McCarthyism and the Red Scare

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How did fear of the Soviet Union and Communism affect American culture and society?

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After World War II, rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified. The result internationally was the Cold War, in which the two countries struggled for the influence of their respective political systems on the other countries of the world. Domestically in the United States, this conflict gave...

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After World War II, rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified. The result internationally was the Cold War, in which the two countries struggled for the influence of their respective political systems on the other countries of the world. Domestically in the United States, this conflict gave rise to the Red Scare, during which Americans became paranoid about communist spies infiltrating the nation. This paranoia concerning the Soviet Union and communism had a profound effect on American culture and society.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities, a committee of the US House of Representatives, was begun in 1938, mainly to investigate communist organizations that had arisen as a result of the New Deal. After the war, it became more prominent as a tool to expose communists (or suspected communists) working in government positions and in the film industry in Hollywood. The committee's activities assumed high-profile status as it alleged that communists had infiltrated various levels of government, the entertainment industry, educational institutions, and other organizations. This created an ever-expanding aura of distrust in targeted groups. The committee's preferred tactic was to issue subpoenas and then demand that individuals answer questions about their loyalties and turn in names of other suspected communists. Anyone who didn't answer questions to the committee's satisfaction or did not supply a list of names might lose their jobs and even be imprisoned.

HUAC especially targeted Hollywood actors, directors, screenwriters, and technicians. Studios blacklisted anyone suspected of communist activities, even if those suspicions had no basis or had resulted from a single instance of attending a left-leaning meeting decades earlier. This profoundly affected American culture, because many of the most talented artists in Hollywood found themselves blacklisted and unable to find work. Because Hollywood moguls were terrified of being considered pro-communist, films avoided controversial political topics and became more conservative.

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the fears of the American people to launch himself into prominence as a communist hunter. He blatantly lied about the extent of communist involvement in government and for a time became so powerful that politicians feared to oppose him. He eventually exposed his unethical tactics on national television, and as a result, Congress censured him. During the years that McCarthy was spouting his exaggerations and lies, though, irrational fear descended upon American society.

On a personal level, Americans who were accused of being communist sympathizers, whether or not the accusations were justified, had their lives disrupted in numerous ways. They were harassed by authorities, could not hold their jobs, and sometimes became alienated even from family and friends.

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Communism began in the Soviet Union after World War I (1914–1918), and Moscow promised that revolution would sweep the globe. There were actually two Red Scares in the United States: the first was in 1919–1920 and the second occurred in the 1950s. These two episodes spread fear throughout American society, and thousands of innocent people had their careers and lives ruined.

After WWI, anti-German sentiment in the United States quickly transformed into a fear of Communism. There were domestic terrorist bombings in the Unites States in 1920, and one bomb nearly killed the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. It was never proven, however, that Communists were responsible for the bombings. In any case, Palmer chose J. Edgar Hoover to ferret out supposed Communists.

A second Red Scare swept America after the end of World War II and during the Korean War (1950–1953). Many innocent people, such as the Hollywood Ten, were unfairly accused of Communist sympathies. The Alger Hiss case frightened many Americans into believing Communists had infiltrated the highest levels of the US government. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying for Moscow in 1953. Senator Joseph McCarthy accused the State Department of harboring thousands of Communists. After McCarthy was discredited, the second Red Scare abated.

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After World War II, America's relationship with the Soviet Union began to change. Even though the two countries were allies during the war, Russia began to claim territories in Eastern Europe by force. Instead of affording territories under their control with the power to create independent, free governments, Russia would force these countries to become communist. Russia's spreading of communism across Eastern Europe led to anti-communist fear in American society. Fear of communism affected domestic policy and influenced the culture. Partly due to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist rhetoric, Americans believed communists were hiding in the country. Anyone could be accused of communism, even if the accusations were false. The professional and personal lives of citizens accused of communism were ruined. The political climate in the country also changed. Politicians supported anti-communist propaganda to gain support from their constituents and pushed for legislation to persecute communists. Court rulings restricted the civil liberties of members of the Communist Party by claiming they did not have the right to free speech. Even though the Red Scare is over, America’s suspicion of Russia and communism has not changed.

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