Post-War Domestic Affairs 1: The Red Scare

I. Domestic affairs in the US in the post-war years were dominated by the new international situation facing the country: leadership of the Western world facing a seemingly increasingly powerful and bitter enemy—Soviet Communism. 

A. Despite this, the 1950’s marked the beginning of a period of profound social change that had little to do with international affairs. 

II. When it became clear that the post-war world would be one split into hostile camps—the American and Soviet camps—a second Red Scare developed in the US that was even more sinister than the one that had occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. 

A. The US Congress set up its “House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 to investigate the activities of the Communist Party in the United States. 

1. Its first target was the Hollywood movie industry—many conservatives in the US believed that Hollywood was making too many “un-American” movies for it to be coincidence—they were convinced that communists had gained control of several studios. 

a. A parade of writers, producers, and actors were brought before the committee and asked questions about their political beliefs—if they refused to answer they were sent to jail for “contempt” of Congress. 

b. Hollywood, trying to protect its public image, created a “blacklist” of actors, etc. who had “suspicious loyalty.” Many acting and writing careers were ruined. 

2. The most shocking investigation was of Alger Hiss, a high-ranking member of the State Department. Whittaker Chambers, a self-avowed communist agent, told HUAC in 1948 that Hiss had passed classified documents to him in 1937. He produced the documents on microfilm and though Hiss could not be tried for espionage because the statute of limitations had expired, he was imprisoned for lying to Congress. 

a. Hiss proclaimed his innocence and was supported by the leading Democratic figures of the period—his conviction discredited a whole generation of young, liberal bureaucrats and also seemed to provide evidence that the communists had actually infiltrated the government at very high levels. 

B. The Truman Administration added fuel to the Red Scare by implement a Federal Loyalty Program. Federal workers were screened by “loyalty boards” who were given the power to dismiss employees who showed “the slightest suspicion” of disloyalty. By 1951, 2000 federal employees had resigned and 250 were dismissed. 

C. In 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act which required all communist organizations to register with the government and publish their records. 

1. It also created a whole new group of crimes that were vaguely described (e.g. “fomenting revolution”), prohibited communists from working at defense plants and denied them passports. Members of “subversive organizations” from overseas were denied visas to enter the country. 

2. Truman vetoed the bill, but the Congress easily overrode his veto.  

D. The most sensational case of the period was the Rosenberg case. The US was very surprised by how quickly the Russians had been able to develop the nuclear bomb and was convinced that someone had stolen the secrets of its manufacture and had given them to the Russians. 

1. The investigation focused on an obscure couple in New York, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who the government was convinced were the masterminds behind the conspiracy. Despite rather weak evidence and their vehement denial of guilt, the Rosenbergs were found guilty and were executed in 1953.  

E. Along with all of these events, China had fallen to Mao in 1949  and North Korea had invaded South Korea, turning the Cold War into a hot one. The country felt as though it was under siege from communist attack. 

1. The situation was ripe for the rise of Joseph McCarthy, a first-term Senator from Wisconsin who was looking for an issue that would gain him national attention. 

2. In February 1950, McCarthy made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in which he proclaimed that he was holding a list of 205 know communists currently working in the US State Department. It was shocking to the American people, to say the least. 

3. McCarthy used his seat in the Senate to launch a series of investigations of the State Department and many other branches of the executive department, empowering his aides to search offices and embassies worldwide. His investigations, led, among other things, to the firing of virtually the entire group of China experts in the US State Department. 

4. McCarthy quickly became a household name in America, and he ruined the careers of many good men—even though in three years of investigation he did not prove a single case of a federal employee with communist ties. 

5. McCarthy dominated the news and led the campaign against communism until 1956. After accusing the US Army of “coddling the communists” hearings were held and televised nationally. On TV, McCarthy was shown to be crude and out of control, in contrast to the Army representative who, at one point said to him, “Have you no decency, sir?” McCarthy was censured by the Senate for “conduct contrary to Senate traditions.” He died of acute alcoholism in 1957.