McCarthyism and the Red Scare

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What was the impact of McCarthyism on American politics and the media?

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The anti-Communist campaigns affected the media by largely cowing them into silence. Journalists didn't want to be tarred with the Communist brush and so tended not to criticize McCarthy. Besides, those working in the media knew that McCarthy was popular among the public, whom they didn't wish to alienate. McCarthy was popular because most Americans hated Communism and wanted to see it challenged. McCarthy's downfall came after he overreached himself by launching investigations into the Army.

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The main effect of McCarthyism on American political life was the imposition of a deadening conformity in which no one could afford to be seen as "soft" on Communism. McCarthyism created a toxic atmosphere of fear and paranoia, in which anyone deemed even vaguely progressive could find themselves being tarred with the Communist brush.

Many right-wing politicians on Capitol Hill used the McCarthy witch-hunts as an opportunity to undermine President Truman's Fair Deal proposals. The Fair Deal was seen by its opponents as the culmination of a leftward trajectory of government policy that had taken place since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Like the New Deal, Truman's flagship domestic policy was presented by McCarthy and his partisans as a dangerous step on the road to Communism. Such accusations had long been a part of right-wing rhetoric, but the tensions of the Cold War gave them added impetus. In practice, this generated a reluctance among liberals to put forward any radical proposals, as this would leave them vulnerable to the charge of being Communist fellow-travelers.

The effect on the news media was much the same. With one or two notable exceptions, the press was reluctant to challenge McCarthyism directly, despite the enormous damage it was doing to innocent people's lives, not to mention America's reputation abroad. So long as McCarthy remained popular with vast swathes of the American public, most papers and other news outlets were happy to jump on the radically anti-Communist bandwagon and give their readers what they wanted. To that end, the media regularly engaged in vicious character assassination of those identified as dangerous Reds. Taking their cue from McCarthy, they resorted to smear, innuendo, and outright lies to exploit the prevailing hysteria for all it was worth to generate advertising revenue. Crudely put, McCarthyism was good business for the media, with serious money to be made.

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McCarthyism, a term that applies to a myriad of activities meant to root out communism in the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s, had a chilling effect on left-wing politics. People feared that any left-wing discourse could be exaggerated into an accusation of communism, leading to the accused person being summoned to appear before House Un-American Activities Committee. People accused of subversion could find their careers destroyed or even be sent to prison, though later most of these convictions were overturned.

The Cold War, the Korean War, and the Soviet acquisition of nuclear power in this period led to fears in the United States that the Soviets would try to infiltrate and overthrow the United States government, installing a communist government in its place. Hysteria caused people to want to root out any signs of communist activity. This spread to a fear of communist propaganda being spread by the entertainment industry. Hollywood came under intense scrutiny. This led the Motion Picture Association to establish a blacklist of leftwing artists, including actors, writers, and directors. These people could not get work and often found their careers destroyed.

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One of the largest impacts that McCarthy had was in the very idea that the individual politician can seize on an issue and manipulate it in order to substantiate their own political power.  McCarthy might have had splendid ideas on the economy, or on ensuring that education was affordable and open to all, or could have had excellent ideas about how to increase affordable automobile production.  Yet, this is not where he made his presence felt.  Rather, the campaign against the Communists is what he chose to which his name should be linked. He decided that this would be "his" issue and through the politics of scapegoating and targeting individuals, his own political power increased and his own sensibilities gained traction.  McCarthy ended up proving that if properly timed, politicians can seize upon an issue with great political results that benefit them.  Certainly, McCarthy was able to gin up the voting public with politicizing their fears about Communists and the supposedly imminent threat they posed to the democratic order of the United States.  He was also able to utilize the media in spreading his message and his hearings to all.  Where McCarthy made his mistake was that within his bluster and talk, he never realized that the media could also portray him in a negative light.  Edward R. Murrow was able to utilize the media to expose McCarthy for the self- serving fraud he was and through his reporting, McCarthy lost effectiveness.  While he did fade, McCarthy ended up proving how politics and control can be manipulated to self serving ends when public fears are exploited and politicized.

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Describe the impact of McCarthyism on American political life. How did the anti-Communist campaigns affect the media? What were the sources of Senator Joseph McCarthy's popularity? What brought about his downfall?

With a few honorable exceptions, such as Ed Murrow and Don Hollenbeck, most people working in the American media didn't exactly cover themselves with much glory during the McCarthyite witch-hunts. For the most part, this was out of fear. McCarthy had already shown the ability to destroy people's careers if there was the slightest suggestion that they were sympathetic to Communism. Most journalists refrained from criticizing McCarthy, as they didn't want to suffer the same fate.

Besides, many of the big media owners were staunch supporters of McCarthy, whom they saw as a redoubtable crusader against the evils of Communism. McCarthy was a hugely popular figure among the American people, and newspaper owners and media companies didn't want to alienate their readers, listeners, and viewers by attacking a politician with such a large, enthusiastic following. In any case, the hearings of McCarthy's Senate sub-committee were always guaranteed to sell newspapers and attract TV viewers and radio listeners.

McCarthy's popularity stemmed mainly from his implacable hostility towards Communism. Most American politicians, like the people who voted for them, were also staunch anti-Communists. But they didn't attack Communism with the same vigor and ruthlessness as McCarthy, and it was McCarthy's unrelenting attacks on Communism and the alleged traitors in the government who'd allowed it to spread that made him a hero and a patriot in the eyes of millions of Americans.

But McCarthy overreached himself when he began investigating the United States Army for alleged Communist infiltration. During a televised session of the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy got into a verbal argument with the Army's chief counsel, Joseph Welch. Without telling him beforehand, McCarthy publicly named a young man whom Welch knew called Fred Fisher, who'd been involved with an alleged Communist front organization in his youth. In an exchange that would become one of the most famous moments in American TV history, Welch attacked McCarthy for his public character assassination of Fisher:

Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

A large round of applause greeted Welch's stinging rebuke of McCarthy. And millions of Americans watching at home could finally see for the first time just what kind of a person McCarthy really was. His popularity immediately declined, and a few months later he was formally censured by his colleagues in the US Senate, thus effectively bringing to an end his power and influence.

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