The 20th Century can viewed through the prism of conflict; it was a time when the various competing political and economic ideologies—fascism, totalitarianist Communism and capitalist democracy—“duked it out” on the world stage. After the Third Reich was destroyed by the Allies in World War II, fascism was dead, leaving the two remaining schools of thought, Marxism and capitalism, to vie for dominance. This Cold War was fought on many fronts: in the jungles of Vietnam, in the Korean Peninsula, in post-War Europe and in the countries of Latin America. But is was also fought in the home front: the cities, towns and villages of the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States had every right to fear the growing Communist threat emanating from the Kremlin, whose unstated policy was to forcibly establish a new Red World Order (Revel 107). To respond to this threat, and reacting to the many Communist moles that had penetrated the defense and intelligence departments during the War, the government reasonably decided to take action by curtailing certain civil liberties: freedom of speech was redefined to prevent Communist activists from using it as a cloak with which to mask revolutionary activities; the Federal Bureau of Investigation and investigative committees of Congress kept tabs on suspected Red sympathizers; and loyalty checks were sporadically used to root-out Communist infiltrators. As time went on and the Russian threat decreased, however, these infractions into American civil liberties became egregiously, and unnecessarily, obtrusive. Led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, politicians began using the Americans’ fear of Communism as a means for their own self-aggrandizement.

Communist Penetration

Immediately after World War II, the United States correctly feared the power of the Stalinist regime. It had already proved its prowess at recruiting American sympathizers during World War II. These spies had managed to steal designs for the new atomic bomb beneath the noses of America counterintelligence services. Worse, such spies—including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—betrayed the United States not for money, but for service to an idea. They were enamored with Communism and would do anything in their power to further the cause of world revolution. In addition, nuclear spies weren’t the only menace facing America. Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist operative turned editor of Time Magazine, revealed Communist penetration in the highest levels of government. He released evidence proving that such well-known figures as Alger Hiss, a top-level State Department official, Nathan Witt, the general secretary for the National Labor Relations Board, and John J. Apt, a key bureaucrat in the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration were secretly serving Moscow. A report by the House Committee on un-American Activities further illustrates the dangers the United States faced from the Soviet Union, declaring that “numerous Communist espionage rings” (Morris 1) were in place in the United States and working to steal state secrets (Naked Truths 75)/(Vast Aid 1)/Freeman 154)/(Trussell 1).

In light of the already catastrophic results of Soviet espionage and continuing threat, Congress and the FBI worked to counter this threat and thereby protect national security. First, the nuclear-espionage ring was dismantled and its members punished. Many were sentenced to life in prison, several were deported and two were executed. These two, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, would seem to be the epitome of American excess. After all, they were the only two out of a massive spy ring to receive the death penalty. Despite this, their trial and subsequent appeals were handled with respect for the law. Even the American Civil Liberties Union refused to condemn the government in its actions, noting that all the other members of the ring cooperated with investigators, “thus providing a reasonable basis for different sentences” (Spy Case Surveyed 14). (When the Soviet Union fell, records made public clearly implicated the Rosenbergs in efforts to steal the atomic bomb for Russia) (Naked Truths 75)/(Spy Case Surveyed 14).

The Doom of Communist Activists

The government then moved to dismantle the Communist Party and Red sympathizers operating within the government. The House Committee on un-American Activities, set up to fight the Communist threat, worked hand-in-hand with the FBI to identify possible threats. Background checks were run on all government officials, with so-called “derogatory information” (such as membership in the Communist Party or a subscription to the radically left-wing Daily Worker) noted. While this certainly led to false accusations, it did prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a further foothold in American government. Plus, in several cases—such as after the nomination of and subsequent accusation against Charles E. Bohlen to be ambassador to the Soviet Union—evidence collected by the FBI served to clear officials from suspicion and was therefore used with some degree of fairness (Huston E9).

The Four Laws

Congress and the Executive Branch also passed several laws and implemented regulations to counter Communist revolutionaries. The Smith Act, passed in 1940, prohibited speech that advocated the forcible overthrowing of the government. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was aimed at preventing Communist supporters in organized labor from using general strikes to overthrow the government. The Internal Security Act (1950) closed existing loopholes in security regulations and required all members of the Communist Party to register themselves to the government. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 set strict quota restrictions and allowed officials to deport suspected Red sympathizers more easily (Belfrage XIII-XIV)/(Police State 9)/(The Anti-Communist Law 22)/(In the American Way E10).

Critics are quick to lambast all these pieces of legislation, decrying that essential rights of organized labor, immigrants and even American citizens were being violated. The Smith Act, which receives much of their vitriol, however, is the only one of the above laws that can be considered squeaky-clean. Though it did make it illegal to actively support the violent overthrow of the government, such speech can hardly be protected by the First Amendment. Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, writing in a majority opinion upholding the Act, noted that “the obvious purpose of the statute is to protect existing Government, not from change by peaceable, lawful and constitutional means, but change from violence, revolution and terrorism” (183) and went on to write that the threat of Communist revolution posed a “clear and present danger” (187) to national security. He also mentioned that the Act would not prohibit philosophical debate on Communism and its relative merits, but only violent action taken to further those goals. It can also be argued that the Act prevented more detrimental intrusions on civil liberties later on, taking the fire out of proponents of a plan to mandate loyalty tests for supposed-Communist supporters—a policy that even then-13-year-old Raymond Pardon was pulling for in an interview with The New York Times (Vinson 182-89)/(Forum Debates 28).

The other anti-Communism legislation passed by Congress in the early years of the Cold War begins to show a trend towards over-inflation of the Communist threat (now diminishing—the major spy rings had all been broken up, and the Communist Party was a walking corpse) for the furtherance of other goals. The Taft-Hartley Act, though aimed at protecting the American economy from Communist-instigated general strikes (which occurred in both France and Italy), also had the effect of curtailing organized labor, giving the president that power to issue stop strikes. The other two laws, the Internal Security and McCarran-Walter Acts, were even more egregious in their restriction of civil liberties. In the first, important loopholes were closed in existing espionage, deportation and sabotage law. However, this came at the expense of severely restricting American freedom of thought. All members of the Communist Party had to register themselves to the federal government, persecuting the ideology Communism, not the violent proponents of it. In the second, Congress concealed a hidden anti-immigrant agenda behind a supposed effort to prevent the “influx of Communists”. The only true result that McCarran-Walter brought about was to slow the emigration of the “undesirable” types (read Southern and Eastern Europeans) that American “Nativists” had always loathed (The Anti-Communist Law 22)/(In the American Way E10)/(Police State 9).

Enter McCarthy, Stage Left, Brandishing Pitchfork

Still, no matter how much McCarran-Walter or Taft-Hartley intruded on American civil liberties, the work of Senator Joseph McCarthy was infinitely more damaging. The junior Senator from Wisconsin, McCarthy yearned for fame and glory—“rewards” that his early legislative efforts in Congress had not given him. He was also paranoid, according to psychiatrists who studied him years after his demise. “{L}ife was a series of conspiracies…directed at him” (Cook 77). He lacked self-confidence, and his brusque exterior concealed a “neurotic drive” and a “basic insecurity” (Cook 77). The only way to achieve his grandiose dreams and cover up his neuroses was to latch onto the public fear of Communism and use it to gain power (Cook 77)/(Reeves 161, 195).

Once he realized this fact, the course of action became simple. In a famous speech before the West Virginia Republican Women’s Club in February of 1950, he made the—largely false—claim that he had uncovered over 250 Communist sympathizers within the ranks of the State Department. The public hysteria that followed propelled him into the media spotlight, despite the detail that many of his “facts” were completely inaccurate. What followed was a complete perversion of the time-honored American principle: rule-of-law. Hundreds of suspected Communists were named by McCarthy and his crony, Roy Cohn; most lost their jobs as a result. An ad-hoc blacklist was also established for suspected Red sympathizers. Once a person was put on the list, she could kiss her career goodbye. Even the press was not immune—the editor of The New York Post was hauled before McCarthy’s Congressional Committee simply because he had the audacity to criticize him. McCarthy used his position to browbeat critics and enemies into submission and earned himself a high place in the Republican Party’s echelon of power as free thought and due process were sacrificed on the altar of public panic (Reeves 161,195)/(Cook 417)/(Naked Truths 75)/(Freedom and Fear 18).

A Lesson Learned

Fortunately for American civil liberties, McCarthy’s reign of terror didn’t last forever. With the Korean War coming to an end, the public was less likely to believe fanciful concoctions of communist “plots”. He also ran awry of President Eisenhower by accusing high-ranking officers of the Army of pro-Communist leanings. Finally, the Senate opened up its own hearings on McCarthy’s hearings. His fellow Senators found him in guilty on five counts: contempt of the Senate or a Senatorial committee; encouragement of United States employees to violate the law and their oaths of office or executive orders; receipt or use of confidential or classified documents or other classified information from Executive files; and abuses of colleagues in the Senate and abuse of Ralph Zwicker, a general officer in the Army of the United States. America could finally return to normal and repair the tattered shreds that were all that was left of its civil liberties (McCarthy ‘Trial’ E1)/(Naked Truths 75).

The hunt for Communists in the United States began with pure motives. Because of the Soviet Union’s demonstrated intelligence prowess in World War II, the federal government had a duty to protect America’s national security even if it meant a temporary infringement on civil liberties. After all, what’s the use of Constitutional protections in a Siberian gulag? Nonetheless, when the Communist threat diminished towards the middle of the Cold War, the hoopla surrounding “antiredism” didn’t. Instead, the movement was co-opted by the government to further its own ends. Chief among these manipulators was Joseph McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin who almost single-handedly destroyed American due-process traditions. Fortunately, these Constitutional rights were restored after the reign of McCarthyism. Yet the memory of those dark times lives on—a warning not to get so swept away by fear that all other considerations are secondary. As The New York Times wrote in an editorial criticizing this reign of terror, “it is contrary to the best interests of the country to capitalize on fear” (Freedom and Fear 18).

Works Cited:

  • “The Anti-Communist Law.” The New York Times. 24 Sep 1950, late ed: 22.
  • Belfrage, Cedric. The American Inquisition: 1945-1960. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1973.
  • Cook, Fred J. The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy. New York: Random House, 1971.
  • “Forum Debates Loyalty Checks.” The New York Times. 12 Jan 1953, late ed: 28.
  • “Freedom and Fear.” The New York Times. 9 May 1953, late ed: 18.
  • Freeman, Ira Henry. “How the Russians got World’s Biggest Secret.” The New York Times. 1 Apr 1951, late ed: 154.
  • Huston, Luther A. “F.B.I. files Hold Facts and some Figments, Too.” The New York Times. 29 Mar 1953, late ed: E9.
  • “In the American Way.” The New York Times. 29 Jun 1947, late ed: E10.
  • “McCarthy ‘Trial’.” The New York Times. 5 Sep 1954, late ed: E1-.
  • Morris, John D. “House Body Says Spy Rings still Exist in Government: Scores White House Tactics.” The New York Times. 29 Aug 1948, late ed: 1-.
  • “Naked Truths.” The Economist. 24 Jan 2004: 75.
  • “Police State Seen in new Alien Law.” The New York Times. 29 Dec 1952, late ed: 9.
  • Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: a Biography. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.
  • Revel, Jean-Francois. “Peaceful Coexistence is Impossible.” Communism: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Bruno Leone. St. Paul: Greenhaven Press, 1986. 105-12.
  • “Spy Case Surveyed by Liberties Union.” The New York Times. 8 Dec. 1952, late ed: 14.
  • Trussel, C. P. “Red ‘Underground’ in Federal Posts Alleged by Editor.” The New York Times. 4 Aug 1948, late ed: 1-.
  • “Vast Aid to Soviet Lat to Atom Spies.” The New York Times. 9 Apr 1951, late ed: 1-.
  • Vinson, Fred M. “Advocacy of Communism is not Protected by the Bill of Rights.” The Bill of Rights: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. William Dudley. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1994. 182-89.