenberg Case," Digital History 2014. James Patterson estimates that during the eight years of the Red Scare, several thousand people lost their jobs, hundreds were jailed, and more than 150 were deported. See Patterson, Grand Expectations, 204.
  5. The acronym does not match the name of the committee; consequently it is often also called the House Un-American Activities Committee. For HUAC's establishment, see "Containment at Home," OpenStax College US History CNX, 2015.
  6. See "Anti-Communism During the Early 1950s," Digital History, 2014.
  7. Patterson, 196-197.
  8. Kennedy and Cohen, 866.
  9. Bureau of International Information Programs, Outline of US History, (US Department of State, 2011), 266.
  10. Kennedy and Cohen, 866-867.
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