AP®︎/College US History
Anticommunism in the 1950s
Learn about the Rosenberg trial, HUAC, and Joseph McCarthy.
- Revelations that spies in the US atomic program had passed secrets to the Soviet Union set off a nationwide panic that communist spies might be infiltrating many American institutions.
- Allegations that Hollywood was rife with communists led the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to investigate many actors, writers, and directors during the 1950s. Alleged communists were placed on a blacklist and barred from working in Hollywood.
- Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of this widespread paranoia to advance himself politically by accusing State Department employees of communist leanings. McCarthy's accusations were unsubstantiated, and the Senate eventually censured him.
In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device, ending the United States' short reign as the sole atomic power on Earth. The entry of the Soviets into the atomic club made Americans nervous, not to mention a little suspicious: how did the USSR get the bomb so fast?
When it came to light that Soviet spies in the US atomic program had passed secrets to Russia, Americans began to worry that spies might be lurking in every corner of society. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were several highly-publicized espionage trials that convicted leading scientists and government figures of espionage, culminating in the 1953 execution of scientist Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel for passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia. These convictions served to justify fears that spies could be active throughout the country.
In this atmosphere of mistrust, a broad range of institutions rushed to root out suspected communists from their ranks. The US government stepped up loyalty programs and purged itself of anyone deemed a security threat. Individuals believed to be particularly susceptible to bribery or blackmail, such as debtors or homosexuals, were summarily dismissed. Schools and universities fired teachers who refused to swear an oath that they were not communists. Even civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League moved quickly to rid themselves of communists, lest they be accused of subversion.
Although it is true that Soviet spies were at work in the United States (recently declassified documents reveal that Julius Rosenberg was indeed sending atomic secrets to the Russians, though Ethel was innocent), only a tiny fraction of those who lost their positions were actually connected with the USSR in any way.
First formed in 1938, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or HUAC, was a special committee in the US House of Representatives tasked with investigating subversive individuals and organizations. In the 1950s, HUAC turned its attention to hunting reds (a slang term for communists, associated with the red flag of the Soviet Union).
Influenced by a pamphlet called Red Channels, which alleged that communists had infiltrated the entertainment industry and intended to use the suggestive power of media to spread propaganda to American audiences, in 1950 HUAC began investigating Hollywood figures. Red Channels charged 151 actors, writers, and directors with having ties to the Communist Party. All of them were immediately blacklisted, whether or not the charges were substantiated. Studios refused to hire anyone on the blacklist, fearing backlash from sponsors and audiences, destroying the careers of many talented entertainers.
Some politicians also profited from this Red Scare, notably Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Fearful that his weak record in the Senate would prevent his reelection, McCarthy cast about for an issue that would shore up his image to voters. He seized on communism. At a meeting of Republican women in 1950, McCarthy brandished a sheath of papers and declared that he had in his hand "a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department."
In the US Senate chamber, Senator Joseph McCarthy points at a map of the United States labeled "Communist Party" while Chief Army Counsel Joseph Welch sits at a table with his hand on his head. A group of onlookers sits watching the proceedings.
McCarthy's allegations shocked the nation. Finding himself in the spotlight, McCarthy held hearings in the Senate, relying on innuendo and hearsay to condemn members of the State Department of communist ties. For more than four years, McCarthy railed against supposed communists, eastern "establishment" Democrats, and homosexuals. He never produced a shred of real evidence against anyone, but even those powerful enough to stop him were afraid McCarthy would turn his accusations against them if they spoke out. "I will not get in the gutter with that guy," President Eisenhower reportedly said of McCarthy, thus leaving McCarthy to operate without challenge.
McCarthy finally went too far in 1954 when he initiated hearings against the US Army. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings showcased McCarthy's increasingly erratic behavior and reliance on guilt-by-association rather than evidence. In December 1954 the US Senate voted to censure McCarthy.
McCarthy died of complications of alcoholism less than three years later, but use of the term McCarthyism to describe the practice of making unsubstantiated accusations has lived on.
What do you think?
Did the threat of Soviet espionage justify the reaction from HUAC and McCarthy?
What was the role of media (movies, radio, and especially television) in the rise and fall of the Red Scare?
Do you think President Eisenhower was right not to interfere in McCarthy's witch-hunt?
Want to join the conversation?
- HUAC seems to be just like the Anti-German groups during the first and second world wars. I'm wondering why did people continue to grow in suspicion and even violence against people who believe a certain way? I am not saying that communism is good, nor bad. What I am saying is that under the first amendment, citizens of the United States are guaranteed freedom of opinion. Is there a reason why this was overlooked during the 1950s?(24 votes)
- The atmosphere during and after the wars encouraged censorship, and government control.
It is ironic, but it was the propaganda of "patriotism" that contributed most to the censorship of communism in America.(19 votes)
- Why were they so surprised that the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons "so fast"? I mean, they could have been studying and experimenting with the bombs as much as America; but just didn't make it as quickly and finally got it right after the Americans did.(8 votes)
- The book "The First War of Physics" explains it very well. The expense to build and design the bomb was immense, and there were multiple hypothesis that branched out from each other, and only the right choices led to the bomb. The Russians could not have possibly exhausted the correct research path any sooner than 1954 without the espionage of Rosenberg, Fuchs, and Greenglass.(8 votes)
- why do people think communism is bad(6 votes)
- Good question,the reason I think it doesnt work is because of how much the roles of markets and governments are handed.The government handles a one party system to maintain that hierarchy and it really takes away the individual power of a person,capitalism is really based on the latter.Well I think that Karl Marx had good ideas and concerns to found out his ideas but its clear that they dont work.Not that capitalism is great either,at least not how its done now.(8 votes)
- So did McCarthy die of drinking problems?
what is a senator?(5 votes)
- McCarthy died of hepatitis which were induced from drinking too much alcohol.(9 votes)
- What does espionage mean?(3 votes)
- Espionage is an act of spying for some purpose, usually that of relaying valuable information to a second party.(4 votes)
- what does censure mean? As in the text it said,"the US Senate voted to censure McCarthy."(3 votes)
- Censure means to express severe disapproval at something or someone.(7 votes)
- What does complications of alcoholism mean? How old was Joseph McCarthy?(3 votes)
- Alcoholism is an addiction. Each kind of addiction has its own particular consequences, whether that is to substances (like alcohol and opiates) or to behaviors (like gambling addiction, sex addiction, or shopping addiction). Those consequences are sometimes called, "complications". The complications of alcoholism include certain liver and neurological diseases. That's what "got" McCarthy when he died at age 49.(6 votes)
- Why were the Americans scared of the soviet union is not like they wanted to attack the Americans made it a big deal.(2 votes)
- The Soviet Union was a very powerful country and it was the only country other than the USA which had nuclear weapons at that time so it definitely could attack the US, even if they would not want to.
Another thing which scared Americans was the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, commonly known as KGB, the infamous Soviet intelligence agency. People were made to believe by people like Joesph McCarthy that the KGB had undercover agents in the USA who wanted to overthrow the government and establish a communist state. It was an exaggeration, but people did get scared.
Finally, the stories coming out of the USSR, like that of bread lines, farmers dying and rampant poverty made Americans very, very suspicious of communism, especially as USA was having a very prosperous period of growth at that time which was credited to capitalism.(5 votes)
- What do they mean by witch-hunt? I thought the Witch-hunt took place in the 1450s through the 1750s.(2 votes)
- Via Merriam-Webster
Witch-hunt: the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views(4 votes)
- How did Marx want his principles to apply to everyday citizens?(2 votes)
- Marx wanted his principles to apply to everyday citizens in such a way as would free them from poverty and exploitation.(3 votes)