America Launches a Campaign to Uncover Communists
After World War II, not all the world’s communists were in other countries. Since the 1920s, there had been a communist party in the United States that had taken orders from party leaders in the Soviet Union. But the average American didn’t pay much attention.
After World War II, however, “communist” became a much dirtier word. U.S. government officials helped fuel the fire by talking almost daily about spies and the dangers of communists and communist sympathizers.
Part of the reason for the anti-communist fears was that communists ran America’s biggest post-war rivals, the Soviet Union and China. Part was bewilderment over the success the communists were having in Asia and Eastern Europe. And part was there really were some spies, and the U.S. government failed to keep the atomic bomb the exclusive property of America.
Whatever the reason, commie hunting became a national pastime. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) — dominated by Republicans who included a freshman member from California named Richard M. Nixon — began searching for communists within and without government.
One place they looked was Hollywood. Actors, directors, and writers were called before the committee, and 10 who refused to testify were jailed. Others were “blacklisted” and couldn’t get jobs in the industry for years afterward. But no great plot to undermine America through the movies was ever uncovered.
Casting suspicion on Hiss
The committee caught a bigger fish in 1948. Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor who said he had been a communist until 1937, told the committee that a former member of Roosevelt’s State Department, Alger Hiss, had passed information to Russian spies.
Hiss denied the charges, even after Chambers produced from a hollowed-out pumpkin what he said was microfilm passed between the men. Neither could be prosecuted for espionage because too much time had passed. But Hiss was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison. The Hiss conviction helped Nixon get elected to the Senate in 1950 and win a place as Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952.
Leaking scientific secrets: The Rosenbergs
Hiss wasn’t the only trophy for the commie hunters. In February 1950, it was revealed that a British scientist had given atomic secrets to the Soviets. Among his allies, it was announced, were a New York couple named Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The Rosenbergs were charged with getting information from Ethel’s brother, who worked on the U.S. bomb project in New Mexico. They were convicted of treason and executed in 1953.
Checking the loyalty of federal workers
Despite some reservations that things were getting out of hand, President Truman didn’t leave all the ferreting out of communists to Congress. In 1947, Truman ordered a government-wide “loyalty” review. By the time it was done, more than 3 million federal workers had been reviewed. More than 2,000 workers resigned and about 200 were fired.
Not to be outdone, Congress passed bills in 1950 and 1952 — over Truman’s vetoes — that made it illegal to do anything “that would substantially contribute to the establishment … of a totalitarian dictatorship.” The bills also required “communist front organizations” to register with the Justice Department and denied admission to the country to aliens who had been members of “totalitarian” groups, even as children.
Telling tall tales: “Tail-Gunner Joe”
He was a liar and a drunk — and for a few years he was one of the most powerful men in America. In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech in West Virginia. In the speech, McCarthy said he had a list of 205 known communists working in the State Department.
It was nonsense, but it made national headlines, and McCarthy repeated it and similar charges over the next four years.
McCarthy, who claimed to have been a tail gunner who saw lots of action during World War II, actually had never seen any combat. But he was a formidable opponent in the commie-hunting field. He ripped even General George Marshall and President Eisenhower. Every time he made a charge that proved to be untrue, McCarthy simply made a new charge. The tactic became known as “McCarthyism.”
By the summer of 1954, however, McCarthy’s antics were wearing thin. When he began a series of attacks on the Army for “coddling” communists during congressional hearings, they were televised. Many Americans got their first look at McCarthy in action and were repulsed. In December 1954, the Senate censured him. He died in obscurity three years later of problems related to alcoholism.