What were the effects of the McCarthy Witch-hunts in the 1950s?

McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’


When the Cold War broke out between the US and the USSR after 1945, there was an intense fear and hatred of Communism by many Americans. “ Better dead than Red” was a popular slogan. Americans looked abroad after 1945 and saw Communism taking over in East Europe (1945- 48), China (1949), Korea (1950). For many it was simple. Communism was taking over the world.

Free speech under threat

President Truman went along with an anti-Communism policy that was popular with US voters. He introduced the Federal Employee Loyalty Program (FELP) in 1947 aimed at combating security ‘risks’ (Communists) from working for the Federal Government. Every person taking on a new job in the civil service or government would be investigated.

Congress set up the House Committee on UN- American Activities (HUAC) that investigated ‘ Communist’ involvement in the film industry, education, unions and the government. Witnesses were supposed to prove their loyalty by naming former Communists they had known, if they didn’t they could face a jail sentence and be ‘blacklisted’ so they couldn’t get a job.

The Hysteria Continues

Anti- Communism became hysterical in 1948 when the Russians ‘Blockaded’ West Berlin in Germany.

The Alger Hiss case.

In 1948, Alger Hiss, a former official of the US State Department (Foreign Affairs) was accused by a former Communist of handing over 200 secret state documents to him and being a communist. Hiss denied both charges, but was sent for prison for 5 years (for perjury- under lying oath), but never convicted for being a Russian spy. He wasn’t a spy! However, it all added to the ‘Reds under the beds’ hysteria.

China and the Soviet ‘A’ bomb

In 1949, two events greatly increased American’s fears of Communism. Firstly, China went Communist under Mao Tse Dong. Secondly, the Russians exploded their first ‘A’ bomb, so America had lost their nuclear monopoly. A year later hysteria peaked, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of selling nuclear secrets to the Russians during the WW2.

Even though Russia was an ally when this happened, they were convicted of treason and executed by the electric chair in 1953. It seemed that ‘Witch- Hunts’ were taking place in America and the scene was set for appearance of Senator Joe McCarthy, the biggest witch- hunter of all.

The McCarthy ‘Witch Hunts’

In 1950, McCarthy, a Republican Senator, claimed he had a list of 205 members of the Communist Party of the US, who worked for the State Department. He never had any evidence, but just waved his list for the cameras.

The HUAC summoned 2,375 men and women, which was enough to cost them their jobs. 400 Americans went to jail – not having a fair trial – what lawyers would risk his career defending suspected communists? McCarthy bullied, threatened and abused witnesses while he accused them of Communist sympathies. With the Korean War raging many Americans believed him.

Soon, however, public opinion turned against him. He made the outrageous claim that the army was infiltrated with communists! With the hearings televised, McCarthy came across as a vicious bully and a liar. By 1954, he was forced out of public life and died three years later, an alcoholic.

The effects of McCarthyism

9,500 civil servants were dismissed and 15,000 resigned; 600 teachers lost their jobs and many fine actors and scriptwriters were unable to work again. Charlie Chaplin, the biggest Hollywood movie star of the pre-war years (and also a Communist) left America in disgust.

The 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act forced organisations to give lists of members (they might be Communists) and the 1954 Communist Control Act banned the Communist Party altogether. All these were legacies of McCarthyism. The biggest effect though, was the anti- democratic atmosphere that McCarthyism created. Anyone who was liberal, a trade unionist, civil rights worker, showed sympathy for the poor, was automatically a ‘Commie’.