McCarthyism and the Red Scare

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Explain what McCarthy meant when he said, "When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be from enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within."

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These words come from Senator Joseph McCarthy's speech that he made in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950. It represents a major shift in early Cold War tensions and the beginning of the Red Scare.

For the few years preceding this speech, most Cold War anxieties were focused abroad. Communism was considered a threat from the Soviet Union (and China, to a certain extent). In this speech, McCarthy insinuated that the threat was already in the United States. Without ever providing evidence, he claimed to know of many secret Communists embedded within the federal government, particularly in the State Department.

President Truman had already suggested that there could be the possibility of Communists within the government. In 1947, Truman expanded the Hatch Act to create a loyalty program as a bulwark against the threat of Communists in the government. With his speech and later accusations, McCarthy said that Truman's efforts were inadequate.

McCarthy's motives for this insinuation are not entirely clear. It allowed him to challenge Truman's foreign policy, which he disapproved of. It propelled him into the national spotlight. As he took charge of anti-Communist investigations and further red-baiting, McCarthy's approval ratings increased dramatically. It did, however, lead to much criticism from his political opponents. However, once the idea that there could be secret Communists within the government took hold, it became an easy tactic for the senator to use in an attempt to discredit his opposition.

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What McCarthy meant in this speech is that Americans had become accustomed to thinking of Communism as simply a global force that had to be checked through military strength and diplomatic efforts. But the reality, he suggested in this speech, was that Americans faced a more insidious threat from Communism—one from within. He claimed that Communist agents had infiltrated American society and even the American government. In particular, he asserted that the State Department was full of Communists, claiming to have a list of over two hundred officials known to the Secretary of State to be "card carrying." He never produced this list, and almost certainly did not have it in the first place. But in the fevered atmosphere of the Cold War in the 1950s, his claims rang true for many Americans. This marked the beginning of the depths of the so-called "Red Scare" of the fifties, in which McCarthy would take a very high-profile role. His assertion that the United States had enemies within as well as without cynically played on American anxieties and prejudices in order to advance McCarthy politically.

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McCarthy's Wheeling speech has generally been recognized by historians as the formal beginning of the movement that bore the Wisconsin senator's name. McCarthyism came at a time of heightened Cold War tensions, and in an environment of increasing paranoia and distrust, Communism became a dirty word in American politics. McCarthy acknowledged the threat that the Soviet Union and its allies posed the United States; but he also believed that Communists and their allies had infiltrated every corner of the American government and military. Once they'd achieved positions of power and authority, Communists were then able to wield enormous influence, especially in relation to the conduct of foreign policy. These were the "enemies within" who would, McCarthy believed, destroy American democracy from the inside.

Senator McCarthy proceeded to conduct a campaign against this alleged Communist infiltration. The methods he used were highly controversial. In the vast majority of cases, McCarthy had no evidence whatsoever that the people he accused really were Communists or even in the least bit sympathetic towards Communists. The hearings of his notorious Senate subcommittee proceeded on the basis of smear, innuendo, hearsay, and, in some cases, outright fabrication.

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McCarthy's speech delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia was one of the first public calls McCarthy made claiming that the presence of Communists within the government threatened American principles and its way of life.  While the motives were not exactly clear and exact proof lacking, McCarthy was seeking to make the argument that the fear of Communism did not only spread abroad, but could also be originated at home.  McCarthy's main premise was that the subversive and supposedly dangerous nature of Communism was so seductively evil that it had to be vetted from the administrative and bureaucratic presence of Washington, D.C and federal government.  The language that he used in the speech was also quite deliberate.  The idea of "enemies from within" helped to foster the fear that the Communist walks amongst us and that, at any given time, an infiltration of American government from within could be launched if Americans were not vigilant and mindful of this threat.  McCarthy recognized from his days as a poker player in Washington that it is important to "play the hot hand."  For him, this was represented by the fear of Communism within Americans and being able to turn it inward did wonders for his career as he spent his days as a Senator accusing and seeking to find these "enemies from within," something he did with a noticeable lack of "decency."

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