Why did McCarthyism of the 1950s succeed at first but then fall out of favor?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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McCarthyism was introduced by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Second Red Scare that in general lasted between 1950 and 1956. During this period, McCarthy accused thousands of Americans of being "communists or communist sympathizers," leading to government and private-industry investigations and hearings. McCarthy's primary targets were "government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists" ("McCarthyism").

Several post-World War II events led to the Second Red Scare and consequently to McCarthyism. For starters, after World War II, under the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union controlled eight different communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, creating what was called the Iron Curtain. Soviet Union military forces within the Iron Curtain posed a threat to the free democratic nations joined under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Along with the military threat came the knowledge that the Soviet Union had developed its own atomic bomb, giving rise to the fear of a nuclear holocaust. In response to the Second Red Scare generated by the existence of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union's own nuclear bomb, in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman signed into affect Executive Order 9835, also called the "Loyalty Order" ("Executive Order 9835"). The executive order was designed to question US citizens' "loyalty" by ferreting out communist influence in the U.S. federal government. The order permitted the FBI to run background checks on 2 million federal employees, leading to an investigation of 3 million federal employees total ("Executive Order 9835"). Among those ferreted out was Alger Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official, who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union  and imprisoned, though never officially convicted ("53a. McCarhysim"; PBS, "Alger Hiss"). The espionage conviction led to very genuine public fear of other communist spies having infiltrated the US government, leading to McCarthy's public figure blacklist and investigations and to McCarthyism.   

McCarthyism scholar Ellen Schrecker, stated in her book Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America that one reason why McCarthyism came to an end was "largely because it ran out of targets" ("McCarthyism: The Secret Of Its Success"). She also points to the fact that during the movement, the change in presidential power in 1952 helped lead to the decline of McCarthyism. When McCarthy first started making his attacks, the White House was in the hands of Democratic President Truman, and Democrats were accused of being Communist sympathizers, leading to Truman's active policies to ferret out Communist sympathizers within the government. When Republican General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was free of similar accusations, took office in 1952, he told McCarthy to stop his attacks. When McCarthy refused, McCarthy got so out of hand that it led to the Army-McCarthy hearings ("McCarthyism: The Secret"). The Army-McCarthy hearings soon brought McCarthyism to a close. However, before the hearings, a number of court cases put an end to public support of any private investigations and blacklisting. One such court case involved afternoon comedy radio show host and leftist activist John Henry Faulk who began being investigated by AWARE, Inc., one of the private firms McCarthy used to investigate individuals. When AWARE pegged him us unfit for the public and he was fired, Faulk sued AWARE in 1957 and finally won in 1962. The court decision deemed private sector blacklisters as legally liable for any "professional and financial damage" caused ("McCarthyism: Decline"). Supreme Court decisions also had a hand in putting an end to McCarthyism. One important case was Slochower v. Board of Education. Professor Harry Slochower of Brooklyn College had been questioned by McCarthy's congressional committee as being a member of the Communist Party, and during the investigation, Slochower plead the Fifth Amendment. However, his plea led to his being fired by New York City. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, saying that "we must condemn the practice of imputing a sinister meaning to the exercise of a person's constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment.[...] The privilege against self-incrimination would be reduced to a hollow mockery if its exercise could be taken as equivalent either to a confession of guilt or a conclusive presumption of perjury" ("Decline"). Other Supreme Court cases also played an important role in not only putting an end to McCarthyism but also ending any public sentiments that favored McCarthyism.

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rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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McCarthyism originated from the 2nd Red Scare in the 1950s. The main purpose for this was to bring America against communism with scare tactics and accusations against "communists" or "spies". During this time thousands of people were accused of being communists with no actual evidence, including a lot of celebrities (Hollywood Blacklist). A lot of people lost their jobs and went through interrogations and questioning. Everyone was affected.

Although many did support McCarthyism, a large group was against it. President Truman wrote, "In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have." (Wikipedia). The start of the decline of McCarthyism was when John Henry Faulk sued AWARE in 1957. Many other supreme court cases changed the minds of people and brought McCarthyism down. Television also showed how horrible McCarthy's campaign was, and when Eisenhower became President he wanted to end McCarthyism.

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