Created | Updated Jul 12, 2011
Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?
- Catchphrase of the House Un-American Activities Committee
Joseph McCarthy is most famous for lending his name to a period of American history called McCarthyism. This was an anti-communist initiative, designed to remove from positions of power anyone who allegedly did not have the best interests of America at heart. It occurred during the Cold War, a struggle for power with the Soviet Union which lasted for over 30 years. No battles took place between them during that time, but it was a period of threats, of stockpiling weapons, the Cuban Missile Crisis and of paranoia. It was not the first communism scare, but it was certainly the most hysterical.
McCarthy was born in 1908 in Wisconsin, America. He studied law, becoming a court of appeal judge, until America joined World War II in 1941. He then joined the US Marines, reaching the rank of Captain, and when the war finished he was twice elected Senator, in 1946 and 1952.
McCarthy came to the nation's attention following a speech he gave on 9 February, 1950 in West Virginia. During the speech he produced a piece of paper that he claimed contained a list of known communists working for the US State Department.
In the following years McCarthy suggested that communists (the enemy) had infiltrated every level of American life. Although his first claims were directed at the State Department, he soon extended them to the rest of the country. He came up with plans for a blitz on communism, finding and punishing all those with left wing leanings.
McCarthy is often erroneously referred to as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), though McCarthy, as a senator, had no direct involvement with this House committee. However, his name was now firmly entrenched in a term used to describe intense anti-Communist suspicion and the HUAC's activities, which quickly became synonymous with fear, were described as 'McCarthyist'. The Committee would interrogate people who had been associated with 'Un-American activity', such as possessing censored books, refusing to take the Pledge of Allegiance1 or attending communist meetings. Whether the charges were true or false, recent or ancient history, the punishment was the same. If convicted of an offence before the Committee, the accused would have their reputation trashed, receive a fine at the least, but more often were imprisoned, and be forced to implicate other people, often being fed names by the Committee. Refusal to name names was seen as refusal to repent; an admittance by the defendant of retaining communist sympathies. Guilt by association was the key to the whole affair, with new accusations spreading out in waves around the current defendants.
Hollywood and Blacklisting
Blacklisting was a technique used in the film industry. If a person was suspected to have communist connections, they would be blacklisted until they came to trial. This meant they would have their passports and their rights to work in film removed, and their blacklisted status would be published. Blacklisting was by association; if an acquaintance was convicted then you would be blacklisted until you were either charged or acquitted.
The Committee particularly focussed on high profile people, especially those in the media. Many were adversely affected in some way by the era, although there were exceptions; Walt Disney, a fierce anti-communist, was a supporter of McCarthyism. The playwright Arthur Miller (the one who married Marilyn Monroe) was accused, refused to confess, and was lucky to escape with a steep fine. He went on to write The Crucible in 1953, a play based on the Salem witch-hunt but an allegory with obvious parallels to McCarthyism. It was published in the middle of the era, and although it was acknowledged as a great play, no one dared take too much of an interest in it.
The first stages of the investigation into the film industry were the interviews of 41 people who worked within it, 19 of which were noted as having a left-wing bias. Of these people, one, Bertolt Brecht, left for Germany, eight gave evidence and named their accomplices, and ten refused.
The so-called 'Hollywood Ten' cited the Fifth Amendment as evidence of their right to remain silent.
I would prefer, if you would allow me, not to mention other people's names. Don't present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this Committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer.
- Larry Parks, the only actor of the Ten
However, the HUAC had the view that the only way of proving you were now a 'proper' American was to tell the Committee who else was involved. The courts upheld the arguments of the HUAC, and the Hollywood Ten each spent a year in prison. They remained blacklisted long after, and although one eventually cracked and answered the questions required, giving names, the other nine remained faithful.
This was a leaflet compiled by four right-wing men, who had been carefully studying the literature of the communist movement. It revealed 151 alleged Communist Party members of the film industry not yet known to the HUAC, who were all instantly blacklisted.
Two of the more famous victims of McCarthyism were Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, but the majority of the accused were people unknown to the public; writers who may have written something controversial, producers, or people from behind the scenes.
Some writers continued their career using pen names instead, although eventually a minority defied their blacklisted status and wrote films using their own names. Dalton Trumbo was the first to do so when he wrote Spartacus (another film with echoes of McCarthyism) in 1960, when McCarthyism itself was over but the HUAC was still in existence. Other blacklisted authors preferred to use a 'fronting' technique, where they hired a person to pose as the author of their work.
The End of an Era
After four years of McCarthyism, his credibility was wearing thin. He went so far as to imply President Eisenhower had communist connections, when the President refused to allow McCarthy access to his files. This snub by the President not only knocked the momentum of McCarthy's campaign, it also led people to start doubting McCarthy and seriously question the validity of some 'confessions'.
The tide of public opinion was further turned by Edward R Murrow in his broadcast See it Now, on 9 March, 1954. Prompted by news that McCarthy was planning an attack on him, he got in first by featuring McCarthy on his programme. The team compiled a dossier of clips and papers, painting McCarthy as a fanatical madman. McCarthy's answer to hearing about the programme was to demand time on the programme to defend himself, during which he branded Murrow the 'leader of the jackal pack', doing little to erase the image the documentary left behind. Murrow's famous words cemented this image of McCarthy:
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility.
CBS discontinued See it Now as a direct result of the McCarthy broadcast, but it was too late. People saw McCarthy in a different light. Instead of being a guardian of everything America stood for, he was a man with too much power and not enough self-control. People ceased to be in awe of him, and without their fear and respect his campaign lost momentum.
Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
- Jack Nye Welch, Army Attorney, during an army hearing
Eventually the inevitable happened, and McCarthy became tangled in his own web. He had made the mistake of accusing the Secretary of the Army of espionage. In rebuttal to this, the Secretary provided evidence of the Committee's underhand tactics, citing his soldiers' claims of intimidation, offers of protection and promises of promotion in exchange for false evidence. McCarthy was removed from the board2 and stripped of his political power.
Such an intense period of history takes a long time to heal, and even today, echoes are felt. During the 1999 Oscars ceremony, many actors refused to rise for the presentation of an honorary Oscar to director Elia Kazan, because he had given the HUAC eight names.
There is also the worry that such an era will return, when people are ruined by unfounded accusations and guilt by association is assumed. The fact that it was allowed to happen in a country which considers itself to be the land of the free, is worrying to many members of ethnic, religious and social minorities.
From its inception until McCarthy's death from alcohol abuse in 1957, this period only lasted seven years, but to any historian it qualifies as an era.