In the early 1950s, Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, conducted highly publicized congressional hearings to uncover subversive elements within American culture, government, and military. For over three years, McCarthy used questionable means to uncover information about suspects. The McCarthy era represents the height of the post-war "Red scare" and demonstrates the degree to which paranoia about subversive communist activities had gripped America.

The wartime Alien Registration Act of 1940 laid the foundation for McCarthyism. This act required that all aliens over the age of 14 residing in the United States register with the American government. Each resident alien had to file a report detailing his or her political beliefs and work status. The act also made it illegal for anyone to plan to overthrow the government of the United States.

The Alien Registration Act had a twofold purpose. First, with American involvement in World War II likely, Congress hoped the act would help identify potential wartime saboteurs. The government wanted to avoid a repeat of the situation in World War I, when German-supported saboteurs and German sympathizers targeted

Dalton Trumbo, left, and John Howard Lawson, two screenwriters of the Hollywood Ten, smile and wave from inside a U.S. Marshal's van after receiving prison sentences for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
Dalton Trumbo, left, and John Howard Lawson, two screenwriters of the Hollywood Ten, smile and wave from inside a U.S. Marshal's van after receiving prison sentences for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

American industry and shipping that aided the European war effort. By acquiring a detailed work history of aliens, the government sought to identify potential problems before they occurred. The second and primary objective of the Alien Registration Act was to identify elements of the American Communist Party or other socialist organizations.

It was subsequently determined that the existing House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) would serve as the body that would seek out subversive elements. In 1947, HUAC began a campaign to rid Hollywood of all leftist elements. In a series of highly publicized congressional hearings, some individuals in the entertainment industry identified their peers as belonging to questionable leftist organizations, including the American Communist Party.

In an effort to avoid further embarrassing hearings and to regain public trust, Hollywood studios drew up a blacklist of individuals suspected of belonging to or having an interest in subversive organizations. These individuals found it difficult to work in Hollywood until they had cleared their names before HUAC. The blacklist included many well-known celebrities, including Charlie Chaplain, Burl Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, and Arthur Miller.

The Hollywood blacklist and the HUAC hearings fed the atmosphere of suspicion that gripped American society. To the public, the threat of a complex communist plot to infiltrate American society and government seemed tangible. The high-profile HUAC hearings, combined with the well-publicized Rosenberg and Alger Hiss trials, served to reinforce this sentiment. In the fall of 1949, the government began a crackdown, arresting most of the leadership of the American Communist Party and charging them under the Alien Registration Act.

In February 1950, Joseph McCarthy became involved in the search for subversive elements within the government. McCarthy claimed to have a list containing the names of State Department employees belonging to the American Communist Party. McCarthy's list did not contain any arcane knowledge, having been compiled by the State Department several years earlier following an internal investigation. Additionally, most of the names were on the list for other questionable behaviors. Few members on the list had any current or previous ties to the Communist Party.

McCarthy took to the pulpit when he became chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. Using his position, McCarthy began investigating possible Communist infiltration of various government agencies. McCarthy worked closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and his close friend, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI supplied McCarthy with the information that he needed to keep his committee hearings effective. Government employees found to have ties to the Communist Party or other left-wing groups were removed from office and forced to divulge the names of other individuals affiliated with leftist organizations.

McCarthy's committee also targeted the Overseas Library Program. The Government Committee on Operations of the Senate identified and banned over 30,000 books thought to have been written by communist sympathizers or to contain procommunist themes. Many public libraries across the United States removed these books from their shelves.

McCarthy's operations further expanded into the realm of American politics. His committee conducted disinformation campaigns to thwart the reelection bids of politicians that opposed him. McCarthy even targeted the Truman administration, including President Harry S. Truman himself and cabinet member George Marshall, the renowned architect of the postwar Marshall Plan, for supporting the New Deal and for being perceived as soft on communism in Korea. McCarthy supported Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential campaign in 1952, and in return, Eisenhower allowed McCarthy to continue his anti-Communist hearings.

In October 1953, after nearly three years of targeting civilian agencies, McCarthy set his sights on identifying and removing subversive elements within the United States Army. Eisenhower, a former army general, decided to stop him. Vice-president Richard M. Nixon spoke out, asserting that McCarthy was motivated not by concern for his country but by a desire for personal aggrandizement. It was revealed that McCarthy had tried to prevent the army from drafting one of his staff members, G. David Schine. After failing in that attempt, McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, had petitioned Stevens to grant special privileges to Schine. The Schine affair prompted McCarthy to target Secretary Stevens: when Stevens refused his request, McCarthy claimed that the army was holding Schine hostage in order to prevent his committee from uncovering communist elements within their ranks.

McCarthy determined that Congress should investigate the matter. He also sealed his fate by allowing television cameras to air the Army-McCarthy hearings. During the hearings, McCarthy and Cohn sought to characterize the army as an organization riddled with subversive elements. Throughout the hearings, McCarthy appeared rude to an attentive television audience. On the other hand, a personable attorney, Joseph Welch, represented the army. It was Welch who ultimately destroyed McCarthy's credibility with his retort to McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" A bewildered McCarthy did not realize that the power that he once wielded had been crushed before a national television audience. In December 1954, Congress censured Joseph McCarthy by a vote of 67–22.



Fried, Albert. McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare: A Documentary History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Reeves, Thomas C. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography. Madison, WI: Madison Books, 1997.

Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.


Cold War (1945–1950), The Start of the Atomic Age
KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security )
Rosenberg (Ethel and Julius) Espionage Case

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