McCarthyism and the Red Scare: 
Anti-Communism in the United States
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources



    In the 1940's and 1950's, an anti-Communist movement swept the United States of America.  Fueled by the anti-Communist actions of Congress, particularly a Senator from Wisconsin by the name of Joseph McCarthy, the movement escalated and many people lost their jobs as a result of various blacklists.  Congressional hearings, both in front of HUAC and McCarthy's Senate committee were a study in organized persecution.  The actions taken during the "Red Scare" were eventually given the general name McCarthyism.

Historical Background

    In1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, heralding a socialist system of government.  In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution brought a Communist government to power in Russia.  With the USSR firmly in its control, the Communist Party began to spread out to other nations.  The American Communist Party began in 1919.  By 1929 it had 7,000 members, and it reached its peak during the World War II alliance with the USSR at which time it had some 75,000 members.  The persecution of Communism in the United States, suspended for a few years during the wartime alliance, began at the same time as the party.  During the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his special assistant J. Edgar Hoover used the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute Communists in America.  Hoover would eventually become director of the FBI and play an important, though mostly secret, role in later Communist prosecutions.

    Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, Communists in America lived a relatively peaceful but secretive life.  A network of front groups for the party sprang up all over the country, and party members began to work their way into unions, universities, and, most of all, Hollywood.  They opposed Hitler and fascism but supported Roosevelt's New Deal programs.  In 1939, when Russia signed a pact with Hitler, the Communists flip-flopped and began to criticize Roosevelt's foreign policy.  The age of McCarthyism would have most likely started at that point if World War II had not intervened.  In 1941 the US and the USSR became allies in the war against Hitler's Germany.  For the next few years Communists were not persecuted.  In fact, they became patriots in support of the war effort.  When World War II ended and the Cold War began, persecution of Communists in America moved into full swing.

Research Report

    On November 14, 1908, Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, Wisconsin.  He attended Marquette University, began practicing law, and was elected in 1939 to the position of circuit-court judge.  At the time, no one imagined that this man would give his name to the largest witch-hunt in American history.

    Although the name McCarthyism is given to all of the anti-communist activities in the U.S. during the 1940’s and 1950’s, this is technically a misnomer because the Senator from Wisconsin did not start the movement.  In fact, the phenomenon known as McCarthyism began before Joseph McCarthy arrived in Washington.  The crusade against Communism was lead in the government by The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC.  It was created in 1938 on a temporary basis to investigate the activities of subversives in the United States, particularly Communists and Fascists, and in 1945 it became a permanent committee.  Although the committee was intended to prosecute all suspicious activities, the prevalent anti-Semitic feelings of the committee members meant that certain groups were singled out over others.  For example, the Ku Klux Klan was not investigated because its activities were said to be a part of American heritage.

It was generally acknowledged by Communists at all levels that film was an important media for communicating ideas to the masses.  Therefore, in 1930, V.J. Jerome and Stanley Lawrence, top party leaders in the United States, went to Hollywood, film capital of the world, to start a branch of the party there.  As the party grew, many front groups developed around it, such as the Motion Picture Artists Committee, the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.  In 1938, members of the Anti-Nazi League formed the Committee of 56 to support pressure against Germany.  This group included many prominent Hollywood figures, including Spencer Tracy, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, and Groucho Marx.  They were renamed the Hollywood League for Democratic Action after the pact with Germany

    It was also in Hollywood that HUAC started its campaign against Communism.  In 1947, J. Parnell Thomas, a democrat from New Jersey, became chairman of the committee.  That same year, the committee questioned a group of forty-one film industry workers who became known as “friendly witnesses,” and between them they named nineteen people believed to hold leftist views.  Of those nineteen, eight, including director Elia Kazan, cooperated with the committee when called to testify, German-born playwright Bertolt Brecht left the country and returned to Germany, and ten refused to cooperate.  This last group became known as the Hollywood Ten and included Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie.  When they were called to testify before HUAC, they called upon their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to say anything.  It was later discovered that their apparently noble refusal to talk was based on the fact that they had testified in California that they were not members of the party so to now affirm that they were actually Communists would expose them to perjury charges.  It was not principle but self-preservation that motivated them.  As a result of their actions, many of them were jailed and all lost their jobs.  In 1950, three former FBI agents and a right-wing television producer published a pamphlet called Red Channels listing the names of 151 writers, directors and performers claimed to have been members of subversive organizations.  The blacklist eventually grew to over 320 names, including Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, Arthur Miller, and Orson Welles.  Many others were fired without being on the blacklist simply as a result of being called to testify before HUAC.

    Although the writers, directors, and actors who were blacklisted are often portrayed as victims of false persecution, the truth is that the Communist Party was very active and very influential in Hollywood.  At one point they controlled the Hollywood Writer's Mobilization, which included the Screen Writers Guild, the Radio Writers Guild, the Screen Publicists Guild, the Screen Cartoonists Guild, the publicists, story analysts, and the Los Angeles branch of the American Newspaper Guild as well as various other groups and unions.  During the war, the Hollywood Communists maintained a blacklist against anti-Communist writers and performers.  The Communist Party also organized the Conference of Studio Unions, in an effort to control all of Hollywood labor. Conference leader Herb Sorrell tried to force concessions by shutting down the studios and for a time it was warfare in the streets. More than 5,000 CSU members took over part of Burbank in October of 1945. The Communists attacked and blacklisted actors who crossed picket lines during the jurisdictional disputes of 1945, handing out pamphlets saying that "star" was "rats" spelled backwards. CSU supporters like Katharine Hepburn read angry speeches written by Dalton Trumbo. When the Screen Actors Guild under Ronald Reagan approved the policy of crossing the picket lines, CSU goons threw hot coffee in actors' faces, torched cars, and dragged people out of cars and beat them.

    One of the most disturbing facets of McCarthyism was the deaths that resulted from the fear of Communism engendered by the actions of Congress.  In 1945 Elizabeth Bentley, a former Communist spy, went to the FBI with a list of eighty names of people she claimed were Russian spies.  Although much of what she claimed was later proved to be false, her accusations led to the investigation of David Greenglass.  Greenglass accused his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.  The pair was convicted of espionage and given the especially harsh sentance of death.  Although they were offered the option of naming names to escape the death penalty, they refused and on June 19, 1953, McCarthyism created its first martyrs.

    The anti-Communist forces, including Congress, the American Legion, and the FBI, used a variety of tactics to prosecute Communists.  In October, 1949, Eugene Dennis and twelve leaders of the party were arrested for violating the Alien Registration Act of 1940 and in October, 1949, after a nine month trial, eleven members were convicted of violating the act. This act made it illegal for anyone in the United States to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government. The law also required all alien residents in the United States over 14 years of age to file a statement of their personal and occupational status and a record of their political beliefs.  Over the next two years another forty-six members were arrested and charged with advocating the overthrow of the government.

    In 1950, Joseph McCarthy appeared on the anti-communist scene.  In a speech at Wheeling on February 9, 1950, he attacked Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, and revealed a list of known Communists in the State Department.  This list was by no means a state secret and had, in fact, been published by the Secretary of State in 1946.  Also in 1946, McCarthy was first elected to the United States Senate.  McCarthy was not involved with HUAC, it being a House committee; instead he was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  In this position, he was able to call before the committee a number of suspected or accused communists.  Those that refused to cooperate with the investigation were sometimes sent to jail for contempt or more often were fired from their job.  Even some witnesses who cooperated with the committee members lost their jobs simply for being called to testify.  McCarthy couldn’t do all of this on his own, however.  Roy Cohn, the chief counsel to the committee, and David Schine, Cohn’s chief consultant, aided him. Also invaluable in the prosecution of Communists was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The FBI was instrumental in providing information on party activities and members to both McCarthy and HUAC.  After the State Department accusations, McCarthy targeted anti-American books in American libraries.  His investigation into the Overseas Library Program resulted in approximately 30,000 different books being removed from library shelves.  In 1953, Senator McCarthy began to look into Communism in the military.  In the process, he attempted to discredit Robert Stevens, the Secretary of the Army.  As a result, the Army leaked to anti-McCarthy reporters that he had abused congressional privilege by trying to prevent David Schine from being drafted and attempting to get him special privileges when he was drafted.  The story was published on December 15, 1953, the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s influence and power.  The televised Army-McCarthy hearings helped to expose the Senator’s methods and on December 2, 1954 his colleagues censured him for conduct “contemptuous, contumacious, and denunciatory” by a vote of 67 to 22.  He also lost the chairmanship of the Committee on Government Operations and with it his influence and power.  Joseph McCarthy died on May 2, 1957 in Bethesda Naval Hospital from cirrhosis of the liver, the result of his alcoholism.

Historical Significance

    As a result of the division inflicted by the McCarthy era, the Communist Party in America died out in the late 1950’s.  Actually, it was a relatively mild persecution in comparison to the actions of Hitler and Stalin.  Only a small percentage of people lost their jobs and only two people, the Rosenbergs, lost their lives.  The legacy of these events remains, however, not in what happened but what didn’t.  The social reforms, unions, books, and movies that didn’t develop because of fear are the price that America paid for this period in its history.  Later movements, such as the persecution of political dissenters during the 1960’s and 1970’s, also trace their roots back to McCarthyism.  Today the term has come to mean any occasion of unjust persecution of an entire group.


Fried, Richard M. Men Against McCarthy. New York: Colombia University Press, 1976
Heale, M. J. McCarthy’s Americans: Red Scare Politics in State and Nation, 1935-1965.  London: Macmillan Press  Ltd., 1998
Latham, Earl, ed. Problems in American Civilization V.86.  "The Meaning of McCarthyism, 2nd Edition" ; Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1973
Schrecker, Ellen.  The Age of McCarthyism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994
Steinberg, Peter L.  The Great “Red Menace:” United States Prosecution of American Communists, 1947-1952. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984

Web Resources an excellent overview of the subject, events, and people an article on the presence of the Communist Party in Hollywood the Congressional biography of Joseph McCarthy this site has a useful interactive timeline the text of a speech given by an expert on McCarthyism about her own experiences with a loyalty oath transcript of a PBS program on the blacklist a variety of informative links on McCarthyism

Web page author: Gretchen Sauvey