Reassessing the Red Scare

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Was Senator Joseph McCarthy a lying, demagogue bent on destroying American civil liberties?  Or was McCarthy instead a determined foe of dangerous Communist spies during the early 1950s?  H.W. Brands calls McCarthy a “virtuoso of the political attack” who “tapped into anxieties current in the American psyche,” but also acknowledges that some of those “anxieties were perfectly rational” (52-53).  Students in History 118 need to review the evidence themselves and offer their tentative conclusions.  What were the principal causes of the intensifying “Red Scare” of the late 1940s and early 1950s?  How should Americans describe this era and what lessons, if any, seem most relevant?  The issue has special relevance for Dickinson College since the school was censured in 1956 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for firing an economics professor (Laurent LaVallee) for invoking the Fifth Amendment when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) committee.  See this article from the Chicago Tribune and also this background from the Lionel Lewis’ book, Cold War on Campus (available through Google Books).  Brands also explains the impact of the Korean War on the Cold War and how containment doctrine began to evolve in dangerous new ways under President Eisenhower.  Students in History 118 should be able to describe and explain the significance of covert operations in the mid-1950s, for example, and special items like the Doolittle report of 1954.

 


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Reassessing the Red Scare — 12 Comments

  1. Reading about the rise of McCarthyism, and the subsequent chaos regarding the potential presence of communism in the government reminded me of an outbreak of a disease. I understand the notion that instilling fear into the American public will encourage a strong sense of American patriotism to safeguard democracy, but McCarthy seems to have taken it a little too far, in that his statistics were not even legitimate, and when asked to disclose them, he wouldn’t. Evidence is the single most important aspect of a claim/argument, and if he could not even provide that, how does that make his argument believable and realistic? It’s also hard for me to take what he says too seriously since he was dubbed a “pathological liar.” If this was known by Congressmen and other American officials at the time (because of his lies about his military experiences etc), how did his statements still have such an impact on the American people? That being said, it was smart of American officials to take some necessary precautions to combat communism while also asserting that democracy would not be lost within America, however I think the tactics were a little off, especially in McCarthy’s case.

  2. McCarthy was a politician looking for ways to get reelected. It seemed like McCarthy played to American fears during the Red Scare to achieve his own political aims. Patterson presented that quote of McCarthy when he has trying to find the main cause for his reelection campaign. “The government is full of Communists. We can hammer away at them” (197). This quote showed that he adopted this cause not to fight the communist spies, but to rid the government of the eastern elite. McCarthy was a Republican senator from Minnesota who was against the Establishment filled with Ivy League educated insiders. Many of his supporters were not only people who feared the infiltration of communism, but also people who harbored resentment towards the elite it government. He was able to use the fears and popular anti-Communist feelings to promote his political future. However this cause ended up being his political downfall as his illegitimacy was exposed.

  3. The Red Scare is one of two major times when the public went hunting for something that was not there. The first time was the Salem Witch Trials, having the same basic principles of looking for something that was not there, trying to weed out the “evil” and finally convicting people on little to no evidence. McCarthy’s witch hunt was so devastating that being accused of being a communist was practically a death sentence (metaphorical not literal, except for the Rosenbergs). Having to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee was a dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t situation in that whatever you said could be twisted to say that you were a red sympathizer but you were just as guilty if you chose to say nothing to the Committee.

  4. The Red Scare was embedded in American Politics as far back as 1919 when Hoover was put in charge of the General Intelligence Division. Attacks on Communists in American politics continued through the 1950s, becoming increasingly intense after WWII. The reason for its emergence in 1919 can be linked to a rise in patriotism. During war-time any dissent against the government can be seen as a threat to the state’s efforts in the war. Civil liberties normally prided by Americans are suspended during wars, a fact that Patterson uses to explain the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. Furthermore, in the 1940s the passage of the Smith Act reflects this attitude since it criminalized any intent or encouragement to overthrow the government. Since the government exaggerated the threat of Communism after WWII, claiming that Communists posed a direct threat to their liberty, Americans responded with a overwhelming anti-Communist attitude.
    The threat supposedly posed by Communists stayed in the political arena, however, since even at the peak of the Red Scare in McCarthy era Patterson claims that only 3% of Americans knew anyone who was a Communist; the average American was not concerned with personal threats from Communists.
    The primary causes of the increase in the Red Scare after WWII was the widespread belief that the USSR was on the brink of creating an arsenal of nuclear weapons as great, or perhaps greater than, Americas. This was unfounded, according to Patterson. Apparently the Soviets were far form being able to fund this kind of aim, and they did not the capacity to make the bomb small enough to actually transport it somewhere to cause a threat. However, while some officials knew this, they failed to correct this assumption. Furthermore, the news that China had been taken over by a communist government seemed like a failure on the part of America in terms of containing communism, making it an encroaching threat on America. The real story was that Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader, was a tyrannical ruler, and the party was composed of “all thieves,” so the civil war in China between the Nationalists and communists inevitably led to the establishment of the communists.
    Anti-communism feelings among Americans were common after these events, and the threat they posed was further exaggerated as the economy prospered. With Americans trying to get get ahead in the 1940s and ’50s any threat to their prosperity was attacked. In this atmosphere, Joseph McCarthy found his spotlight. Patterson describes McCarthy as an untrustworthy, unprincipled politician. He lied throughout his career, and used unethical practices to rise in the political sphere at a time when America was vulnerable and ready to accept any threat from communists.

  5. The event in American history known as the “Red Scare” represents the culmination of the great anxieties experienced by the nation with regards to the actions of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it was the result of the uneasiness many felt over the idea of Communism, which seemed to undermine some of the very principles of democracy. Senator Joseph McCarthy played upon those fears in order to establish a reputation for himself as an enemy of communist beliefs and a protector of capitalist ideas. This may have been for the single purpose of securing his reelection. He clearly had to have known that much of his public assertions were false, but perhaps he truly thought that he was defending American democracy by driving the people as well as the government into action against possible communist encroachment. Whatever his reasons may have been, it could be suggested that what unfolded as a result of the Red Scare was a movement to identify and remove communists from public life. This action may not have been carried out as carefully as it should have, resulting in what may be considered certain abridgments of the rights of citizens. The ramifications of the Red Scare, however, are nothing new. Fear can often lead to actions and decisions that may not seem correct or appropriate in hindsight.

    The expansion of communism into South Korea marked the advent of the first “police action” of the Cold War, as President Truman found himself in the position of ordering a military operation to aid the Republic of Korea in the hopes of halting this advance. The Korean War ensued, which was a dramatic engagement that placed NATO forces against both the regime of North Korea and China. The removal of General MacArthur by President Truman was a particular moment worthy of notice during this affair, as a venerated figure was forcibly moved from his position to the outrage of the American people. However, it could very well be claimed that this action was necessary in order to direct the war more effectively. From a historical standpoint, it could be argued that the war was poorly managed, and ultimately ended in a stalemate that continues to this day.

  6. The Red Scare is one of two major times when the public went hunting for something that was not there. The first time was the Salem Witch Trials, having the same basic principles of looking for something that was not there, trying to weed out the “evil” and finally convicting people on little to no evidence. McCarthy’s witch hunt was so devastating that being accused of being a communist was practically a death sentence (metaphorical not literal, except for the Rosenbergs). Being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee was a dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t situation in that whatever you said could be twisted to say that you were a red sympathizer but you were just as guilty if you chose to say nothing to the Committee.

  7. The fateful day when the Soviets successfully exploded an atom bomb marked the beginning of the cold war. While the USSR lacked long-range abilities with their new weapon, it still managed to bring forth, from the undercurrent of American society, anti-communist sentiments. The concern over the spread of communism was nothing new; however, the bold expansion of communist Russia into Eastern European nations, with their new weaponry, and the fall of China to communism brought the issue to the forefront of American politics and society. The fall of China frustrated many Americans. How could their policy of containment fail? Why could America not prevent bad things from happening? The Chinese revolution demonstrated the continuing encroachment of communism on democracy.
    To fight back against the evil of communism American politics became ever more offensive in its defenses. America chose to enact questionable policies. The Smith Act, which made it a crime to “teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of government by force or violence, represents the beginning of a period of time where the right of all citizens to their civil liberties were questioned. The United States’ foreign policy rapidly militarized due to the passage of Document 68 that led to a vast increase in military spending, which was possible due to the prosperity of America post World War II. Doc. 68 centered on the U.S. and its allies building up their defenses to ensure they would be superior to the communists, which the creators of Doc. 68 viewed as an “aggressive, implacable and dangerous foe that indirectly or directly sought domination of the world.”
    The events of the late 1940s — the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Iron Curtain (1945–91) around Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapon — surprised the American public. They influenced popular opinion about U.S. national security, that, in turn, connected to fear of the Soviet Union atomic-bombing the United States, and fear of the Communist Party of the United States of America taking hold. This fear led to the first amendment to be questioned, through censure and firing of accused communists from educational or public service jobs, and a polarization of intellectuals who were forced to choose between communist, liberal or conservative policies.

  8. One of the more interesting things about the effects of the Red Scare is that when it became obvious that McCarthy was embellishing many of his results, “Communist-hunting” became a much less popular activity. As the Cold War went on, the palpable fear that people had about the Communist/Marxist ideology severely decreased. Marxism was based on a fatalistic idea about what would occur so when the revolutions he predicted stopped occurring and the flaws and inefficiencies of a command based economy were exposed, Marxism really lost its edge.

    The real fear of a Communist revolution that gripped Americans in the 1950s has since faded and now many Americans view Communists as either misguided or good intellectual diversity for America. Now, instead of colleges being a dangerous place to be a Communist intellectual, they seem to be one of the few places they still exist: Angela Davis in the UC system, Bill Ayers at University of Illinois, and others

  9. The rise of Senator McCarthy was so quick and well received by the American public was because he was able to effectively exploit American society’s fears of the spread of communism and Soviet spies. I do not believe his intentions were to impede civil liberties of Americans nor to seek out actual Communist spies. I believe he saw the Soviet threat as nothing more than a way to advance his political agenda and his career, and he was very effective in doing so. If McCarthy accused you of being on his list of communists, it was his word against yours and there was nothing you could do to disprove him. This caused political rivals to shy away from opposing him, as they feared that he would name them as communists. At the end of the day, McCarthyism was just a calculated strategy to advance a political career.

  10. Joseph McCarthy claimed that there were communists in the government and it was dangerous for the United States. He gained a lot of attention when saying this because during the time when the Manhattan project was at play, there were people who were working on the project that were also loyal to the Soviets. As Brands states, “For years American and British intelligence agencies had been tracking Soviet agents, and in January 1950 they got Klaus Fuchs, a German born physicist who had worked on the Manhattan project, to confess to espionage and transmitting atomic information to his Russian handlers.” Therefore, knowing that the Russia now had the information it needed to build an atomic bomb, it was important for the United States government to look out for anyone that might try to sabotage them. However, I think that McCarthy was going overboard because he even mentioned that “the government is full of communists” and he kept trying to get attention from the media and politicians and disrespected certain people including President Truman.
    In addition, the Red Scare was a product of the fact that the Soviets were becoming more powerful and many feared that communism was going to spread all over the world and the United States felt that it had to do something about it, specially after China fell under communist rule.

  11. The rise, albeit brief, of McCarthyism in the United States was rooted in the foreign policy shift from unilateralism to multilateralism that emerged as a result of the Second World War. Under President Truman, America’s political focus ventured abroad with the Truman Doctrine of 1946 and the Marshall Plan of 1947. The United States was no longer centered on isolationism and the introduction of foreign responsibilities initiated a deep-seated fear in the United States. Perhaps a fear that took hold most intensely with the introduction and devastation of the most powerful weapon known to man; a bomb that devastated over 300,000 Japanese Citizens in seconds. Of course, the bomb killed 300,000 “enemies” and ended the war without risking the lives of more American soldiers. No matter the outcome however, when “Little Boy” dropped from the Enola Gay, warfare changed forever. It is impossible to see such destruction, even if your flag was the one waving in the cockpit of the bomber, and not have some hint of fear of the newfound capabilities of wartime. Cementing this fear came the news that the Soviet communists had successfully tested an atomic bomb. The conception that any number of U.S. cities could see the same devastation as Hiroshima or Nagasaki instilled a great anxiety in Americans. Senator Joseph McCarthy played on the fear of the public, specifically the fear of the spread of communism when he interrupted the Republican Women’s Club in West Virginia to announce a great disloyalty of members of the state department. Perhaps with hopes of climbing the political ladder, McCarthy made unconfirmed claims that a great number of State Department members were in support of communism. His potentially unfounded accusations critically point at the state of the public during the mid-1940’s as he gained great bipartisan support by harnessing the real concerns of a restless nation.

  12. Senator Joseph McCarthy was played both of the roles of a lying demagogue and a determined foe of Communism. He took advantage of the Paranoia that was in the lives of the people during this time period. There were Soviet spies in the atomic sanctum, but he often changed his numbers and would really exaggerate. As Brands said, “For years American and British intelligence agencies had been tracking Soviet agents, and in January 1950 they got Klaus Fuchs, a German born physicist who had worked on the Manhattan project, to confess to espionage and transmitting atomic information to his Russian handlers”. This news only elevated the scare in peoples hearts during that time. Senator McCarthy often said that there were Communists in the highest ranks of government in the United States and even believed that there was a possibility that Eisenhower himself was one.

    People were scared of Communism and were beginning to see Containment as a failure because of the fall of China to Mao Zedong. People believed that Communism had spread to China from the Soviet Union and that containment was not working.
    The Soviet Union had two types of interests, National Interests and interests that supported their ideologies. Their two National interests were to acquire Buffer states to protect their borders and to open up and spread to port cities in order to help their economy. Their ideas (Communism) were seen by Americans as pathogens and sometime that was contagious and something that took over people, an Evil in a way.

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