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Anti-Communism in the USA. Introduction. There has always been a strong anti-Communist feeling in the USA. After the Second World War this was at its most intense.

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  • There has always been a strong anti-Communist feeling in the USA. After the Second World War this was at its most intense.
  • Senator Joseph McCarthy heightened the anxiety by alleging that the Soviet Union had a conspiracy to get Communist sympathisers into key positions in American life.
  • He argued that the Communists had infiltrated American society.
  • From 1950 to 1954 he led a ‘witch hunt’ to find these Communist sympathisers.
j edgar hoover
J. Edgar Hoover

‘To millions of Americans, Hoover was a hero…he had virtually created the FBI…Hoover became much more than the nation’s top lawman…he [was] the nation’s champion against its most insidious foes…The very name Hoover became synonymous with the safety of the nation, with the core values of American society…’

Anthony Summers

  • Born: January 1, 1895, Washington D.C.
  • Died: May 2, 1972, Washington D.C.
  • He was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States.

Hoover is ‘one of the giants [of American history]…a national symbol of courage, patriotism, and granite-like honesty and integrity.’

Richard Nixon

richard nixon
Richard Nixon
  • Born: January 9, 1913
  • Died: April 22, 1994
  • Was the 37th President of the United States.
  • Became a member of the HUAC committee
  • Became Vice President of the United States in 1952.
  • Resigned as President after the Watergate Scandal.
senator joseph mccarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy
  • Born: November 14, 1908
  • Died: May 2, 1957 (aged 48)
  • Chairperson for federal investigation of Communists in the U.S. government.
  • Served in the United States Marine Corps during WW2.
  • Nicknames
    • Tail-Gunner Joe
    • Low-Blow Joe
mccarthyism and the red scare
McCarthyism and the Red Scare

What do you think of Communists?


Your answer could affect your whole life – your career and your future.

what caused the increase in tensions
What caused the increase in tensions?
  • Relations between the capitalist USA and the Communist USSR had turned sour.
  • The Cold War had started.
  • Both sides were developing powerful new weapons.
  • US agents were spying on the USSR – so it was reasonable for Americans to suppose that the USSR was doing the same.
  • It was naturally a time of suspicion

In 1950 McCarthy was in search of a headline. He got it! He claimed that he had a list of over 200 Communists in the State Department. He had not found these Communists himself. His 200 Communists were from the official report from the FBI’s loyalty board investigations. He claimed there were 57 card-carrying Communists in the government. This was also based on FBI reports. In fact 35 of the 57 had been cleared and the other 22 were still being investigated.

McCarthy confessed that he was amazed by the amount of publicity his comments generated, but he was determined to use his new-found prominence. Democrat Senator Millard Tydings declared that the charges lacked foundation. McCarthy simply attacked Tydings for being un-American.


With elections just around the corner, Republican senators backed McCarthy and in the 1952 US Senate elections the Republicans reaped the benefits. They won many seats. Tydings himself lost his seat to a McCarthy supporter.

McCarthy was on a roll. After the election, President Eisenhower appointed him as head of a White House committee to investigate Communist activists in the government. Throughout 1952 and 1953, McCarthy extended his own investigations and turned his committee into a weapon to increase his own personal power and terrify others. His methods mainly involved false accusations and bullying. He targeted high-profile figures and accused anyone who criticised him of being a Communist.


McCarthy said that General George Marshall (the American general most admired by Winston Churchill and the author of the Marshall Plan) was at the centre of a gigantic conspiracy against the USA. President Eisenhower did virtually nothing to protect his great friend Marshall from these accusations because he did not wasn’t to clash with McCarthy.

Thousands of others found their lives and careers ruined by the witch hunt. False accusations led to their being ‘blacklisted’ which meant that they could not work. over 100 university lecturers were fired as universities came under pressure from McCarthy. The HUAC ‘blacklisted’ 324 Hollywood personalities. Studio bosses such as Walt Disney, Jack Warner and Louis Mayer supported the HUAC and refused to employ anyone who was suspected of having Communist sympathies. They also did their bit to raise the temperature further by producing science-fiction films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which fed the hysteria by introducing the threat of alien invaders – which was clearly supposed to represent the Communist threat to the USA.

the federal bureau of investigation
The Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a strongly anti-Communist director, J Edgar Hoover. He had been a driving force behind the Red Scare after the First World War. In 1947 President Truman let him set up the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. This allowed Hoover’s FBI loyalty boards to investigate government employees to see if they were current or former members of the Communist Party. From 1947 to 1950, around 3 million were investigated. Nobody was charged with spying. But 212 staff were said to be security risks (that is, Communist sympathisers) and were forced out of their jobs.

the house un american activities committee
The House Un-American Activities Committee

From the 1930s, the US Congress had a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). It had the right to investigate anyone who was suspected of doing anything un-American. Un-American mostly meant Communist! To start with, the committee was hardly noticed. But in 1947 is became big news.

The FBI had evidence that a number of prominent Hollywood writers, producers and directors were members of the Communist Party. HUAC called them to be questioned by the committee. They were not government employees. It was not illegal to be a Communist in a free democratic country such as the USA. So when the Hollywood Ten, as they became known, appeared before the committee, they refused to answer any questions. Every time they were asked the standard question: ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’, the pleaded the First Amendment of the US Constitution (which guaranteed all Americans freedom to believe what they wanted) and said that the HUAC did not even have the right to ask the question.

the house un american activities committee1
The House Un-American Activities Committee

They were each jailed for one year for contempt of court because they refused to answer questions. Hollywood studios ‘blacklisted’ the ten, and most of them never worked again in Hollywood. Because the film industry was the highest profile industry in the country, HUAC was suddenly catapulted into front-page news. Now everyone had heard of it.

the purges
The Purges

Loyalty oaths and Boards

  • The federal government required all employees to undergo loyalty checks and take an oath. If employees did not take the oath or were regarded as suspect, they lost their jobs. Loyalty Boards spread to other organisations including universities and schools. Many lost their jobs or were refused employment.

Attorney General’s List

  • The government created an Attorney’s List which by 1948 included seventy-eight organisations regarded as subversive. The list was updated regularly until 1955.
  • According to the historian Caute, the Attorney General’s list was “the primary instrument” of “cold, clinical but deadly repression…” Those organisations that were listed were regarded with great suspicion and it served to deter other organisations from acting in a way that was unpopular with the government.
the purges1
The Purges

Deportations and immigration controls

  • Many potential migrants to the US whose loyalty was regarded as suspect were refused entry to the US. Even migrants who had lived in the US for many years were deported, even if they had acquired US citizenship.

Prosecutions and sentences

  • Individuals and organisations were investigated by committees, e.g. HUAC. Failure to co-operate with the public interrogations resulted in prison for lengthy periods and or the ruin of careers or the organisations.
  • It was not enough for those accused to admit their guilt and repent their sins, they were also required to implicate others they knew to be communists.
  • Typical of the language of the penitents is the black-listed writer and director, Nicholas Bela, who implored the HUAC, “I have to humbly apologise for the grave error which I have committed, and beg of you to forgive me.”
the purges2
The Purges

Travel Restrictions

  • People regarded as dangerous were not given passports and their ability to travel was tightly restricted.
  • The noted actor Edward G. Robinson was unable to have his passport renewed until he had admitted to the HUAC that he had been mistaken in his past political views and was now opposed to all communist ideas and activities.

FBI Campaign

  • The FBI, through its thousands of agents, compiled enormous files on individuals and organisations. Friends and family members were encouraged to inform and report any subversive comments or behaviour.
  • Telephone covernsations were recorded and meetings and homes were bugged.
the purges3

Press witch-hunts

  • Reporters and newspapers tried to outdo each other in the pursuit of alleged communists in the federal public service, State Department, Hollywood, universities or the army. In particular Trade Unions and progressive organisations e.g minority groups were targeted.
  • In 1950, Senator McCarthy at first claimed he knew the identity of 205 comunisits working in the State Department, and then he claimed 54, then 4. He was not able to name them or come up with any convincing evidence.
  • Nevertheless, unofficial blacklists of supposed communists were compiled. The magazine Red Channels regularly named individuals who were thought to be communists. The publicity was enough to ruin a persons career.
  • Some screen writers were able to continue writing scripts under another name. One writer, Dalton Trumbo, even won an Academy Award for a film but when his false name was read out there was no one who came forward to collect it.
the hiss case
The Hiss Case

In 1948 a man called Whittaker Chambers faced HUAC. He admitted to having been a Communist in the 1930s. He also said that Alger Hiss had been a member of his group. Hiss was a high-ranking member of the US State Department. Hiss accused Chambers of lying and Truman dismissed the case. However, a young politician called Richard Nixon (a member of the HUAC) decided to pursue the case. He found convincing evidence that Hiss had passed information to the USSR during the war. Hiss was tried for spying, but he was convicted of perjury in 1950 and spent nearly five years in prison. It is still not known whether Hiss was guilty of passing secrets or not.

the rosenbergs
The Rosenbergs

The Soviet Union developed its own atomic bomb in 1949. This was much sooner than expected. The USA had been sure it would take Soviet scientists four more years. The US government strongly suspected that spies had passed its atomic secrets to the USSR. In 1950 a German-born physicist, Klaus Fuchs, was convicted of passing US and British atomic secrets to the USSR.

The investigation into Fuchs also led to suspicions against Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel. At their trial in March 1951 they denied all the charges against them. But they were found guilty and sentenced to death. They were executed in June 1953.

The evidence that convicted the Rosenbergsappered to be flimsy. However, historians today believe that the Rosenbergs were guilty. They now know of coded telegrams between the Rosenbergs and Soviet agents that began in 1944. The telegrams were eventually published in 1995.

the rosenbergs1
The Rosenbergs

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and executed as spies in 1953. It was claimed they passed nuclear secrets to the Russians. The campaign to save their lives attracted huge attention around the world. Both were given the opportunity to avoid the death sentence to save their lives if they confessed their guilt. They maintained their innocence.

the mccarran act
The McCarran Act

The Hiss and Rosenberg cases helped to lead the McCarran Act, passed by Congress against President Truman’s wishes.

  • All Communist organisations had to be registered with the US government
  • No Communist could carry a US passport or work in the defence industries.

How did the people of the USA react to this Red Scare?

Most of the evidence suggests that they lapped it up. Some were hysterically anti-Communist themselves and welcomed every expose as another victory for American values. Even those who were not violently anti-Communist got up in the drama of it all. Interrogations were filmed and photographed. Just to appear before HUAC could ruin a career. ‘Suspects’ were asked to ‘name names’. If they did not tell, they were suspected of being a Communist. If they did, then those they named were, in turn, investigated.

the end of mccarthyism
The End of McCarthyism

Not everybody approved of McCarthy. In fact, public opinion polls showed that McCarthy never achieved more than a 50 per cent popular approval rating at any time between 1950 and 1954.

  • Many senators spoke up against him, including the Republican Senator Ralph Flanders from Vermont.
  • Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars protested McCarthy’s actions.
  • Quality newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Milwaukee Journal produced sensible and balanced reporting that damaged McCarthy’s credibility.
  • TV journalist Ed Murrow produced a devastating programme on the See It Now series in 1954 that mainly consisted of film of McCarthy’s own statements.
the end of mccarthyism1
The End of McCarthyism

But it was four years before McCarthy finally ran out of steam. In 1954 he turned his attacks on the army. By this time, his accusations seemed ridiculous. He had become an alcoholic. In televised hearings McCarthy was steadily humiliated by the lawyer representing the army, Joseph Welch. At one point, the court burst into applause for Welch when he accused McCarthy of having no decency. McCarthy lost all credibility and was finished as a political force. He died three years later, in 1957.

the arms race
The Arms Race

The Americans had developed their first atomic bomb in 1945. They did not share the secret of their bomb with the USSR, even while they were still allies. When the USA dropped the first bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, 70,000 people were killed instantly. The awesome power of the explosions and the incredible destruction caused by the bombs made Japan surrender within a week. It was clear to both the USA and the USSR that atomic bombs were the weapons of the future. This realisation led both sides into an arms race.

the arms race propaganda and intelligence
The Arms Race: Propaganda and Intelligence

The arms race developed into a propaganda and intelligence war as well as a forum for technological rivalry. Each side was anxious to show the other to be the one building all the bombs. Their own bombs were purely for protection. Thus the need for propaganda.

At the same time, both sides were keen to find out what the other side was up to. Thus the need for intelligence. The USSR tended to use human spies like Rudolf Abel. He worked in New York until he was arrested in 1957. The USA, on the other hand, preferred hi-tech spying using equipment like the U-2.

the u 2 crisis 1960
The U-2 Crisis, 1960
  • In 1950, without permission from President Truman, US Strategic Air Command began spy flights over the USSR. When he found out, Truman banned them because they violated Soviet air space.
  • In 1956 the flights began again, with the agreement of President Eisenhower. This time they used a brand new spy plane called the U-2. This flew so high it could not be shot down by Soviet fighters or by anti-aircraft missiles, but it carried sophisiticated listening devices and such powerful cameras that it could read a newspaper on the ground from 23,000 metres. U-2 spying flights kept the Americans fully informed about Soviet weapons technology through the late 1950s.
the u 2 crisis 19601
The U-2 Crisis, 1960
  • Soviet missiles improved and in May 1960 one of these new missiles shot down a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers. Powers parachuted to safety but was arrested by Soviet soldiers.
  • The USSR paraded Powers on television and accused the USA of spying. The USA at first denied Powers was on a spying mission, but then admitted he was. However, President Eisenhower refused to apologise or to promise there would be no more flights.
  • The incident caused a dramatic downturn in US-Soviet relations.
  • Gary Powers was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet prison, but was exchanged for a captured Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel) in February 1962.
deterrence and mad
Deterrence and MAD

By 1961, both of the superpowers had hundreds of missiles pointed at each other. The USA has more than the USSR, but the advantage did not really because both sides had enough to destroy each other many times over. On each side the theory was that such weapons mad them more secure. The enemy would not dare attack first, because it knew that, if it did, the other would strike back before its bombs had even landed and it too would be destroyed. It would be suicidal. So having nuclear weapons deterred the other side from attacking first. This policy also became known as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Surely no side would dare strike first when it knew the attack would destroy itself too!

did people feel safe
Did people feel safe?

Leaders might regard their nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but other worried that the world was moving into a very dangerous time. For example, an American B-47 bomber crashed in Norfolk, England, in 1957. The resulting fire came within minutes of setting off two nuclear bombs that would have devastated all of East Anglia. In 1962, a US radar station mistook one of its own satellites for an incoming Soviet missile and was minutes away from triggering a full nuclear ‘response’ attack on the USSR.

Of course, governments did not tell their people about these incidents – both Soviet and US leaders were very secretive about their weapons. But they could not hide the big issue – that the nuclear arms race seemed to have raised the stakes so high that one suicidal leader, one poor decision or (most worryingly of all) one small and innocent mistake could trigger a catastrophe that could destroy Europe, the USA and the Soviet Union within minutes.

did the people feel safe
Did the people feel safe?

“Nuclear warfare is an utter folly, even from the narrowest point of view of self-interest. They spread ruin misery and death throughout one’s own country as well as that of the enemy is the act of madmen…The question every human being must ask is ‘can man survive?’

Betrand Russell, a leading member of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

It did not help to reassure people when advice such a nuclear fallout shelter is applied. Fear of ‘the bomb’ was a common feature of life in 1950s and 1960s America. The arms race was a topic of everyday conversation. Some people protested against the arms race. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the team which developed the atom bomb, opposed the H-bomb. He felt it was wrong to develop a more powerful bomb in peacetime. Others protested at the vast amounts being spent on weapons. But the most common feelings were helplessness and fear. People wondered whether this was the end. Where they the last generation to walk this planet? Would nuclear warfare signal the end of the world?