A Question About The McCarthy Hearings and Communism

I’ve never really understood why the McCarthy hearings did so much damage to so many people. Was it ever actually illegal to be a communist in this country? And was communism in this country ever an actual threat to our way of living? I mean, were there ever enough communists in this country to actually change the way our government is run?

And what was the big deal with communism in Hollywood, anyway? Did the government honestly believe that actors, writers, etc. could really take this country to hell in a handbasket?

–Persephone, who really needs to take a break from A&E and the History Channel…

I think a large part of that was due to tension between us and the Soviets. After the war, we were the only superpowers left, and there was a very tenuous relationship between us. The fears were that they would try to cause a communist revolution in America as part of their goal towards a worldwide communist revolution. Such a worldwide revolution had always been a part of Marx’s and Lenin’s visions of communism. Therein lay the importance (at least to the politicians of the time) of removing potential communist subversives from positions of power before they had a chance to undermine the government or provide Russia with sensitive information.

I don’t think so, there was a Communist Party in this country, after all. I do remember reading somewhere that you cannot be granted citizenship if you had ever been a Communist Party member in another country, though, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.

In this country, in the 1950s? Probably not, but there were communist parties in Western Europe that were powerful enough that the governments over there had legitamate concerns that they might attempt a revolution. Some of the American politicians participating in the Communist witch hunts were probably concerned about stopping American communism before it had a chance to get that powerful, even if it wasn’t likely that it would. Of course, others, such as McCarthy himself, created the Red Scare to gain political power and make a name for themselves.

There have always been people who claimed that art, in one form or another, would be responsible for the decay of society. Just look at all the people who complain about sex and violence in the media and blame television and movies for the recent “epidemic” of teen violence and immorality.

They were never a serious threat to the U.S. (particularly by the 1950s), however they were a perceived threat.

In the U.S., the social reforms of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (with a few that showed up under Taft), undercut most of the really serious movements (Marxism, various kinds of Socialism, Anarchy, and a few others) by blunting the worst abuses of 19th century Capitalism. We went through a “Red Scare” at the end of WWII (following the Bolshevik victory in Russia), but the general prosperity of the 1920s did not make fertile ground for those movements.

When the Depression hit, most of those groups got a boost in publicity and membership. People looked for answers outside the cultural norms and these anti-government, anti-Capital groups provided them. A lot of people who could not find work and a lot of college kids in normal youthful exploration, associated with these groups, identified with these groups, and even joined these groups.

On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt’s activities did much to minimize the view of the government as “enemy.” At the same time, a fear that an association with “revolutionary” groups caused the labor movement, desperate for legitimacy and fearing Justice Department intervention, to shun them. (The Reuther brothers who got the UAW going had visited Lenin’s Russia and were constantly under suspicion as reds.)

Such groups, particularly the American Communist Party, were a natural place for Soviet agents to attempt to recruit people and they did. The recruiting efforts were not very successful generally, but there were a few individuals recruited who did later make it into high government positions.

In time, as the U.S. slowly pulled itself out of the Depression, most members came to see the groups as ineffectual debating clubs and drifted away. With the onset of WWII, most of the groups simply collapsed as people went off to get war jobs or join the military.

Following WWII, the Soviet Union established a number of puppet states in Eastern Europe as a buffer against any future aggression. Simultaneously, indigenous Socialist and Communist parties used the poverty and chaos following WWII to make strong bids for power in France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and other countries further removed from the Soviet Union. At the same time, Mao was able to push himself into the void created by the defeat of the Japanese and begin establishing his Marxist group as the dominant power in China. A number of independence movements sprang into the open in former colonies around the world. Since Germany had been stripped of most of its colonies in 1918, it was the Western Democracies who were left as the colonial powers. The insurgents could not get aid from the U.S. to get free from Britain or France or Belgium, so they turned to the Soviet Union.

Seen from the perspective of the U.S. (using one set of perceptions), it really did seem as though the Marxist Revolution was threatening to engulf the world.

Of course, that meant that such noble persons as Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon could garner votes if they could just find the right “red” to expose. McCarthy got into the Senate on his war record and, when he did not advance fast enough, decided to speed things up with a little witch hunting.

As noted above, the Soviets had successfully recruited agents from the left-wing political groups. (Not nearly enough to warrant McCarthy’s witch hunt, but enough to get it going.)

Of course, nearly everyone who had gotten a college degree in the 1930s had been exposed to some left wing organization and a great many had joined. Far fewer stayed active, but McCarthy portrayed the “commies” as so stealthy and wicked and smart, that anyone who had ever talked to a communist had probably been corrupted. The entertainment industry has always had a good share of left-leaning individuals, so they were ripe for examination. (After all, they were producing the radio shows and movies that were subtly perverting the nation’s youth to turn them against good American values.)

For the record. I’m pretty sure that McCarthy stuck to attacking people in government, beginning with his claim that the State Department had 200+ “infiltrators.” Despite being unable to produce a single name, he used the publicity to grab a committe chairmanship and spent nearly four years wrecking careers of civil servants for no more reason than a desire for publicity.

I believe that the Hollywood investigations were carried out by the House Unamerican Activity Committee.

No, but the Red Scare was advantageous for Joseph McCarthy and the Republican Party. It gave him fame and power, and his claim that he had a list of communists in the State Department was useful to the Republicans as fodder against the Democratic Truman administration. The Republicans didn’t like McCarthy and didn’t want this issue, but it was a black mark against Truman. After a while, almost everyone jumped on the bandwagon since communists were an easy target: we had just fought a war against totalitarians; the USSR had sent spies and the US had only recently accused Alger Hiss (falsely) of spying, and it was easy to confuse the grassroots US socialist movement with the Soviet version of communism.

Eugene V. Debs got almost one million votes as the Socialist candidate for president in 1920. He probably would have gotten more had if he hadn’t been in prison at the time for criticising the government.

Communism and socialism were moderately popular in pre-WWII America and increased in popularity during the Great Depression. Also, while few unions have socialist roots, the Industrial Workers of the World, one of the first big unions, was socialist.

Don’t they still? Like communists, Hollywood is an easy target.
Encyclopaedia Britannica on McCarthy
Somebody’s syllabus which covers this stuff pretty well
SDMB: Why did we fight the Cold War?

Protesilaus, tomndebb, well said and faster. Maybe I should lurk more.

Whether Hiss was a spy or not is still an open question. For those unfamiliar with the case, here’s a good article on it.

The only person actually hurt by the McCarthy hearings was McCarthy; they pretty much discredited him and destroyed his political career (“Have you no sense of decency?”). However, prior to the hearings, McCarthy’s virulent anticommunism created a climate of fear and caused people to lose their jobs because of supposed connection with communism.

This was most obvious in the entertainment industry. Not only with the Hollywood Ten, but with many others. One case involved a woman who hosted a children’s show and whose name was erroneously listed in “Red Channels,” a condemnation of supposed communist influences on TV. She lost her job. I also believe various low-level people in government lost jobs because they either had been communists for a few years, then quit, or they refused to go along with the hysteria.

It was, basically, panic, stirred up by McCarthy, though by the time of the hearings, the panic had begun to subside. It wasn’t the first time the U.S. had a red scare (there was one after World War I, for instance). Communism and socialism are against the mainstream in the U.S., and the mainstream can be made to feel threatened by it.

And let’s not forget that (though it never actually amounted to much of anything) the American Communist Party was funded and controlled by the Soviets. The red-hunters may have been paranoid and over-reacted, but that didn’t mean that no one was out to subvert American society and foment a revolution.

(But no reputable scholar now believes in the “control our precious bodily fluids” argument.)

Actually, I’ve been told-and it’s not so shocking-that the Soviets LOVED McCarthy. They thought he was a great boon to them. He acted just like they did, after all.

While it wasn’t illegal to be a member of the Communist party, membership in the Communist party was grounds for denial of a security clearance, which was neccesary to work in the State Department or DoD. That was what the McCarthy hearings focused on.

I recently read in a book about the KGB that ironically enough, the amount of Russian spies in the US was at a record low at the time of the hearings.

By that time, the idea that the Soviet Union being or ever becoming a utopian worker state was pretty much well known to be a fantasy, and they could no longer recruit spies along idealogical lines.

No offense, but there is no reasonable doubt that Alger Hiss (and the Rosenbergs) were Soviet agents.

Their names were listed in the KGB archives, and made public as spies some years ago. I could dig up a cite if necessary.

OJ did it, too, and Oswald acted alone.


I think the technical rule was that you couldn’t be a citizen if you belonged or had belonged to a group that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government by unlawful means; the Communist Party was classified as one of those groups.

Hence the joke about the immigrant who is filling out his citizenship questionnaire and gets to the question: “Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence?”

The immigrant thinks long and hard about this question, and finally writes down: “Violence.” :smiley:

The law that prevented people with Communist ties from immigrating to the U.S. was the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.

The parts relating to Communism have been repealed although I believe they have been replaced with sections preventing terrorists from immigrating to the U.S.

Dang. Interesting stuff.

There’s one thing I’d forgotten about, though, and that’s the “domino effect” that I learned about in my junior high history classes.

Is this where the idea of the domino effect came from, and did this idea have anything to do with the McCarthy hearings? Or was Sen. McCarthy really just a wacko with delusions of grandeur, utterly devoid of anything remotely resembling a reasonable motive for his actions?

That was the origin of the idea of the domino effect. (I don’t know what year the Domino Theory was officially espoused.) There was quite a nasty series of political and espionage battles fought in the late '40s and the '50s over Austria and Greece to keep them from following Hungary and Poland and Yugoslavia and Bulgaria into the Red camp.

The Domino Theory had little to do with McCarthy, however. He probably shared the genuine middle-class American concern for the spread of Communism, but what he was really striving for was personal power. His tool was demogoguery and witch hunts.

Wouldn’t that have been when we went to help Greece and Turkey resist the Soviets in '46 or '47? I’m pretty sure that was when the Truman Doctrine was created.

I believe that you are right that the Domino Theory was first mentioned in connection with the Truman Doctrine.

In Massachusetts, being a communist party member is still illegal (as is everything else in this wonderful Commonwealth). Of course, they didn’t come out in just one law to say it, they had to spread it out a bit:

Gotta love this place…