Anti-Communist Hysteria and McCarthyism

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Anti-Communist Hysteria and McCarthyism

The American desire to contain the spread of communism affected life at home. Any number of Americans belonged to the Comintern—the International Communist Party. The founding philosophy behind communism is simply expressed: each person should contribute what he or she can to society and the economy, and take as much as he or she needs. Americans who joined the party believed that this ideal was compassionate, generous, and fair. They supported the Communist recognition that workers deserved a fair share of a business’s profits. Communism was especially appealing under the New Deal and during the war years, because it was the opposite of the Fascist regimes that had risen in Germany, Italy, and Spain. (It was only in the years after World War II that people all over the world realized that in practice, communism and fascism amounted to exactly the same thing: a military dictatorship or police state based on censorship and oppression. In Communist nations, citizens were not free to make their own basic choices.)

Any U.S. citizen is free to belong to any political party; it has never been a crime to be a Communist. During the Cold War, however, many Americans apparently forgot this fact. Their irrational fears created a “Red Scare” (red being the symbolic color of communism) in which it became unsafe to be a Communist or even to have Communist sympathies.

In 1938, the House of Representatives had created the Un-American Activities Committee to investigate Fascist groups in the United States. In 1947, this committee began investigating suspected Communists. Its investigation of many prominent people in the Hollywood film industry made national head- lines, since movie stars were celebrities. One group of writers and directors who became known as the Hollywood Ten invoked their constitutional right not to answer the committee’s questions. They were jailed briefly, and after this they were blacklisted in Hollywood. Hollywood studios existed to make profits, and did not want their films boycotted by audiences who had given in to anti-Communist hysteria. Therefore, they refused to hire those who were publicly suspected of being Communists. Fearing the same fate, many Hollywood figures gave the committee the names of anyone they thought might be a Communist or a Communist sympathizer. Others, including Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall, courageously opposed the committee.

The Hollywood Ten were not the only people whose lives and careers were ruined. The FBI investigated any group or individual who was accused of being a Communist. One of the most famous victims of the illegal investigations was internationally acclaimed concert singer and actor Paul Robeson. Robeson, like many African Americans, had spoken publicly about the unequal treatment of his race in the United States. He had visited the Soviet Union and been favorably impressed by his experiences in a land where he perceived no such racial discrimination. When Robeson refused to answer the committee’s questions about his political beliefs, pointing out that such questions were illegal, his passport was taken away. Since no one in the United States would hire a suspected Communist, he was effectively deprived of the means of earning his living.

In 1950, a Wisconsin senator named Joseph McCarthy falsely claimed to have a list of more than 200 Communists currently employed by the U.S. Department of State. This claim, made at a press conference, touched off an era of hysteria that was unparalleled since the Puritan “witch hunts” of the 1600s. McCarthy used his sudden rise to national prominence to ruin the lives of hundreds of people—against none of whom he had any evidence beyond bare accusation. By 1954, McCarthy had been discredited. Ever since this disgraceful era in American history, the word McCarthyism has been used to refer to dirty tactics like those that he used—hurling unfounded accusations, slandering opponents, and playing on the fears and prejudices of the public to gain its support.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The United States in the Post World War II Era Practice Test

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