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