McCarthy may have given his name to an era but there was much more to McCarthyism than just one man. In this essay the argument will be that there were many factors leading up to the McCarthy era both internal and external and that McCarthy found a platform in anticommunist fear, as it was popular issue at the time. And his fall from grace in 1954 may also be attributed to both internal and external factors that appeared to alleviate the anticommunist threat.
Today we call it the McCarthy era. While convenient, the tribute is not without reason. McCarthys villainy was so plain that his name became a curse in the year of his control. Characterised as crass and unprincipled, an unimaginative opportunist, and a distinctly second rate politician, McCarthy was also a shrewd judge of public attitudes and temper . This blend made him an overpowering enemy. Elected into the senate in 1946 McCarthy was almost invisible on the public scene until 9 February 1950 . It was then in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he stumbled upon his cause.
But the elements of McCarthyism were hardly McCarthys alone, nor did they diminish after his fall. Joe McCarthy was just one, and not the brightest, of the many inquisitors of the time. He was not a resourceful as his friend J. Edgar Hoover . While McCarthy made the notion of security risks in the federal bureaucracy a national obsession from 1950 to 1954, the foundations were well layed before his arrival and stemmed back to 1945 and the end of the Second World War. However even before the war had ended the ruminations of anticommunism had begun with the introduction of the Smith Act which prohibited the teaching or advocating the overthrow of the government.
Also before the end of the war the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) were confronting people who worked in the state department with their political believes before the war. One such case involved Josephine Herbst, who in 1932 had broadcast on behalf of the Spanish Loyalist and had signed a petition in 1932 ‘protesting the violation of civil liberties in Detriot’ and had wrote an article for the New Masses on Cuba. Due to these FBI investigations Herbst was dismissed from her job with the German section of the US propaganda agency with no explanation . The fear that hung over America during this age had begun without the introduction of Joe McCarthy.
One of the internal factors which paved the way for McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade was the introduction of the Truman doctrine on 12 March 1947 which proclaimed in presidential request for aid to Greece and Turkey which set aside Americas previous closed door mentality to world politics. Nine days later Executive Order 9835 was developed. This order created loyalty security programs for federal employees. This may have been one reason why McCarthy chose to campaign on the slogan Communists-in -Government and deal particularly with the State Department.
Another instance of strong anticommunism before the emergence of McCarthy was the Hollywood Ten trials, which began on 27 October 1947. The House of Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) arraignment of the Hollywood left memorably dramatised the anticommunist decade . The Committee issued subpoenas to those who worked in the film industry that they knew had a radical background. Whether it be a part or production or attending a rally run by the communist party or funded by the Communist Party of America (CPUSA). However the dramatic tension lay in whether the accused would name friends, colleagues and associates. The thrill could be felt either way, when Lillian Hellman refused to name names or when Eliza Kazan did.
The climax of this drama was the moment of self-cleansing avowal or purging oneself, by naming names to the committee. To name was to be exculpated to refuse was to prove oneself guilty. And to take the Fifth Amendment, the right to silence under grounds of self-incrimination, was to deepen the miasma of suspicion around you.
When HUAC cited ten Hollywood writers and directors with contempt of congress for taking the Fifth Amendment the Hollywood Ten trials had begun. The daily media were outspoken in their criticism of the Committee’s purpose and methods of holding these ten men in contempt. About a week later a cold war congress voted overwhelmingly to uphold the contempt citations . The Hollywood ten included Ring Lardner Jr, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Adrian Scott, Herbert Biberman, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samual Ornitz and Edward Dmytryk. They served prison terms of up to one year for refusing to name communists and for their political beliefs.
The trial of the Hollywood Ten indicates that anticommunism was rife in all aspects of society. And that no one, no matter how high up the social strata, would be spared the harsh questioning and prison sentences that had been imposed for those HUAC believed to be members of the Communist Party.
The fear that surrounded America during the fifties culminated in a most sensational case involving the ‘beau ideal of liberal politics Alger Hiss and a podgy unattractive editor of Time magazine, Wittaker Chambers’ . Hiss had been a senior official in the State Department and at the time had Democratic friends. The Republican dominated HUAC listened to the self-confessed former communist Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley who testified that there were communists in the State Department and that Hiss was one of them.
Chambers accused Hiss of having been a member of the Harold Ware Group of espionage agents of which Chambers was a member and Bentley his contact . When Chambers was pressured to deliver some evidence to support his claims he suddenly produced 69 documents, four of which were small notes in Hiss’ handwriting. Chambers claimed that he had held these documents since 1938.
Then in December 1948 Chambers mentioned to Congressman Nixon that he had more information that he had not told the committee about. Chambers took two HUAC officers out to his pumpkin patch and with dramatic climax reached into a hollowed -out pumpkin and pulled out five rolls of microfilm, two of which had been developed . The press got hold of the sensation al story and the ‘pumpkin papers’ hit the headlines. The press was given the story by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who had been closely following the Hiss-Chambers case through the help of Richard Nixon the same Congressman that Chambers had confided in.
On 15 December 1948 a New York grand Jury indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury for falsely denying that he passed State Department documents to Chambers and for denying that he had met with Chambers after January 1937 . Hiss’ first trial ended in a hung jury and Hoover who needed a victory against communists asked for the Hiss case judge to be impeached. Hiss was re-trialed in the November of the same year and with additional evidence was convicted . Five days after his conviction Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years imprisonment. And fifteen days after Hiss was sentenced Junior Senator McCarthy addressed the Republicans Women’s Club in Wheeling.
The Hiss-Chambers case shows that McCarthyism was well in place in America before McCarthy famous Wheeling speech and without his involvement the successful conviction of a prominent State Department member that took place. It also showed that the fear of communism was well entrenched at this time as it was thought that communists were all around them and indistinguishable from other members of their communities. This is indicative that there was far more to McCarthyism than McCarthy.
Joe McCarthy may not have been involved in the Hiss Case however another virulent anticommunist was, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoovers anticommunism did not arise out the McCarthyist era he had been known as an anticommunist as far back as the first Red Scare of the early 1920s, and Director of the FBI since 1924 . The FBI played a large part in the destruction of the American Communist Party as this time and although it was not Hoover alone who made the hunt for communists possible but it was Hoover who gave the Hunt coherence. Hoover was known as the high priest of American anticommunism. He was the most ardent, enduring and prolific exponent, and he was both chief investigator and the mastermind of the great inquisition known as the McCarthy period . This may have been due to the fact that Hoover was well tuned into the masses and trusted by them. His form of anticommunism was in line with the collective of the general population.
McCarthy did not fight the communists alone he to had Hoovers help in the hunt for Reds. He was supported by Hoover who saw in McCarthy an excellent instrument to advance his repressive agenda. The director refined the senator before McCarthy began his crusade, exceedingly helped him inn his heyday and then subtly withdrew from associations with him when it looked like his down fall was imminent.
The Hoover McCarthy friendship went as far back as 1947 when the then freshman senator first arrived in Washington. Then when McCarthy returned from his speaking tour, he telephoned Hoover and told him that he was gaining a lot of attention on the communist issue. And he admitted that he had made up the communist numbers along the way and he asked Hoover if the FBI could help him to obtain information to back up his claims . Hoover who had set the conversation down on a memo had noted that McCarthy would be a very useful tool for Hoover. As former aide of Hoovers stated that McCarthy was never anything more than a tool of Mr. Hoovers…He used him when he was useful and then, later, dumped him when he wasnt . Although the FBI could not find a shred of evidence to prove that there was one single case of a communist in the State Department, the FBI agents spent hundreds of hours pouring over Bureau security files and combing them for use by senator and his aides.
Yet Hoovers help went far beyond that, Crime Records supplied speechwriters for McCarthy and two of his aides. And Lou Nichols personally took McCarthy under his wing and instructed him in how to release a story just before the press deadlines, so that reporters wouldnt have time to ask for rebuttals . Even more importantly Nichols advised McCarthy that he should avoid using phrases such as card-carrying and relace them with communist ‘sympathisers or loyalty risk which did not require as much prove of their involvement with Communist Parties . When McCarthy won re-election and became chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Operations Committee, Hoover gave him names of ex-communists and information on what they could testify to. Hoover also helped McCarthy choose his staff.
The influence that Hoover had on McCarthy has led some historians to believe that “McCarthyism” was from start to finish, the creation of one man Director J. Edgar Hoover.” This shows that McCarthy could not fight the communists alone and needed help from the FBI Director, as well as others in the FBI to support his allegations. Yet Hoover was not the only reason that McCarthy had a wide audience.
Globally the issue of communism had become a major focal point after the end of the war. This fear of communism within America may have stemmed from the many factors that were taking place in a series of countries around them and out of the control of the American Government. The external factors include such things as the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in February 1949 and then four months later the Berlin blockade began.
This blockade was a ban on land traffic between West Berlin and West Germany imposed by the Soviet occupation authorities. By 1948 the Soviet Union had ceased to cooperate with the other three occupying powers. On June 24 that year the Soviet authorities imposed a complete ban on road, rail, and canal traffic between the western zones and the capital.
On June 26 the British and American air forces began flying supplies to the more than two million residents of West Berlin. The blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949. Meanwhile, only a few thousand people in West Berlin accepted the Soviet offer of ration cards valid in East Berlin, and the city government was split into separate east and west institutions in September 1948.
This was a major factor in the McCarthy period as the American government was afraid of the communists gaining control of West Germany and then using the American communists there to overthrow the American government. The idea to airlift in supplies and end the blockade was more about containing communism than helping out an ally in crisis. This was a platform that McCarthy could have used in his rise to prominence as it showed that the communists overseas would try anything to gain power.
The loss of China to the communists in the summer of 1949 was a huge blow to the American government. In 1946 President Truman had sent General of the Army George Marshall as his special ambassador to mediate the conflict between Chiang Kai-sheks government and Mao Tse-tungs communist rebels. The General felt he was blocked by the Kuomintangs obstruction and by the communists determination to ruin any peaceful negotiation in order to win all of China . In January of 1947 Marshall admitted failure and returned to the United States, by 1949 the communists had control of the entire Chinese mainland.
McCarthy used Marshalls inability to save China from the evils of communism as an example of the communist sympathisers that were in the government. This may have helped his rise in 1950, as it would have been fresh in the memories of many Americans. This is an indication that McCarthyism could have taken place without the actual figure of Joe McCarthy. As the points that he used in his exploitation of the State Department may have been used by any person with the same anticommunist views, but he appeared to be in the right place and at the right time.
In September of the same year it was announced that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb, years before the date predicted by American scientists. The only plausible reason why that occurred was that Soviets had had access to American secrets. HUAC had already published a report about Soviet spy activities in relation to the atom bomb, and its doubts were not unfounded as in February 1950 it was revealed that Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project had spied for the Soviet Union . Fuchs was arrested and interrogated for his part in passing American secrets to the Soviets and was jailed for fourteen years. However during his questioning Fuchs named a runner of secrets, Harry Gold who he had got some information from which was passed on. Through this connection the FBI who was investigating this series of espionage rings was finally led to David Greenglass, who in turn named his sister and her husband, Ethal and Julius Rosenberg, which led to one of the largest espionage cases to ever hit America.
The Rosenberg’s were prosecuted in the summer of 1950 with espionage with the major evidence coming from a few ex-communists who were either in prison, like Fuchs, or under indictment. Greenglass, who had been a machinist at Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was being made, testified that Julius Rosenberg had asked him to get information for the Soviet Union. He claimed that he made sketches from memory of experiment lenses to be used to detonate atomic bombs . Greenglass said that Julius had given him half the top of a Jell-o box and told that a man in New Mexico would have the other half and that Greenglass would give the information to him.
Gold collaborated with Greenglass testimony after being released from prison where he was sentenced for other espionage charges. He said that he had never met the Rosenberg’s, but that a Soviet official gave him half a Jell-o box top and told him to contact Greenglass. Gold said that he took the sketches that Greenglass had made from memory and gave them to the Soviet official.
There were many aspects of this that were troubling. Did Gold cooperate for early release from prison? After serving fifteen years of his thirty-year sentence he was paroled. How reliable a memoriser was David Greenglass as he was only a level machinist not a scientist. Another reason these confessions are suspect are that at first their stories did not collaborate. But they were both placed on the same floor of New Yorks Tombs prison before the trial to give them time to coordinate their testimony . From the evidence given by these key witnesses the Rosenberg’s were found guilty and sentenced to death by electrocution . After a number of appeals and a worldwide campaign to stop the Rosenbergs execution on 19 July 1953 the Rosenbergs were electrocuted.
The Rosenberg trial show that communism could be used as the cause of all things wrong in the world, such as the Soviets detonating an atomic bomb years before predicted by American scientists. Some one in America had to be blamed for sharing government secrets with the Soviet Union, the Rosenbergs were just the scapegoats. McCarthy did not play a major part in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs and even without his appearance five months before the arrest of Julius Rosenberg, the arrests would have still taken place. As Fuchs had been arrested a few days before so the wheels of government would have already been turning.
The best thing that could have happen to McCarthy was the beginning of the Korean War on 25 July 1950, the same year as his Wheeling speech. As it provided the back drop for anticommunism and also enhanced the fears of the outbreak of a third world war. McCarthy said of the Korean War American boys are dying because a group of untouchables in the State Department sabotaged . And the arrests of the Rosenbergs had supplied evidence of spies in the government. However without McCarthy the Korean War would still have taken place and American boys would still be dying. Again the arrests of the Rosenbergs at a similar time to the beginning of the war was more of a coincidence than evidence that spies were responsible of the deaths of Americans in Korea.
The end of the Korean War occurred only four months after the death of Joseph Stalin, head of the Soviet Union, and only a year later the Army-McCarthy hearings began which led to the eventual censure of Joe McCarthy. But the Censure of McCarthy did not mean an end to anticommunism in America.
All of the points above may well have happened without the figure of Joe McCarthy looming over most of them, and some of them did occur without his appearance. The main man of the era would have been J. Edgar Hoover who held many secret files on almost all government employees. Hoover not only over saw the arrests and trials of Alger Hiss, the Hollywood Ten and the Rosenbergs but also many of the HUAC meetings that occurred. The McCarthy era may have been the same without Joe McCarthy, but if Hoover had been taken out of the equation the 1950s would have added up to be a very different period indeed.