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McCarthyism, named after Joseph McCarthy, was a period of intense anti-communism, also known as the (second) red scare, which occurred in the United States from 1948 to about 1956 (or later), when the government of the United States actively persecuted the Communist Party USA, its leadership, and others suspected of being communists. After the allegations that both Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White and FDR advisor Alger Hiss were Soviet agents, loyalty tests were required for government and other employment and lists of subversive organizations were maintained.

From the viewpoint of many of the conservative American citizens at the time, the suppression of radicalism and radical organizations in the United States was a struggle against a dangerous subversive element controlled by a foreign power that posed a real danger to the security of the country, thus justifying extreme, even illegal measures. From a radical viewpoint it was probably seen as class warfare, particularly by the actual communists targeted. From the viewpoint of people who were caught up in the conflict for simply being objectionable (but certainly not communist spies), it was a massive violation of civil and Constitutional rights.

Another major element of McCarthyism was the internal screening program on federal government employees, conducted by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. This comprehensive program vetted all federal government employees for Communist connections, and employed evidence provided by anonymous sources whom the subjects of investigation were not allowed to challenge or identify. From 1951, the program's required level of proof for dismissing a federal employee was for "reasonable doubt" to exist over their loyalty; previously it had required "reasonable grounds" for believing them to be disloyal.

The hearings conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy gave the Red Scare the name which is in common usage, but the "Red Scare" predated McCarthy's meteoric rise to prominence in 1950 and continued after he was discredited by a Senate censure in 1954, following his disastrous investigation into the U.S. Army which started on April 22 of that year. McCarthy's name became associated with the phenomenon mainly through his prominence in the media; his outspoken and unpredictable nature made him ideal as the figurehead of anti-communism, although he was probably not its most important practitioner.

Charlie Chaplin was one person accused of un-American activities, and the FBI was involved in arranging to have his re-entry visa cancelled when he left the States for a trip to Europe in 1952. In effect, his American film career was over despite not being found guilty of any offence. Walt Disney worked closely with the FBI at this time (and is described in FBI files as a "Special Agent contact"), but himself came under suspicion at one stage. His testimony before the House Un-American Activites Committee on October 24th, 1947 was mainly used to denounce people in his company who he probably felt were or might become commercial threats to his operations.

The most publicly visible elements of McCarthyism were the trials of those accused of being communist agents within the government. The two most famous trials were those of Alger Hiss (whose trial actually began before McCarthy started brandishing his lists, and who was not in fact convicted directly of espionage, but of perjury) and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed for handing over American nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Such trials typically relied on information from informers and accomplices, such as Whittaker Chambers (whose testimony led to the downfall of Hiss) and the three co-conspirators whose confessions and testimony were vital to the Rosenberg trial, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greengrass.

McCarthy's anticommunist crusade faltered in 1954 as his hearings were televised, for the first time, allowing the public and press to view firsthand his controversial tactics. The press also started to run stories about how McCarthy ruined many people's lives with accusations that were in some cases not sufficiently backed up by evidence. Famously, he was asked by the chief attorney for the Army, Joseph Welch, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" McCarthy suffered a backlash in public opinion and was investigated and then censured by the Senate for not cooperating with the investigating committee, and for publicly calling them the "involuntary agent" and the "attorneys-in-fact" of the Communist Party. After the censure, McCarthy lost his other committee chairmanship, and reporters stopped filing stories about his claims of continuing communist conspiracies. He faded from the spotlight overnight. McCarthy died in office of hepatitis, probably caused by alcoholism, in 1957. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthyism [Aug 2004]

I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hands.

It was 1950. Senator Joe McCarthy announced that he had the names of 205 Communists working the in State Department. The first two members of the Hollywood Ten started serving prison terms for refusing to answer questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in a cheap Mickey Spillane thriller, hero Mike Hammer tells a friend:

You know what, Lee, I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hands. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it. I pumped slugs in the nastiest bunch of bastards you ever saw . . .they were Commies, Lee. They were red sons-of bitches who should have died long ago. . . .

Witch hunts are about images and social control. They have typically occured during times of social upheaval as a way of re-affirming normative boundaries or providing social unity in the face of a perceived threat. Similarly, in the 1950s, the imagery of good against evil was played out in media portrayals, political rhetoric, public ideology, and legislation. In both, the public was whipped into a paranoid frenzy by the creation of mysterious alien demons, in which the ends justified the means in removing the scourge from the public midst. --Jim Thomas and Gordon Meyer via http://www.soci.niu.edu/~jthomas/papers/jt.joe [1990|Jul 2005]

During the presidency of Harry Truman, Joseph McCarthy's national profile rose meteorically after his Lincoln Day speech of February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia.

McCarthy's words in the speech are a matter of some dispute, as they were not reliably recorded at the time, the media presence being minimal. It is generally agreed, however, that he produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of known communists working for the State Department. McCarthy is quoted to have said "I have here in my hand a list of 205 people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department". McCarthy stated that he referred to 57 "known Communists," the number 205 referring to the number of people employed by the State Department who, for various security reasons, should not be. The exact number stated later became a matter of some importance when it was used as the basis of an accusation of perjury against McCarthy. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_McCarthy#Senator [Jul 2005]

see also: communism - pulp - 1950s - USA - McCarthyism - witch hunts - politics

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