Red Scare America
The History Cat Classroom
Fear of communism is as American as bad reality TV shows. Before 1945 talk of a communist plot to take over the world might have seemed like crazy talk but all that changed in 1946 when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin delivered a speech to Communist Party members in Moscow declaring communism and capitalism to be incompatible. To the anti-communists the writing was on the wall: World War 3 was just around the corner. Soviet actions in Europe from 1945-49 seemed to confirm this as one country after another was forced to accept communist puppet governments in rigged elections backed by Soviet tanks. Berlin and Germany became flashpoints between the two superpowers. Then the fight against communism took a turn for the worse in 1949. The Chinese communists had won their civil war, bringing one-quarter of the world’s population under the red flag. Communist uprisings followed in Korea and Vietnam. And if this onslaught of bad news wasn’t enough, Americans totally lost it when word broke that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb later that year. Nuclear weapons were now in the hands of a madman who had an aggressive streak like a wolverine. The Cold War turned the world into a battleground between communism and capitalism and in 1949 many Americans believed that they were losing. The political atmosphere was ripe for a witch hunt.
The only problem was that not only could Senator McCarthy never seem to be able to produce the actual list of names, but the number of communist suspects kept changing every time he told the story. In Denver a reporter asked McCarthy to see the infamous list of names. McCarthy replied that he would be happy to but he had left it in his other jacket. From there he flew to Salt Lake City where he told reporters for the Reno Gazette that he was composing a list of fifty seven “card-carrying Communists” to deliver to President Truman. The reporter happened to glance at the list and saw the notation “Howard Shipley: HARVARD ASTR”. He asked the senator about what the notation meant to which McCarthy casually replied “Harvard Astrologer”. Like any reporter worth his salt he phoned Harvard to investigate. What he learned was that McCarthy was someone who didn’t bother himself with little things like fact-checking. The Harvard Professor that had made McCarthy’s ‘commie list’ turned out to be Harlow Shapley, a professor of astronomy. It’s kind of amazing that McCarthy hadn’t caught this rather obvious error as astrology hasn’t been taught in any university since the Middle Ages. But maybe, the Senator got Harvard mixed up with Prof. Trelawney from Hogwarts, in which case that would’ve been awesome.
On February 20, 1950 McCarthy returned to the Senate with a marathon five hour-long speech in which he claimed to have identified 81 “loyalty risks” currently working in various ranks of government and the military. When pressed to reveal his sources McCarthy refused and chose to remain vague about the details of who the individuals were or what risk they actually posed to the United States. Senator Millard Tydings convened the “Tydings Committee” to investigate the charges brought by Senator McCarthy. McCarthy continued to avoid demands that he produce actual proof and instead went on the offensive. Tydings quickly denounced McCarthy as “a fraud and a hoax” but typical of politicians the situation divided along party lines as Republicans rallied around the Senator from Wisconsin accusing the Democrats of not just being soft on communism but part of a treasonable conspiracy against the United States.
The McCarthy Era was just one act in a much bigger circus. In October 1947, the Second Red Scare burst onto the public stage when seventy-nine members of the Hollywood film industry were subpoenaed by HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) to answer charges that they had been planting communist propaganda in American films. Ten of those summoned before Congress stood firm and refused to answer questions about their political affiliations believing that their First Amendment right to free speech and association would shield them. It did not. The “Hollywood Ten”, as they came to be known, were cited for contempt of Congress, fined $1000 and handed jail sentences ranging from six months to one year. In an effort to distance themselves from the taint of communism and thus avoid offending moviegoers, Hollywood Executives and the Screen Actor’s Guild blacklisted actors and writers who refused to sign loyalty pledges. Once your name appeared on the infamous Hollywood Blacklist it became impossible to find work. Conservative actors like Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney cooperated and named names of suspected Hollywood communists.
The Second Red Scare spread like a cancer throughout every aspect of American life. In 1947 President Harry Truman, to deflect charges that he and his fellow Democrats were soft on communism, issued Executive Order 9835 requiring federal government employees to take a loyalty oath that they had no communist sympathies. State governments and universities followed suit. Soon most private employers were requiring background checks and loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. The right to privacy became a joke as people’s private lives came under scrutiny. Being a member of the Communist Party was an obvious red flag but membership in liberal book clubs, workers unions, civil rights organization could all get you get you sacked and blacklisted. California and New York were just two states who passed laws that required teachers to take loyalty oaths. The fear was that communists were secretly working in America’s public education system indoctrinating the impressionable minds of America’s youth. Teachers were summoned before committees to answer charges of secretly being communists. Those who pleaded the fifth amendment were, of course, fired and blacklisted. Thousands of teachers were swept up in the net, one even committed suicide after being pulled out of her classroom by FBI agents and questioned. The anti-commie hysteria took some strange and absurd twists as libraries pulled from their shelves children’s books like “Robin Hood” with its message of robbing from the rich to give to the poor. It didn’t matter if you were cleared of charges or not. Once you were labeled a “communist sympathizer” your career was over. During the Hundreds more would be summoned before Congress to answer the infamous question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party”. And even though it was perfectly legal to be a communist those who ended up being labeled “reds” soon found their lives turned upside down. The FBI aggressively tapped their phones and monitored their movements. Friends, neighbors, and family were questioned about the loyalty of the accused. In the minds of most Americans, a simple accusation was as good as a guilty verdict because “guilty people don’t get investigated by the government.”
To be fair, the threat of espionage and sabotage wasn’t all ghost stories and anti-communist paranoia. The reality is that enemy nations spy on each other to gather intel and ward off threats to national security. In the late 1940s and 50s, a number of high profile arrests exposed several Soviet agents working inside the United States, some in the highest levels of the State Department. In August 1948 Alger Hiss, a rising star in FDR’s New Deal era was summoned before HUAC to answer charges that he was a Soviet agent. Hiss had been named by Whittaker Chambers a confessed agent of the Soviets. Hiss denied the charges and because his reputation was so clean many dismissed the accusations as lies. But French intelligence combined with the discovery of the “pumpkin papers”, five rolls of film hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin on Chamber’s farm that contained government documents, was damning evidence against Hiss. Hiss couldn’t be convicted of espionage because the statute of limitations had run out but he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to two consecutive five-year prison sentences. Hiss spent the rest of his life trying to prove his innocence. Two years later British intelligence arrested Klaus Fuchs for handing over atomic bomb plans to the Soviets. Fuchs claimed that as a fellow scientist we had no right to keep secrets from our Allies.
Then America was rocked by a bombshell. A mousy couple from Brooklyn, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put on trial in March 1951 on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. Looking more like D&D nerds than Soviet spies, the Rosenbergs had been accused of passing along technical information such as radar components, advanced electronic devices, and nuclear secrets to their Soviet handlers. The Rosenberg’s were also accused of recruiting other intelligence assets into their spy ring such as Ethel’s brother David Greenglass. Greenglass, as a machinist working at Los Alamos-- a top-secret atomic research facility in New Mexico--, testified that he had been providing sketches of atomic bombs which he delivered to Julius which his sister Ethel typed up in their Brooklyn apartment. Despite the flimsy evidence, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death by the electric chair which was carried out on June 18, 1953. The truth about the Rosenberg’s wouldn’t fully come out until after the Soviets released their top secret documents in 1991 showing that the Brooklyn duo had in fact been working as undercover agents but for now Americans were becoming outraged that the Red Scare seemed to be going too far by executing American citizens on flimsy evidence.
McCarthyism reached its peak in the 1950s but like any bad circus show, it was bound to unravel sooner or later. The end for Senator Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare came when he began pointing the finger at the military. McCarthy began his attack by summoning Irving Peress, an army dentist who worked at a top secret research facility, of being a security threat. It’s true, Peress had been a member of the communist party but during the hearing, evidence came out that McCarthy had used his influence as a Senator to illegally secure a job for a friend. Now the tables were turned and McCarthy was on trial. Arrogant as ever, McCarthy chose to represent himself. During the televised trial in which 20 million Americans tuned in, they got to see McCarthy in action for the first time. He frequently interrupted people, made wild accusations, and in general behaved like a jackass. Finally, the Senate committee had enough. “Have you no decency, sir, at long last ”? McCarthy finally had been stunned into silence. The Senator fell from power as quickly as he had risen. The communist investigations continued into the 1960’s but the venom had been taken out of the snake.