Though the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) peaked with it’s highest number of members in 1940-1941, with 750,000 members, by this area in time it was looked down upon. It had, earlier in the decade, been a successful agent against fascism and a huge help in the advancement and creation of labor unions, and for that reason people were joining it. However, many people were becoming communists unknowingly just by attending meetings where they were given free food (a big draw to people in an era directly following the Great Depression).
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s American’s were very scared that communism would influence our country. This period of time was referred to as ‘the second red scare’. Americans had seen the way that Russia had been transformed by communism, and did not want their country to undergo the same changes. Communism was a scary concept at the time, and it was something that we as a country definitely did not want any part of.
In the late 1930’s, an organization was formed called the House Un-American Activities Community. This community made up of members of the United States House of Representatives, was formed in order to protect Americans against communism influence and was responsible for investigating any allegations that were made about communist activity. Despite this groups efforts the United States was still in heightened fear of Communist overtaking or the possibility of becoming a nation similar to that of Russia’s.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was a US senator from Wisconsin during this time period. He served for ten years, from 1947 until his death in 1957. He is most well-known for being particularly paranoid of communist efforts, regularly accusing people of communist behavior when none existed. He accused large amounts of people, mostly government workers, claiming that they were Soviet spies and communist sympathizers. By 1950, the term ‘McCarthyism’ was coined. The term refers to the practice of accusing people of treason, disloyalty, and other related things with no grounds and little or no evidence. The term is still used today and generally refers to political corruption, in which an important political leader makes false accusations about a certain group of people. A few events took place in 1949 and 1950 that spurred McCarthyism and the second red scare to occur. First, the Soviet Union (a very communist-dominated country) tested an atomic bomb in 1949.
This was much earlier than Americans had expected them to come out with this technology. At this point, we realized that communist countries were more advanced than we had prior thought. In 1950, the Korean War broke out. The United States, along with the UN and South Korea, battled against communist countries, furthering our hatred and fear towards them. In the meantime, many cases of soviet spies came out. More and more ‘Americans’ were found to actually be spies from Russia and the Soviet Union. As the increase of found spies became more prevalent, people continued to point fingers and adopt an accusatory towards many government officials and become abnormally suspicious.
Senator McCarthy made a list of all of the people who he claimed had been involved in communist behavior. This list was called the Black List, and was made up of many writers, artists, government officials, and other people important to society. On February 9, 1950, McCarthy gave a public speech revealing the people on the list. He claimed that 205 people were on this list, but later reduced it to just 57. Though some of the people on the list were in fact engaged in communist behavior, others were simply engaging in lifestyles that McCarthy himself had biases against and lumped into the list. Some of these behaviors included sexual deviance, alcoholism, and political decisions not aligned with McCarthy’s own.
After being found to be on McCarthy’s list, the accused were brought to trial and vigorously questioned. The only way that mercy would be shown to them, regardless of guilt or innocence, was to accuse other people. This led to more and more people being accused and convicted unrightfully and unnecessarily. The effect of these trials was detrimental to people in many professions in the public eye. Many entertainers lost their jobs as a result of the public degradation.
President Dwight Eisenhower decided to take a stand against McCarthyism when the senator began bringing military men into the accusatory trials. McCarthy publically announced that many members of the United States Army were personally involved in communist activity. Eisenhower was very involved in the military, a graduate of West Point himself, and when McCarthy took steps to slander the Secretary of the Army, he felt that it was the final straw and that steps needed to be taken to stop the epidemic. Also, in bringing in the military to his slanderous accusations, it was at this point that McCarthy lost much of his hype and once popular power.
Involving army journalists, Eisenhower ran a story exploiting some of the hidden agendas of McCarthy in December of 1953. In March of 1954, upon Eisenhower’s instructions, vice president Richard Nixon gave a speech indirectly chastising McCarthy. He said, “Men who have in the past done effective work exposing Communists in this country have, by reckless talk and questionable methods, made themselves the issue rather than the cause they believe in so deeply,” (Spartacus).
Following the presidential lead, many leaders in the press began to fight against McCarthyism. People who had wanted to speak out for a long time but had been too afraid were now gaining confidence to do so and momentum was building. Eventually, McCarthy lost the chairmanship of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. Some feel that this marked the end of McCarthyism, and consequently America’s hysterical fear of communism infiltrating the country. However, others feel that this response did not happen as a result of McCarthy’s demotion, and not until the close of the Cold War.
While most support was against McCarthyism in this era, there were few supporters and supporting groups of this institution and its suspicious allegations. Many of these supporters came in the form of women only anti-communist groups. Examples of these groups were Minute Women of the USA and American Public Relations Forum. Another group, which was not only for women, was the American Legion. They were well known veteran supporters who also showed much interest in the spread of McCarthyism.
While these groups made up a large part of the supporters of the McCarthy sequence, the largest amount of help came in the form of the far-right radicals. They generally opposed international relations, specifically the United Nations, and were even against many of the social welfare programs. Particularly those thought out by the new deal, many of these McCarthyism supporters had a general opposition to programs that fought to reduce “the inequalities to the social structure of the United States.”
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