During several decades of the Cold War, there could be no doubt that the main adversary facing the USA was the international Communist block led by the Soviet Union. While the interests of the USA and the USSR collided all over the world, the struggle occurred on American soil as well. Involved in a political conflict of exceptional magnitude and eager to see the defeat of Communism, some American politicians could go too far in their zealous effort to oppose America’s enemies. A particularly noteworthy example was Senator McCarthy, a prominent figure during the Second Red Scare – a period of an extensive search for supposed Communist agents in American government agencies in the early Cold War. McCarthy was correct in the fact that Communism expanded its global influence after WWII, but his specific accusations were untrue, and the practices they encouraged went against American liberties.
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McCarthy outlined his vision of the struggle between the democratic USA and the Communist USSR in his famous 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. According to him, there could be no peaceful coexistence between democratic Christian nations and atheist Communist countries (McCarthy, 1950). The very fact that Communism was anti-capitalist and anti-Christian made it a dire threat as far as McCarthy was concerned. He also pointed out that international Communism has expanded its global influence over 800 million people, likely referring to the Communist victory against nationalists in China (McCarthy, 1950). It is unclear what the Senator meant when he said that the United States, as the leader of the democratic world, only influenced about 500 million people by the same date. However, the most worrying prospect for McCarthy was not that the Soviet Union increased its influence in other countries but the possibility of Communist agents or sympathizers infiltrating the American government. Therefore, McCarthy called for a vigilant search for and uncompromising defense against the suspected Communist influence in American politics, culture, and society at large.
McCarthy’s claims were an interesting mixture of true facts and unsupported accusations. T was undoubtedly true that the United States and the Soviet Union were bitter political rivals at that point, and that the sphere of Communist influence in the world increased since 1945. However, when it came to particular accusations against specific people, the Senator did not fare so well. The centerpiece of his speech was the claim that John S. Service, a State Department appointee to China in the 1930s and 1940s, essentially supported Chinese Communists instead of American ally Chiang Kai-Shek (McCarthy, 1950). Even though the Secretary of State fired Service after McCarthy’s accusations, they did not hold well historically. In 1957, a unanimous Supreme Court decision ruled that the Secretary of State could not fire Service for the lack of evidence and obligated the State Department to reinstate him (Bridge, 2016). Thus, while McCarthy was right in the sense that Communism expanded its global presence, his allegations involving specific people were ultimately proven untrue and unjust.
Yet the Second Red Scare was not brought about by a single speech – there were numerous reasons for Americans to share the anti-Communist sentiment in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The monopoly on nuclear weapons enjoyed by the United States from 1945, when it first used them against Japan, proved to be brief. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, much to the shock of the rest of the world. The fact that the leading Communist power was able to catch up with the USA so quickly raised suspicions of espionage. Thus, the idea of Communist agents or sympathizers selling American nuclear secrets to the enemy suddenly became very plausible in the public’s mind (Michaels, 2017). Apart from the atomic bomb, the rapid expansion of Communist worldwide influence was also a troubling fact in and of itself. Michaels (2017) is right to call the growth of Communist global influence “breathtakingly rapid” (p. 108). With Communism winning in China and Eastern Europe, the idea of its encroachments against America was also valid, if often misguided.
Those accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers faced grim prospects. Under the provisions of the Smith Act, many actual members of the Communist party were prosecuted and sentenced to prison terms (Michaels, 2017). Those who invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify against themselves earned a derogatory label “Fifth Amendment Communists” (Fagan, 2018). Public or private employers could also take the initiative in their own hands and fire or otherwise sanction political undesirables on their own (Michaels, 2017). As a result, the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism as its part contributed to a nationwide purge of those suspected as the agents of a hostile foreign power.
It might be tempting to view the excesses of McCarthyism as a thing of the past – especially since both the Cold War and the Red Scares have ended long ago. However, the events similar to the purges of suspected Communists in the 1950s may still occur in the 21st century as well. The most notable example similar to the Red Scares of the past would be the rise of Islamophobia in the United States after the 9/11 attacks accompanied by an increase in government repression. For instance, Muslim charities found themselves declared guilty by association by the Department of Justice after 9/11 despite not having any clear link to terrorism (Marusek, 2017). This development mirrors the events of the Second Red Scare, when most of those accused were not active Communists but, rather, their sympathizers or even acquaintances. While the Cold War has ended, any other political crisis may produce a popular and governmental effort aiming to suppress political undesirables, and the War on Terror is not unlike McCarthyism in some respects.
As one can see, the Second Red Scare may serve as an example of how willingness to deal with a political crisis may cause wrongful accusations and infringements upon liberties. It would be erroneous to say that Senator McCarthy’s claims were entirely wrong: the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union was very real, and the existence of Soviet agents – a reasonable possibility. Rapid Communist expansion, combined with the shock of the USSR developing an atomic bomb, also provided ample grounds for the anti-Communist sentiment. However, McCarthy’s accusations against John S. Service proved to be unfounded, as was the case with many victims of the Second Red Scare. Even when no formal legal action occurred, public or private employers could go after political undesirables on their own. The tightening of governmental repression mechanisms and the rise of popular Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks bear a notable similarity to McCarthyism and signal that any political crisis may cause out-of-proportion action against undesirables.
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Bridge, D. (2016). Holding the accountability problem accountable: Response mechanisms to counter-majoritarian Supreme Court decisions. American Review of Politics, 35(1), 18-43.
Fagan, S. (2018). From Benghazi to Russia: An assessment of Congress’s treatment of the Fifth Amendment in recent congressional investigations. Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, 31, 601.
McCarthy, J. (1950). ‘Enemies from within’ speech delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia. The University of Texas. Web.
Marusek, S. (2017). Inventing terrorists: The nexus of intelligence and Islamophobia. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 11(1), 65-87.
Michaels, J. (2017). McCarthyism: The realities, delusions and politics behind the 1950s Red Scare. Routledge.