The Second Red Scare
In 1947, the Truman administration, under pressure from Republican critics, set up a Loyalty Review Board to investigate the background of more than 3 million federal employees.
Over Truman’s veto, Congress passed the McCarren Internal Security Act, which:
Made it unlawful to advocate or support the establishment of a totalitarian government.
Restricted the employment and travel of those joining Communist organizations
Authorize the creation of detention camps for subversives.
House Un-American Activities
In the House of Representatives, the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), originally established in 1939 to seek out Nazis, was reactivated in the postwar years to find Communists. The committee not only investigated government officials but also looked for communist influence in such organizations as the Boy Scouts and in the Hollywood film industry. Actors, directors, and writers were called before the committee to testify. Those who refused were tried for contempt of Congress.
The fear of Communist conspiracy bent on world conquest was supported by a series of actual cases of Communist espionage.
Whittaker Chambers, a confessed Communist, became a star for HUAC in 1948. His testimony along with the investigative work of a young member of Congress from California named Richard Nixon, led to Alger Hiss, a prominent official in the State Department who had assisted FDR at Yalta. Hiss denied that he was a Communist. In 1950 he was convicted of perjury and sent to prison. Many Americans wondered if the highest levels of government were infiltrated by Soviet spies.
Americans were convinced that spies had helped the Soviets steal the technology about atomic bomb from the US. A British scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project, admitted giving A-bomb secrets to Russia. A few months later, Communists Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were charged with conspiracy to transmit atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. A jury found them guilty and a judge sentenced them to death. They were electrocuted on June 19, 1953.
Senator Joseph McCarthy
In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin delivered a routine Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, WV. He suddenly attracted national attention when he declared “I have here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”
The charge changed on different occasions from 57 to 81 and was never substantiated. The speech triggered a 4 ½ year crusade to hunt down alleged Communists in government. This sensationalism became known as McCarthyism.
While officials would be refuting his initial accusations, he brought forth a steady stream of new ones, so the corrections never caught up with the latest blast. He failed to unearth a single confirmed Communist in the government, but he kept the Truman administration in turmoil.
He relied on an army of informers, primarily disgruntled government workers with grievances against their colleagues and superiors. He accused the State Department of deliberately losing the Cold War.
His briefcase bulged with documents, but he did very little actual research, relying instead on reports (often outdated) from earlier congressional investigations. He exploited the press with great skill, always promising future disclosures to guarantee headlines. McCarthy’s power was the fear he created among his Senate colleagues. Maryland Senator Millard Tydings failed to win reelection after he headed a committee critical of McCarthy’s activities. After that, all other senators ran scared.
McCarthy also went after prominent public officials like Secretary of State Dean Acheson calling him the “Red Dean.” He also went after General George Marshall, claiming that he was an agent of Communist conspiracy. The attacks on the wealthy, famous and privileges won McCarthy a national following.
He offered a simple solution to the Cold War: defeat the enemy at home rather than continue to engage in costly foreign aid programs and entangling alliances abroad.
GOP leaders thought his attacks were distasteful but continued to encourage him to attack vulnerable Democrats.
Eisenhower and McCarthy
Eisenhower was less effective in dealing with McCarthy’s continuing witch hunt. Instead of toning down his anticommunist crusade after the Republican victory, McCarthy used his new position as chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations as a base for ferreting out Communists on the federal payroll.
He made a series of charges against foreign affairs agencies and demanded certain books be purged from American information libraries overseas. Eisenhower’s advisors urged him to stop McCarthy. But Ike refused stating, “I will not get into a pissing contest with a skunk”. He hoped the American people would eventually come to their senses. He wanted to give him a long rope to hang himself.
The Senator finally overreached himself when he uncovered an army dentist suspected of disloyalty and proceeded to attack the upper leadership of the US Army. It culminated in televised Army-McCarthy hearings. For six weeks the senator revealed his crude, bullying behavior to the American people.
Two Republican senators joined the Democrats to bring about the Senate’s censure of McCarthy in 1954. He fell quickly from prominence. He died three years later as a result of alcoholism.