McCarthyism a Stain on American History

Posted on February 1, 2018 by


Joseph McCarthy came into power as Senator in 1946. On 9 February 1950, at the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, he made the following comment.

“I have here in my hand a list of 205 names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department,” McCarthy said.

Throughout his time in the spotlight, McCarthy never once showed the list of names of the supposed 205 Communists.

His campaign became known as McCarthyism. The first time the word was publicly used was 19 March 1950, when editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, of the Washington Post, drew a cartoon which, according to McCarthyism – New World Encyclopedia, “depicted four leading Republicans trying to push an elephant (the traditional symbol of the Democratic Party) to stand on a teetering stack of ten tar buckets, the top one labeled ‘McCarthyism.'”

Many federal, state, and local governments, along with private agencies, became part of anti-Communist committees and established loyalty review boards to help them jumpstart “investigations for small and large companies concerned about possible Communists in their workforce. In Congress, the most notable bodies for investigating Communist activities were the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on investigations. Between 1949 and 1954, a total of 109 investigations were carried out by these and other committees of Congress,” the New World Encyclopedia said.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman initiated the Loyalty Review Program, where federal employees would be screened, stating it was necessary to do if there was any probable cause for someone to believe that one person’s loyalty in the government is questionable.

In 1952, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, carried out President Truman’s loyalty-security program, which helped increase the number of agents from 3,559 (1946) to 7,029 in 1952. It caused thousands of government employees to lose their jobs. According to New World Encyclopedia, most of the subjects accused were not even allowed “to know the identities of the informers who accused them, or even know the nature of the accusation because of Hoover’s insistence upon keeping the identity of his informers a secret.”

This was not the only time the FBI practiced illegal tactics during this time. According to the New World Encyclopedia, Hoover “routinely gave evidence from loyalty review hearings to the HUAC, which were supposed to be confidential. At the time, the FBI was also known for orchestrating burglaries, opening mail, and illegal wiretapping.”  

By 1956, Hoover was furious about the decisions made by the Supreme Court that put a hinge in his department’s ability to arrest Communists. He soon formed what is called a “dirty tricks” program called COINTELPRO, in which members would plant forged documents to attract unwanted attention to a certain person and say they were informers for the FBI, “spreading rumors through anonymous letters, leaking information to the press, calling for IRS audits, etc.”

The COINTELPRO program stayed intact until 1971.

But the program, which was involved in anti-Communist investigations was the House Un-American Activities Committee. Formed in 1938, they were initially investigators for German-American Nazis during World War II. They began their Communist investigation in the Federal Theatre Project in the same year. 

A major step in the process were the charges of espionage appointed to Alger Hiss in 1948. Accused of being a Soviet spy in 1948 by Whittaker Chambers, Hiss stood before the court and tried to direct the accusations to Chambers. In the end, Hiss was convicted of perjury and sentenced to three years and eight months in prison.

In October 1947, the HUAC subpoenaed directors, actors, screenwriters, and other professionals in the movie industry to speak before the court about their “known or suspected membership in the Communist Party, association with their members, or if they supported their beliefs,” according to New World Encyclopedia on McCarthyism. One of the questions asked, which became known as the $64 question was, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

The first ten male witnesses refused to cooperate, and they became known as the Hollywood Ten.  They stated they were protected legally by the First Amendment, which gave them the right to refuse to answer such questions. They were imprisoned for contempt of Congress, eight of which were sentenced to one year in prison, and the other two were sentenced to six months.

Later on, other witnesses would claim their legal protection under the Fifth Amendment so they would not incriminate themselves, but Congress “considered it grounds for dismissal by many government and private industry employers,” the New World Encyclopedia said. During this time, if one would acquire their Fifth Amendment protection, they had the right to not reveal whether they were affiliated with any enemy party of the time and refuse to name others for the sake of a possibly lesser conviction.

So many people were stuck with the hard decision between either “crawling through the mud to be an informer, or be labeled as a “Fifth Amendment Communist,’” Larry Parks said.

Some of the famous people who were blacklisted during this time of McCarthyism were as follows: composer and conductor Elmer Bernstein, actor Charlie Chaplin, composer Aaron Copland, attorney Bartley Crum, director Jules Dassin, civil rights activist and author W.E.B. DuBois, author Howard fast, actress Lee Grant, author Dashiell Hammet, playwright Lillian Hellman, animator John Hubley, author Langston Hughes, actor Sam Jaffe, actress Gypsy Rose Lee, actor Philip Loeb, director Joseph Losey, actor Burgess Meredith, playwright and essayist Arthur Miller, actor Zero Mostel, author Clifford Odets, physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, chemist and winner of two Nobel prizes Linus Pauling, actor Edward G. Robinson, author Waldo Salt, folk singer Pete Seeger, jazz musician Artie Shaw, actor Howard Da Silva, economist Paul Sweezy, physicist Tsien Hsue-shen, and actor Orson Welles.

Within the Senate, Democrat Pat McCarran, head of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), passed the McCarran Act in 1950, otherwise known as the Internal Security Act. It was to prevent subversive un-American activities by requiring the registration of Communist organizations, and he “gained a reputation for careful and extensive investigations,” the New World Encyclopedia said.

For a year, the committee investigated members of the Institute of Pacific Relations, including Owen Lattimore (aka China Hands), who was charged with perjury against the SISS in 1952. People affiliated with Lattimore were accused of ‘Losing China,’ and there was nothing to hold up McCarran’s accusation against Lattimore when he claimed Lattimore was “a conscious and articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.” The case was dropped in 1955 after one of the many witnesses confessed to perjury, along with a federal judge rejecting McCarran’s charges.

In 1953 and 1954, McCarthy became the head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He researched suspected influences of Communism in the Voice of America and then the library program of the State Department for works that he himself said were “inappropriate.” Then he reiterated a list of supposed pro-Communist writers before the subcommittee and the press. And, according to New World Encyclopedia, the State department ordered librarians to remove “material by any controversial persons, Communists, fellow travelers, etc.”

Then he investigated the United States Army, beginning at Fort Monmouth’s Army Signal Corps laboratory. In turn, the press made up unfounded stories of there being “a dangerous spy ring among the Army researchers, but ultimately nothing came of this investigation,” New World Encyclopedia said. Next, McCarthy made a case against a U.S. Army dentist, who was promoted to the major rank even though the man refused to answer questions during a loyalty review program for the Army. The Army-McCarthy hearings soon followed suit after McCarthy threw insults at a brigadier general. For thirty-six days, the two sides continued trading charges and counter-charges before a nationwide televised audience.

Not everyone supported McCarthy’s ruthless and and unjustified campaign to seek out Communists in the United States. A number of people strongly opposed him. When President Truman tried to veto the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, he wrote, “In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have.”

He also failed to veto the Taft-Hartley Act, which “among other provisions limited the power of labor unions and denied unions National Labor Board protection unless the union’s leaders signed affidavits swearing they were not and had never been Communists. In 1953, after he had left office, Truman criticized the Eisenhower administration: ‘It is now evident that the present administration has fully embraced, for political advantage, McCarthyism. I am not referring to the Senator from Wisconsin. He is only important in that his name has taken on the dictionary meaning of the word. It is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise of power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear in every level of society,” New World Encyclopedia said.

Maine Republican, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, conducted a speech called a “‘Declaration of Conscience’ to the Senate, ‘calling for an end to ‘character assassinations’ and named ‘some of the basic principles of Americanism: The right to hold popular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,’” the New World Encyclopedia said.

But the most known opponent of McCarthy’s was CBS See It Now newscaster Edward R. Murrow. On 20 October, 1953, an episode aired that showed the dismissal of former reserve Air Force lieutenant, Milo Radulovich, accused of being in contact with Communists. The court displayed a sealed envelope containing the evidence, but neither Radulovich’s lawyer nor Radulovich himself were allowed to see its contents. On 9 March, 1954, another See It Now episode aired, called “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” which directly attacked the senator himself.

In April 1954, when McCarthy attacked Army attorney Joseph Welch, he said that Welch had a fellow employee in his firm that was a member of an organization who were accused of having Communist sympathies, to which Welch famously replied, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no decency?”

Less than one year after Welch’s hearing, the Senate censured McCarthy.

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