Why were Americans susceptible to McCarthyism? Is the America of today immune to this kind of political tactic?Why were Americans susceptible to McCarthyism? Is the America of today immune to this...

Why were Americans susceptible to McCarthyism? Is the America of today immune to this kind of political tactic?

Why were Americans susceptible to McCarthyism? Is the America of today immune to this kind of political tactic?

Expert Answers
hi1954 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

People will never be immune to the pressure of fear, we just had eight years of it.  It was fear that made people susceptible to McCarthy: fear of communism; fear of another world war; fear of nuclear war; fear of change in society; and fear of the idea that "someone", somewhere knows things "we" don't and will use it against us.

World War II had come to an end, with millions killed, not only soldiers but even more civilians.  Maybe ten million were killed just in Russia, not counting military personnel.  Europe was wrecked, vast areas of the continent literally destroyed, with millions more people missing.  The fear of another war, even worse because of nuclear weapons, was paramount.  The tensions between America and the USSR were intense and unrelenting.  In my family, full of political, military and scientific people, everything in our lives was touched by these fears every day, but I don't think other families were much different.  The news harped on it constantly, beginning the very week of VE Day, when the USSR-controlled Provisional Polish Government arrested the 16  members of the Polish Government-in-Exile when they returned to Warsaw from London.  The Rosenberg spy case just made things worse.

Many in society were tired of the accelerated rate of societal change.  Women working outside the home, blacks and Hispanics with good jobs, young people speaking their minds, the government taking an active interest in controlling corporate greed and equal rights- these things frightened a lot of people, and not just uneducated people, but those with money and power who did not want change.  These are the people who backed McCarthy in the beginning of his reign of terror, and the masses followed.

To be fair, the "Red Scare" had been with us in America since the 1920s, and neither McCarthy, the Republican Party's leaders nor anyone in government at that time began it.  Truman had already fallen prey to the Red Scare, and the Republican Party only backed McCarthy at first, simply as a way of "rolling back" FDR's programs.  They disassociated themselves from him soon enough.  But the Alger Hiss case frightened people with the spectre of "Commie Infiltrators" in the government, and fear spreads rapidly in any society.  Americans are not more susceptible to something like this any more than other people, any more than Germans being somehow more susceptible to a demagogue like Hitler than other nationalities.  People who are frightened are apt to listen when someone in a position where they might know what they're talking about says, "This is the problem," or "Those people are to blame."  Pograms and "witch hunts" throughout history have all been the same, and although we need to be on our guard, these things will probably happen again.

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During McCarthy's heyday, Americans were paralyzed by fear of communism, coupled with fear of nuclear annihilation. An atmosphere of widespread fear is the perfect platform for a demagogue like McCarthy to launch his hate campaign. Part of McCarthy's credibility came from the fact that he was an elected U.S. senator. The average American wanted to believe that congressmen acted in the public interest. If Sen. McCarthy was so firm in his insistence, then why should we question his motives? He must be trying to protect us.

The launch of Sputnik only served to intensify the fear of the Soviets. McCarthy's reign of terror was able to incubate and fester because of a perfect storm of fear and change. 

I don't believe that a similar phenomenon will occur today because of the lack of insistence on conformity in American society. Back in the 1950s, there was intense pressure to conform to middle-class standards. With the internet and 24-hour news, contemporary would-be demagogues find it extremely difficult to find a far-reaching audience.


M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In America fads are reigning queens until the next one comes. Unfortunately these fads are not just in the form of fashion, tastes, or likes, but they also come in the form of people, leaders, and ways of thinking. The fad during McCarthyism was basically "better dead than red". The moment the witch hunt began, everyone knew that it would become a meme and a fad of the society of the time. It was like a whirlwind of hatred, fear, and threat. Nobody was safe. The fear and gossip spread like a wildfire and too many got caught. To make it worse, those involved with McCarthy used the media to make the world see what they were doing. They loved the attention, and the power they got for their time. In the end, innocents died and nobody could do a thing about it. Could it happen again? Of course! Just wait until the next fad explodes and the next moron in power decides what's to be done with Jack or Jill.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's easy to fear, and easier to find someone to blame for that fear.  McCarthy just played to some of the worst elements of human nature and fed the fear he had created.  We played into his hands because, as Americans, we had bought into the Cold War mentality and rationale completely, and believed that the threat was both real and immediate.  He was not the first or last politician to take advantage of fear in the population.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
We are not immune. I'd say we should have known better then, but we obviously didn't. We have similar things happening now if you happen to be Muslim. Everyone thinks you're a terrorist. No, we are definitely not past this darkness. It's always just below the surface.
just-s | Student

Hi!! :-)

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tonym | Student
Why were Americans susceptible to McCarthyism? Is the America of today immune to this kind of political tactic?

Why were Americans susceptible to McCarthyism? Is the America of today immune to this kind of political tactic?

I have heard that actors and actress who lost their jobs during the McCarthy area because they were thought to be communist are still not allowed to act.