Modern history

The Anti-Communist Consensus, 1945-1954

For most of Truman’s second administration, fear of Communist subversion within the United States consumed domestic politics. This focus on anticommunism did not emerge abruptly; rather it carried over from policies the president had employed in fighting the Cold War during his first term in office. There was a consensus within the Truman administration that Soviet-sponsored Communists were attempting to infiltrate American society and that such efforts constituted a grave threat to capitalist and democratic values and institutions. This consensus turned into an anti-Communist obsession, as evidence of Soviet espionage came to light. In an atmosphere of fear, lawmakers and judges blurred the distinction between actual Soviet spies and political radicals who were merely attracted to Communist beliefs. In the process, these officials trampled on individual constitutional freedoms.

Loyalty and Americanism

The postwar fear of communism echoed earlier anti-Communist sentiments. The government had initiated the repressive Palmer raids during the Red scare following World War I, which led to the deportation of immigrants sympathetic to the Communist doctrines of the Russian Revolution (see chapter 21). In 1938 conservative congressional opponents of the New Deal established the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to investigate domestic communism, which they tied to the Roosevelt administration. Much of anticommunism, however, was bipartisan. In 1940 Roosevelt signed into law the Smith Act, which prohibited teaching or advocating the “duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence” or belonging to any group with that aim. At the same time, President Roosevelt secretly authorized the FBI to monitor and wiretap individuals suspected of violating the act.

The Cold War produced the second Red scare. Just two weeks after his speech announcing the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, the president signed an executive order creating the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. Under this program, a board investigated federal employees to see if “reasonable grounds [existed] to suspect disloyalty.” The attorney general compiled a list of suspect organizations to assist the board. Soviet espionage was, in fact, a cause for legitimate concern. Spies operated in both Canada and the United States during and after World II, and they had infiltrated the Manhattan Project. The Venona papers, declassified intercepts of Soviet intelligence communications first released in 1995, suggest that a cadre of government officials and federal employees worked for Soviet intelligence during the 1930s and 1940s.

The loyalty board, however, did not focus on espionage. Rather, it concentrated its attention on individuals who espoused dissenting views on a variety of political, social, and economic issues. It failed to uncover a single verifiable case of espionage or find even one actual Communist in public service. This lack of evidence did not stop the board from dismissing 378 government employees for their political beliefs and personal behavior. People lost jobs because they did not satisfactorily answer such questions as “Do you believe in racial integration?” or “Do you listen to the records of Paul Robeson?” (Robeson was an African American singer and actor who had close ties to Communists and the Soviet Union.) Some employees were dismissed because they were homosexuals and considered susceptible to blackmail by foreign agents. (Heterosexual men and women who were having extramarital affairs were not treated in the same manner.) The accused rarely faced their accusers and at times did not learn the nature of the charges against them. This disregard for due process of law spread as loyalty boards at state and municipal levels questioned and fired government employees, including public school teachers and state university professors.

Congress also investigated communism in the private sector, especially in industries that shaped public opinion. In 1947 HUAC broadened the anti-Red probe from Washington to Hollywood. Convinced that the film industry had come under Communist influence and threatened to poison the minds of millions of moviegoers, HUAC conducted hearings that attracted much publicity. HUAC cited for contempt ten witnesses, among them directors and screenwriters, for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs and associations. These and subsequent hearings assumed the form of a ritual. The committee already had information from the FBI about the witnesses; HUAC really wanted the accused to confess their Communist heresy publicly and to show contrition by naming their associates. Those who did not comply were considered “unfriendly” witnesses and were put on an industry blacklist that deprived them of employment.

HUAC grabbed even bigger headlines in 1948. With Republicans in charge of the committee, they launched a probe of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official in the Roosevelt administration who had accompanied the president to the Yalta Conference. The hearings resulted from charges brought by former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers that Hiss had passed him classified documents. Hiss denied the allegations, and President Truman dismissed them as a distraction. In fact, Democrats viewed the charges as a politically motivated attempt by Republicans to characterize the Roosevelt and Truman administrations as having been riddled with Communists.

The Democrats’ concerns proved well founded. Following Truman’s victory in the 1948 presidential election, first-term Republican congressman Richard M. Nixon kept the Hiss affair alive. A member of HUAC, Nixon went to Chambers’s farm and discovered a cache of documents that Chambers had stored for safekeeping in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Armed with these “Pumpkin Papers,” Nixon reopened the case. Hiss never wavered in maintaining his innocence, and the statute of limitations for espionage from the 1930s had expired. Nonetheless, the federal government had enough evidence to prosecute him for perjury. One trial produced a hung jury, but a second convicted Hiss; he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Hiss’s downfall tarnished the Democrats, as Republicans charged them with being “soft on communism.” It did not matter that Truman was a cold warrior who had advanced the doctrine of containment to stop Soviet expansionism or that he had instituted the federal loyalty program to purge Communists from government. In fact, in 1949 Truman tried to demonstrate his cold warrior credentials by authorizing the Justice Department to prosecute twelve high-ranking officials of the Communist Party for violating the Smith Act. In 1951 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the Communist leaders on the grounds that they posed a “clear and present danger” to the United States by advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Despite the presence of some 43,000 Communists, nearly all of them known to the FBI, out of a total population of 150 million and with no evidence of immediate danger, in Dennis v. United States the justices decided that “the gravity of the [Communist] evil” was enough to warrant conviction under the Smith Act.

In 1950 the Truman administration also prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Unlike the Dennis case, which involved political beliefs, the Rosenbergs were charged with espionage. When the Russians successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949, anyone accused of helping them obtain this weapon became “Public Enemy Number One.” The outbreak of the Korean War the following year, in which tens of thousands of soldiers died, made the Rosenbergs appear as conspirators to murder. After a lengthy trial in 1951, the couple received the death penalty, rather than a possible thirty-year sentence, undoubtedly because they refused to confess and because the trial took place during the war. The presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, admitted as much. In sentencing them to death, he told the Rosenbergs that their actions “caused . . . the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows what millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal, you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.”

By 1950 the anti-Communist crusade included Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Liberals had the most to lose because conservatives could easily brand them as ideologically tainted. In his successful campaign to become a U.S. senator from California in 1950, Richard Nixon had accused his opponent, the liberal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, of being “pink down to her underwear,” not quite a Red but close enough. Liberal civil rights and civil liberties groups as well as labor unions were particularly vulnerable to such charges and rushed to rid their organizations of suspected Communists. Such efforts did nothing, however, to slow down conservative attacks. The conservative Republican chairman of HUAC, Harold Velde, linked the anti-Communist issue to traditional Republican fiscal policy in the slogan “Get the Reds out of Washington and Washington out of the red.” In 1950 Republicans supported legislation proposed by Senator Pat McCarran, a conservative Democrat from Nevada, which required Communist organizations to register with the federal government, established detention camps to incarcerate radicals during national emergencies, and denied passports to American citizens suspected of Communist affiliations. (As a result, singer Paul Robeson lost his right to travel abroad.) The severity of the entire measure proved too much for President Truman, and he vetoed it. Reflecting the bipartisan consensus on the issue, the Democratic-controlled Congress overrode the veto.


Joseph Raymond McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, did not create the phenomenon of postwar anticommunism, which was already in full swing from 1947 to 1950, but he served as its most public and feared voice from 1950 until 1954. Senator McCarthy used his position as the head of the Permanent Investigation Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations to harass current and former government officials and employees who, he claimed, collaborated with the Communist conspiracy. He had plenty of assistance from members of his own party who considered McCarthy a potent weapon in their battle to reclaim the White House. Robert A. Taft, the respected conservative Republican senator from Ohio, told McCarthy “to keep talking and if one case doesn’t work [you] should proceed with another.” The press also courted the young senator by giving his charges substantial coverage on the front pages of daily newspapers and then shifting the story to the back pages when McCarthy’s claims turned out to be false. McCarthy bullied people, exaggerated his military service, drank too much, and did not pull his punches in making speeches—but he was not a maverick. He did seek publicity, but his anti-Communist tirades fit into mainstream Cold War politics.

Aware of the power of the Communists-in-government issue, McCarthy gave a speech in February 1950 at a Republican women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia. Waving sheets of paper in his hand, the senator announced that he had “the names of 205 men known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department,” a claim that was based on old information. McCarthy cared more about the message than about the truth. As he continued campaigning for Republican congressional candidates across the country, he kept changing the number of alleged Communists in the government. When Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, a Democrat who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, launched an investigation of McCarthy’s charges, he concluded that they were irresponsible and unfounded.

This finding did not stop McCarthy; if anything, it emboldened him to go further. He accused Tydings of being “soft on communism” and campaigned against his reelection in 1952. Tydings’s defeat in the election helped give McCarthy a reputation of political invincibility and scared off many critics from openly confronting him. McCarthy won reelection to the Senate, and when Republicans once again captured a majority in Congress, he became chair of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee. Not only did he make false accusations and smear witnesses with anti-Communist allegations, but he also dispatched two aides to travel to Europe and purge what they considered disreputable books from the shelves of overseas libraries sponsored by the State Department.

McCarthy stood out among anti-Communists not for his beliefs but for his tactics. His name became synonymous with anticommunism as well as with manipulating the truth. At once jovial and sneering, McCarthy publicly hurled charges so astounding, especially coming from a U.S. senator, that people thought there must be something to them. He specialized in the “multiple untruth,” a concoction of allegations so complex and convoluted that it was impossible to refute them simply or quickly. By the time the accusations could be discredited, the damage was already done. The senator bullied and badgered witnesses, called them names, and if necessary furnished phony documents and doctored photographs linking them to known Communists.

Fighting Communism in the Movies As part of a series of movies alerting audiences to the insidious dangers of communism, Hollywood produced I Married a Communist (1949). Although the story revolved around a shipping executive with a Communist past, the poster features a woman who uses her beauty to serve "a mob of terror" intent on destroying America. Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1954 McCarthy finally went too far. After one of his aides got drafted and the army refused to give him a special commission, McCarthy accused the army of harboring Communists at Camp Kilmer and Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. To sort out these charges and to see whether the army had acted appropriately, McCarthy’s own Senate subcommittee conducted an investigation, with the Wisconsin senator stepping down as chair. For two months, the relatively new medium of television broadcast live the army-McCarthy hearings, during which the cameras showed many viewers for the first time how reckless McCarthy had become. As his public approval declined, the Senate decided that it could no longer tolerate McCarthy’s outrageous behavior and that he was making anticommunism look ridiculous at home and abroad. The famous television journalist Edward R. Murrow ran an unflattering documentary on McCarthy on his evening program on CBS, which further cast doubt on the senator’s character and veracity. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for conduct unbecoming a senator, having violated senatorial decorum by insulting colleagues who criticized him. McCarthy retained his seat on the subcommittee and all his Senate prerogatives, but he never again wielded substantial power. In 1957 he died from acute hepatitis, a disease related to alcoholism.

The anti-Communist consensus did not end with the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953 or the censure ofJoseph McCarthy in 1954 and his death three years later. Even J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb” (see chapter 23), came under scrutiny. In 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance for suspected, though unproven, Communist affiliations. That same year, Congress passed the Communist Control Act, which required “Communist infiltrated” groups to register with the federal government. Federal, state, and municipal governments required employees to take a loyalty oath affirming their allegiance to the United States and disavowing support for any organization that advocated the overthrow of the government. In addition, the blacklist continued in Hollywood throughout the rest of the decade. In the South, anticommunism actually flourished following the Senate’s punishment of McCarthy. After the Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954, a number of southern states, including Florida and Louisiana, set up committees to investigate Communist influence in the civil rights movement. In a case concerning civil liberties, the Supreme Court still upheld HUAC’s authority to investigate communism and to require witnesses who came before it to answer questions about their affiliations. Yet the Court did put a stop to the antiCommunist momentum. In 1957 the high court dealt a severe blow to enforcement of the Smith Act by ruling in Yates v. United States that the Justice Department could not prosecute someone for merely advocating an abstract doctrine favoring the violent overthrow of the government. In response, Congress tried, but failed, to limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in cases of this sort.

Even without the presence of Senator Joseph McCarthy, many Americans would have fallen victim to anti-Communist hysteria. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI did more to fuel the second Red scare than did the Wisconsin senator. Hoover and his bureau did greater damage than McCarthy because they provided the information that Communist- hunters used throughout the government. The FBI was involved in criminal prosecutions in the Dennis and Rosenberg cases, supplied evidence to congressional committees and loyalty boards, and wiretapped suspected targets and used undercover agents to monitor and harass them. Historian Ellen Schrecker has suggested that because of the FBI’s prominent role in the anti-Communist crusade we should call the attacks on suspected radicals during this period not McCarthyism but Hooverism.


• Why did fear of Communists in positions of influence escalate in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

• Why was McCarthyism much more powerful than Joseph McCarthy?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!