Privacy SOS

For most of the 20th century, the “war on communism” ebbed and flowed, and sometimes hit riptide as it did during the late 1940s and 1950s.  

When the Soviet Union – our World War II ally – became our “Cold War” enemy, the stage was set for a powerful new phase of the Red Scare. It was fueled by the belief that the Soviet Union wanted to dominate the world and that “communist sympathizers” were gnawing away at the vitals of the United States. 

As they did earlier in the century, federal, state and local authorities, as well as private groups, all engaged in the hunt for “subversives.”  President Truman led the way. In 1947, as his Attorney General drew up a list of nearly 300 “subversive” organizations, Truman ordered an investigation of the loyalty of three million government workers. People were grilled about their reading habits, whether they had African American friends, whether they sympathized with the underprivileged. They lost their jobs if their lifestyles or friends appeared too radical. This kind of “guilt by association” ruined tens of thousands of lives.  People were fired on the basis of information fed by anonymous informers which people labeled “disloyal” were not permitted to see or refute. The government used the 1940 Smith Act – which made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the US government by violence or to undermine the loyalty of the military – to go after known radicals and even their lawyers. The US Supreme Court upheld convictions in decisions that restricted free speech.

This new Red Scare is associated with the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But years before McCarthy started to hold circus-like hearings in the Senate to unmask suspected communists, Congress had been engaged in a nation-wide witch hunt. In the late 1940s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) interrogated thousands of witnesses in the search for “subversives.”  Among the list of “un-American” beliefs were notions of racial and social equality, the idea that the government had a duty to support the people, and the belief that God did not exist.  All of these ideas could get people who held them – and their friends – in big trouble. 

So-called “friendly witnesses” cooperated with HUAC by giving the names of alleged communists or communist sympathizers in a  glare of publicity. These people would then be “red-baited” by being hauled before HUAC or any of the “little HUACs” set up by the states. Many of those accused of subversion had nothing at all to do with the Communist Party. They may have been activists, or outspoken in some way, or simply named by someone who had a grudge to settle.

“Unfriendly witnesses” cited their Fifth or (more rarely) their First Amendment right to refuse to testify before the Committee.  Their reluctance to “come clean” or “name names” was given sensational publicity in the media.  As a result, thousands lost their jobs, were imprisoned, faced organized mob violence or were forced to leave the country.  Among those who were “blacklisted” and denied the ability to work were hundreds of Hollywood directors, script writers and actors, and thousands of musicians, radio and television artists.  By 1949, HUAC had a million individuals on its “subversives” list.

The following year, in 1950, Congress passed the McCarren Act over President Truman’s veto.  The Act permitted the government to incarcerate innocent citizens during “internal security emergencies” in mass internment camps.  Under the Act, non citizens could be refused entry or deported based on their political beliefs.  Communist or so-called “communist-front” organizations were required to register with the government.  Their members could not travel abroad or work in certain jobs, and severe restrictions were placed on their use of the mail.  In 1954, Congress made it illegal to belong to the Communist Party and passed a law enabling citizenship to be stripped from persons who violated the Smith Act or committed certain other crimes.

States and towns were not to be outdone. They passed their own loyalty laws and anti-subversion measures, even though the federal government was supposed to be in charge of protecting “national security.”  School teachers and university professors were made to take loyalty oaths, and many lost their jobs for asserting their constitutional rights. The First Amendment counted for little as textbooks in schools, newspapers and other publications were searched for signs of “un-American” material.

In the early 1950s, Senator McCarthy, a Republican, began to hold televised hearings on “subversives” in the State Department and other agencies.  He was fed information by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and by paid informants and anonymous tipsters.  In 1954, he turned his attention to what he claimed was communist infiltration of the US Army.  But when, in an apparently drunken state, he lashed out at a young lawyer for being a member of the supposedly subversive National Lawyers Guild, his effective witch-hunting days came to an end. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” demanded attorney Joseph Welch, who was serving as counsel for the Army.  That simple question seemed to bring the Senate to its senses. Many Republicans joined Democrats in voting to condemn McCarthy, and his power crumbled.

In the late 1950s the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren began to reverse Smith Act convictions and strike down state sedition laws. But with the fading away of McCarthy-style public communist-hunting came a new, secretive threat to dissent: the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign.

Watch: Joseph Welch's statement against Joe McCarthy's hearings.

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