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McCarthy Era

Era of Political Conformity and Loyalty

As World War II ended, Americans' fear of Germans and Japanese was transferred onto the communist Soviet Union. Though the Soviets had been their allies during the war, Americans began to see them as a threat. The Soviets had a nuclear bomb and were aggressively expanding their influence into Europe and Africa. China was soon taken over by communists.

The Hallinan family
The Hallinan family

The American Communist Party, other left-wing organizations, and minority groups - including African-Americans, Native Americans, and various immigrant groups - became targets of suspicion, surveillance, and infiltration. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's trial and execution for conspiring to steal secrets of the atomic bomb convinced many Americans that communist spies were among them. Propaganda films such as "Red Nightmare" and "Duck and Cover" further fueled this anxiety. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 expanded the battle, authorizing financial support for foreign governments fighting communism.

Domestically, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was charged with uncovering and identifying "anti-American" or "pro-communist" activities. A federal employee loyalty program was instituted in 1947 to preclude the employment of "disloyal Americans." Local governments, public institutions, and private companies, as well as universities and labor unions, quickly fell in line by instituting their own loyalty programs and dismissing employees suspected of having ties to communism.

The FBI played a crucial part by conducting surveillance, pressuring employers to hire or fire particular individuals, and by feeding information to the media to influence public opinion. J. Edgar Hoover created COINTELPRO, a program designed to neutralize political dissidents by sowing seeds of dissention within organizations and leaking derogatory information to the media and law enforcement. The FBI also disseminated damaging information on individuals to members of Congress to influence public opinion about the communist threat.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade, dating from 1950 and heightened during his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, rose to legendary ferocity. Although Congress censured the Wisconsin Republican in 1954, the legacy of fear and suspicion McCarthy helped create lived on through the 1970's, as evidenced by FBI surveillance of the civil rights movement and Vietnam era anti-war demonstrations.

Moments in History

1945: The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is created, succeeding the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which had existed since 1938.

1946: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover authorizes a secret "education campaign" to "influence public opinion" about the "seriousness of the Communist threat and their liberal elements." The FBI leaks derogatory information to the media and Congress.

1947: Hoover covertly assists HUAC's efforts to publicize communist influence in Hollywood. Truman issues Executive Order 9835, initiating a program to search out any "infiltration of disloyal persons" in the U.S. government.

1949: Soviet Union tests an atomic bomb. Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung formally declares China a communist republic.

1950: Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) makes a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., falsely claiming that the State Department employs 205 known communists. Also that year, the Korean War begins.

1950: Congress passes the Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act), requiring communists and members of various other political organizations to register with the Subversive Activities Control Board and authorizing the detention of suspected subversives. Truman vetoes the bill, calling it the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Congress overrides the veto by large margins.

1951: The California Senate Subcommittee on Un-American Activities accuses University of California officials of aiding subversive campus groups.

1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted under the Espionage Act, are executed.

1954: The Senate issues a condemnation of McCarthy for two counts of conduct unbecoming a U.S. senator.

1956: Hoover authorizes COINTELPRO, a program designed to neutralize political dissidents.

Historians’ Perspectives

Adam Green
Adam Green
Targeting African-Americans. Individuals found their passports taken away ... (1:45)
Ellen Schrecker
Ellen Schrecker
The Second Red Scare. National security requires the elimination of Communists ... (1:34)
Finding Communists. The party was secret ... (1:20)
Athan Theoharis
Athan Theoharris
The FBI shapes public opinion. The safest thing you can do during the Cold War ... (0:56)