As fighting during World War II raged on, Allied leaders Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill grew suspicious of Joseph Stalin’s postwar plans for the Soviet Union. They came to realize that the Russian dictator could not be trusted and cautiously evaluated how wartime strategies might affect postwar outcomes. Roosevelt, and later President Harry Truman, worried that the spread of communism would threaten the safety of the United States and all democratic countries. By the time the U.S. entered the Korean War in 1950, America was entangled in a second Red Scare so intense that it overshadowed the Red Scare of 1919-1920.
Although the presence of the Communist Party in America faded rapidly after the Second World War, concerns about espionage and communist sympathizers assisting Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) were on the rise. During the mid-1940s, Republican campaigners claimed that Roosevelt, labor union leaders, and other prominent Democrats had communist ties. Democratic politicians, meanwhile, tried to link Republicans with Hitler and his regime. The argument prompted national and state officials to initiate loyalty checks to identify and remove from office suspect government workers.
Politicians hastily enacted plans to contain communism in America. In 1947, President Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which authorized the attorney general to list Fascist, Communist, or subversive organizations, and made membership or even sympathetic association with such groups grounds for dismissal. Many liberal East coast institutions, including Harvard and Columbia, became prime targets for investigators. Loyalty boards asked government employees about religion, racial equality, and even their preference for foreign films. Investigators also tried to identify alcoholics and homosexuals, whom they considered targets for blackmail by foreign spies. The loyalty program, which applied to nearly 13 million workers, resulted in approximately 3,000 firings and 11,000 resignations between 1947 and 1953.
The search for subversives started in 1938 when Texas Congressman Martin Dies established a special committee to uncover pro-Fascists in America. In 1945, the Dies committee evolved into the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that investigated “un-American propaganda.” Hollywood quickly became one of HUAC’s primary targets. Committee leaders became suspicious of the industry’s reputation for liberal thinking, loose morals, intemperance, and foreign-born actors, writers, and directors. HUAC members were determined to shield the millions of American movie-goers from possible anti-U.S. messages.
Many studio executives, film makers, and popular actors, including Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan, assured HUAC members that they were in no way connected to Communist organizations. However, eight screenwriters and two directors—later referred to as the Hollywood Ten—cited First Amendment free speech protection and refused to reveal their political associations. When HUAC cited the group for contempt of Congress, the Supreme Court ruled that they could not hide behind the First Amendment and handed down jail sentences for all ten individuals.
The HUAC decisions turned Hollywood on its end. Before the investigations began, many in the entertainment industry supported far left political viewpoints. However, pressure from the government and diminished public support forced members of the Hollywood community to either remain silent or promote more conservative views. To emphasize their zero-tolerance stance against left-wing opinions, U.S. government officials refused to let British-born actor Charlie Chaplin re-enter the country because he displayed sympathetic alignment with Leftist beliefs. Many other actors, writers, and directors considered “high security risks” were banned from jobs where they might weave Communist propaganda into American movies. The Hollywood blacklist ruined the careers of many individuals and forced some to create alias identities to secure work.
In 1950, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran chaired a committee to expand the basis of the Federal Loyalty Program to investigate “common people,” namely professors, diplomats, union leaders, and school teachers. The committee focused on forcing the targets to identify friends or associates who might have Communist connections.
McCarran and his committee members developed the Internal Security Act (ISA), which required every “Communist-front organization” to register with the attorney general. Members of Communist organizations were prohibited from conducting defense work and could not travel internationally. The law also gave the president the authority to arrest and detain suspects in internment camps in case of national emergency. Although Truman vetoed the bill because he believed it dangerously resembled police-state tactics, Congress overrode the veto and passed the bill. Over the course of the next 40 years, sections of the ISA were ruled unconstitutional before it was completely repealed by the Supreme Court in 1990.
The Hunt for Subversives
The Korean War and advances in nuclear weaponry by Soviet scientists promoted the rapid spread of anti-Communist sentiment throughout America. Public fears that Communist spies were infiltrating the U.S. government and undermining foreign policy led to the introduction of strict security measures. However, many Americans believed that their traditional freedoms—primarily free speech and the right of political dissent—would erode in the climate of the Cold War.
In 1948, the hunt for subversives drew public attention when Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers, a confessed former Communist, accused Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, of being part of an eight-member underground Communist group formed in Washington D.C. in the 1930s. Chambers explained that the group’s primary objective was not espionage but rather to infiltrate the American government. According to Chambers, the people selected for the group were considered elite and expected to rise to positions of power and authority in the United States. “Their position in the government,” said Chambers, “would be of much more service to the Communists Party.”
Alger Hiss has an impressive career in government, which included a clerkship with Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, service as assistant counsel to the Nye Committee, and several years in the State Department. He also traveled to Yalta with President Roosevelt and oversaw the creation of the United Nations. In 1946, Hiss resigned his position at the State Department to accept the role of president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Two days after Chambers testified Hiss appeared before the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Cool and relaxed, Hiss read a prepared opening statement that would eventually lead to his downfall:
“I am not and never have been a member for the Communist Party. I do not and never have adhered to the tenets of the Communist Party. I am not and never have been a member of any Communist-front organization…To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked me if I knew him and various other people. I said that I did not know Chambers. So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and the statements made about me by Mr. Chambers are complete fabrications.”
After hours of questioning, it was obvious to committee members that there were sharp contradictions between the two men’s stories. One of them was lying and it was the responsibility of HUAC members to determine which one. Recently elected Congressman Richard Nixon became the committee lead and questioned Chambers and Hiss separately, without the public or press in attendance. Nixon, realizing that it was almost impossible to determine whether Hiss was a member of the Communist Party more than a decade earlier, focused on his opening statement claim that he never laid eyes on Whittaker Chambers.
Nixon first asked Chambers a series of questions to determine how well he knew Alger Hiss’s personal life. Chambers claimed to have visited the Hiss home several times and described in detail the furniture, pets, and even personal mannerisms and eating and drinking habits of the Hiss family. Chambers also told a story where he served as an intermediary when Hiss sold a car to another Communist.
Armed with the information from Chambers, Nixon then questioned Hiss during another closed session. Unlike his first appearance where he seemed calm and collected, Hiss grew anxious and hostile as Nixon displayed a photo of Whittaker Chambers and asked if he recognized him. Hiss wavered before admitting that the face in the photo looked familiar. After a long series of questions, Hiss eventually acknowledged that he once sold a car with the help of a freelance journalist whom, he believed, could have been the man in the photo. The story proved there was a connection between the two men.
Meanwhile, scared that the committee might indict him for perjury, Chambers unveiled a bombshell—a sealed envelope containing five rolls of microfilm that included copies of State Department reports and diplomatic cables in Alger Hiss’s handwriting allegedly given to the Communists. Assistant Secretary of State John Peurifoy testified that anyone possessing the documents found on the microfilm would have been able to break every U.S. diplomatic code then in use. While Hiss could not be indicted for espionage because of the statute of limitations, he was charged with perjury in 1950 and sentenced to five years in jail.
As the Chambers/Hiss case came to a close, another prominent case was just beginning. FBI agents arrested Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on charges of espionage. Officials linked the couple to British scientist Klaus Fuchs, an admitted spy, and to U.S. army sergeant David Greenglass, who was stationed at the secret Manhattan Project laboratory in New Mexico. Greenglass, agents discovered, provided the Soviets with information about the atomic bomb. He was recruited for the mission by the Rosenbergs, who were his sister and brother-in-law.
Greenglass served as the chief witness for the government and received a reduced sentence. The Rosenbergs, however, were sentenced to death. Judge Irving Kaufman handed the couple the harshest of sentences and clearly shows his anger in his sentencing statement:
“I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed. In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim. The immediate family is brought to grief and when justice is meted out the chapter is closed. But in your case, I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.”
The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 and became the only people in American history to be executed for espionage during peacetime. Although many politicians and citizens, primarily liberal Democrats, spoke out against Judge Kaufman’s harsh sentences, the hunt for subversives proved that the information gathered by spies accelerated the Soviet’s nuclear weapon development. For that reason, Republicans pressed for a more intense search to uncover embedded Communists in the U.S. government.
In 1950, as the Red Scare intensified, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy told the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, that the State Department was infested with Communists. He claimed to have a list of 205 names that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party. News of the speech spread quickly across the nation and Republican McCarthy became the talk of Congress.
Capitalizing on the public’s growing anxiety over communism and their eagerness to believe his allegations, McCarthy led a full-scale investigation to uncover Communists in America. No one was safe from McCarthy’s wrath as he unleashed accusation after accusation. Even General George Marshall, army chief of staff during World War II, was targeted. McCarthy professed that the general was “steeped in falsehood and part of a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”
After the Republicans won the White House in 1952, McCarthy’s claims grew bolder. He challenged that the Democrats, including Franklin Roosevelt, played a large part in allowing communism to infiltrate all levels of the U.S. government. Although many Republicans, including newly elected President Eisenhower, did not agree with the tactics employed by McCarthy, they were happy to see the Democratic Party on the defensive. With so many Democrats dealing with McCarthy and his fevered charges, they had little time to critique the Republican administration’s performance.
Opinion polls showed that Americans favored the way that McCarthy conducted his crusade. The sheer number of charges, and the high level status of many of those accused, convinced a large percent of the population that there must be some truth in his claims. It would later be learned that McCarthy was promoting a big lie. He never had evidence to back up his claims, and he never exposed a single spy or American Communist during the entire course of his “Red Hunt.”
The Senator grew to like the media spotlight and did whatever was necessary to remain in the focus. Every time an accused denied the charges, McCarthy distracted the public by making more sensational accusations. If someone provided facts to repudiate the allegations, McCarthy responded by calling that person a Communist.
Eisenhower quickly realized that McCarthy was a nuisance and his extreme right wing activities were interfering with his ability to lead the country. Publicly, the president supported McCarthy; however, behind the scenes, Eisenhower believed the Senator was spinning out of control and worked to restrain him.
In 1953, McCarthy was picked to lead the Senate Committee on Government Operations. One of the committee’s investigations targeted a U.S. Army dentist who received a promotion despite supposed ties to communism. When army officials refused to cooperate with McCarthy, the Senator accused Army Secretary Robert Stevens of “coddling” Communists within his service, and ordered public hearings—which were nationally televised—to look into the matter. McCarthy’s eagerness to showcase his attacks in front of the American public backfired when people were able to observe his irrational behavior.
When the hearings began, McCarthy dove into the half-truths and undocumented accusations to which he had become accustomed. Army representatives then counterattacked with their own charge that McCarthy looked into securing favors for David Schine, a recently drafted aide. Later, after McCarthy finished verbally assaulting army lawyer Joseph Welch’s assistant, Welch replied, “I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…. Have you no decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The televised hearings marked the decline of McCarthy’s influence in Washington. Polls displayed a drastic drop in his public favorability rating, and in 1954, his fellow senators voted to censure him for “conduct unbecoming a member.” In 1957, Joseph McCarthy died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver. Although the instigator of what became known as McCarthyism was gone, the anti-subversive campaign continued on for many more years. Politicians used the Internal Security Act—which required every “Communist-front organization” to register with the attorney general—to repress targeted individuals, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities conducted Communist investigations into the late 1960s.