Senator McCarthy started to gain popularity in 1950 after a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. He revealed that over two hundred prominent communists were residing in the State Department. Furthermore, he claimed that communists were a part of almost every department of the U.S. administration. His unreasonable charges became a foundation of the Red Scare phenomenon, a period when Americans were afraid that socialists were penetrating all parts of American politics and every-day life. Although McCarthy never found an actual communist spy, he directly influenced public hysteria and presented opponents as communist allies, which brought into popularity the famous term McCarthyism. Thus, due to this phenomenon’s uniqueness, it is essential to study this case carefully by examining his speech, anti-communist sentiments, and subsequent legal implications.
Senator McCarthy’s Definition of Communism
McCarthy separates the world into the Christian and democratic versus the communist and atheist without giving a particularly clear definition of communism. He quotes both Lenin and Stalin saying that the Soviet and communist world cannot peacefully coexist within the Christian democracy. McCarthy presents this as evidence that the communist world, the Soviet Union, in particular, is a clear enemy of the United States (Digital History, 2016). He outlines how shifts in geopolitical power since 1945 have caused the United States and its allies to be outnumbered by the Communist bloc. McCarthy then argues that the real threat from communism is not a physical invasion by outside forces but, rather, is posed by enemies within. He highlights examples from the United States government that seem to identify key government officials as communist sympathizers or outright spies.
However, the senator’s charges are inaccurate and characterized by the emotional load rather than sound evidence. In all of the examples he utilizes, McCarthy mentions peoples who did not play an influential (or even any meaningful) role in the processes he describes. For instance, the conference in Yalta could be seen as a failure, but Alger Hiss could hardly play a key role in making decisions. McCarthy stresses that Hiss, being the chief advisor of Roosevelt, made the outcomes of the meeting possible. However, the senator does not mention other players, such as other advisors, the British, and the overall situation and factors affecting the three leaders’ choices.
The speech by Joseph McCarthy is a vivid example of the common perception of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes during the Cold War era. A large part of the American population believed that communist leaders were motivated by the wrong reasons, portraying them as evil and manipulative. McCarthy and other politicians established a narrative of constant danger imposed by an enemy, as an interpretation of statements made by Lenin and Stalin suggested that imminent conflict was inevitable in the future. Furthermore, the constructions of fallout shelters and the nuclear arms race were persistent during that time. However, McCarthy was one of the most prominent figures to introduce the idea that the communists have deeply infiltrated the American nation. These claims furthered the sensation of widespread panic and uncertainty, as well as contributed to the division of American society.
Apart from the physical threat, the common belief that the Soviets were threatening American moral values was widespread. Therefore, besides the political and economic conflict, “religious anti-Communists felt it was crucial to save America’s Christian spirit” (Samrai, 2019, p. 76). The study conducted by Ghodsee and Lišková (2016) analyzes the prevailing rhetoric of scholars that addressed Soviet states, which contained a variety of common knowledge statements and assumptions. One of the primary premises includes totalitarian control over individuals’ lives and decisions (Ghodsee & Lišková, 2016). While the authoritarian control of Soviet leaders had taken place during that time, the study argues that Americans were not differentiating between multiple communist states around the globe. Moreover, the rhetoric was mostly based on American governmental statements, which created a one-sided view of the ideology. Overall, the information presented to Americans had a consistent foundation; however, specific arguments were poorly presented, leading to mass hysteria and division.
The human society saw similar trends in the past, and people are facing some types of Red Scare sentiments these days. Clearly, the witch hunt that took place in the Middle Ages and the same process that occurred in the New World can be seen as illustrations of the hysteria against a group of people who are often innocent. As far as the modern times are concerned, the current debates regarding the influence of the Kremlin on the U.S. top politicians, as well as the Russians’ interference in presidential elections, resemble the Red Scare concepts (Friedman, 2017). Although some facts are likely to be true, and the case should be investigated, some people pay too much attention to the Russian influence paying less attention to other more relevant issues.
Individuals Targeted by the Congressional Committee
The essence of Cold War American loyalty was the belief that all communists were implied Soviet spies and should, consequently, have been banned from positions where they could harm the nation’s defense. Congressional investigators accommodated to resolve the issue of identification of these individuals by making people take the Fifth Amendment (Schrecker, 2004). This provided enough evidence to dismiss people who were tried for their connection to the Communist party. Thus, the federal government and various places of employment adopted policies that would target people who requested the right against self-incrimination concerning association with the Communist party.
Moreover, educational facilities, including universities, mistrusted suspicious witnesses and forced them to prove their political reliability. Some of the government’s tactics were the identification based on the principle of guilt by association (Schrecker, 2004). Thus, to identify the communist, it was enough to assess people based on the organization they belonged to, people they associated with, and the ideas they thought were worth supporting. Law-abiding American citizens were put in situations where they were forced to break the law. Therefore, congressional committees and grand juries investigated people in a way that would provoke them to lie or refuse to respond (Schrecker, 2004). Law enforcement agencies sometimes were not capable of interrogating people easily, which required them to “find an indictable offense – especially if someone had not broken the law” (Schrecker, 2004, p. 1058). Thus, the Red Scare had provoked the government, employers, and investigators to be suspicious of various groups of people that were not involved in spying activities. The law was stretched to the point where individuals were forced to lie under oath.
In conclusion, it is possible to note that McCarthy’s position and political agenda helped him gain popularity and political power. He managed to facilitate the growth of anti-communist sentiments that resulted in the hysteria that had rather a negative effect on the development of the American society. Instead of paying attention to truly important, people were trying to detect Communist spies. The Red Scare led to ungrounded tensions in the society that were harmful to its sustainable development.
Digital History. (2016). Senator Joseph McCarthy’s speech on communists in the state department. Digital History Project. Web.
Friedman, U. (2017). Trump and Russia: Lessons from the Red Scare. The Atlantic. Web.
Ghodsee, K., & Lisková, K. (2016). Bumbling idiots or evil masterminds? Challenging cold war stereotypes about women, sexuality and state socialism. Filozofija i Drustvo, 27(3), 489–503. Web.
Samrai, Y. (2019). Reframing the Cold War: Fred Schwarz and Reinhold Niebuhr’s spiritual war against communism in the early Cold War era. Herodotus Undergraduate History Journal, 29, 74-88. Web.
Schrecker, E. (2004). McCarthyism: Political repression and thefear of communism. Social Research, 71(4), 1041-1086. Web.