In 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established. It was a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The purpose of HUAC was to investigate allegations of communist activity in the United States during the early years of the Cold War. HUAC used its subpoena power as a weapon and called citizens to testify in high-profile hearings before Congress.
HUAC targeted people in Hollywood and the film industry. The Hollywood Ten (ten male writers and directors who were called to testify in October of 1947), were accused of being communists. They refused to cooperate with the investigation and denounced HUACs tactics. All were cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison terms. They were also all blacklisted from working in Hollywood.
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before HUAC. Chambers confessed that he was a former member of the American Communist Party. He accused Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking State Department official, of serving as a spy for the Soviet Union. Based only on evidence from Chambers, Hiss was found guilty of perjury and served 44 months in prison. Alger Hiss proclaimed he was innocent.
The tactics of HUAC served as a template for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Joseph McCarthy was a first-term senator from Wisconsin who won his election in 1946. He was a Republican. For context, World War II began in 1939 and ended in 1945. The war made many Americans convinced that subversive communists could infiltrate and cause harm to Americans and the United States government. The name for this is the “Red Scare”.
Part of the reason why Americans became extremely paranoid about communists lurking among them was because American leaders were repeatedly telling the public to be fearful of subversive communist influence in their lives. HUAC was terrifying and convincing to some Americans. Senator Joseph McCarthy became the loudest voice and pushed the idea that communists were infiltrating the United States.
Harry Truman was the President of the United States from 1945–1949. He assumed the presidency when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Truman’s second term was 1949–1953. President Truman was a Democrat. On November 5, 1946, Republicans recaptured the majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats for the first time in 15 years. (It lasted for one Congress.)
In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech at the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. He held up a piece of paper and declared that he had a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party who were “working and shaping policy” in the State Department.
A month after McCarthy’s accusation, the Senate formed a subcommittee and launched an investigation into his claims. They found no proof of any subversive activity.
In 1952, Joseph McCarthy was reelected. He obtained the chairmanship of the Committee on Government Operations of the Senate and of its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Britannica has a succinct explanation of what McCarthy did with that power:
For the next two years he was constantly in the spotlight, investigating various government departments and questioning innumerable witnesses about their suspected communist affiliations. Although he failed to make a plausible case against anyone, his colorful and cleverly presented accusations drove some persons out of their jobs and brought popular condemnation to others.
History.com states: “Despite a lack of any proof of subversion, more than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs as a result of McCarthy’s investigations.”
HowStuffWorks reported that Senator Joseph McCarthy:
“…used severe intimidation, often the threat of prison, when trying to get information — and he often had little or no solid evidence on which to base his claims. The names of many witnesses and suspects were released publicly, resulting in defamation of character and guilt by association. Careers and reputations were irreversibly damaged. And when all was said and done, there were no convictions for subversion.”
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the 34th President of the United States. He was a Republican. His running mate was Senator Richard M. Nixon of California. When Senate Republicans took majority during Eisenhower’s presidency, all branches of government were under Republican control. The party also captured the Supreme Court.
In 1954, Senator McCarthy focused on “exposing” the supposed communist infiltration of the armed services. The “McCarthy hearings” lasted 36 days. The hearings were televised and led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. During the hearings, McCarthy insisted that the Army had promoted a dentist who had refused to answer questions for the Loyalty Security Screening Board.
The climax of the McCarthy Hearings came when Senator Joseph McCarthy suggested that the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, had employed a man who had belonged to a communist front group. Joseph Welch rebuked the Senator by asking: “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Senator McCarthy was discredited, and public opinion turned against him. This was furthered by journalist Edward R. Murrow who criticized Joseph McCarthy with a devastating editorial on his show “See It Now”. McCarthy was censured for his conduct by the United States Senate, and died in 1957.
Dictionary.com defines the word “McCarthyism” as:
- the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, especially of pro-Communist activity, in many instances unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence.
- the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.
This blog was originally posted on Medium on December 5, 2018.
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