McCarthyism and American Culture

December 13, 2007
By Jack Wucher, McDonough, GA

The threat of communism in the 1950’s was an ominous one. The department of the government called the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Senator, had the power to apprehend anyone, without evidence, suspected of either being a communist or a communist sympathizer. The origins of McCarthyism, along with the effects on 1950’s culture, and the effects on modern culture exemplifies how deeply McCarthyism is rooted in American culture.
The “Red Scare” of the 1950’s was not the first in America. In the years leading up to and during World War I, the rise of communism in Russia frightened many Americans. When the Great Depression struck the United States, many Americans saw it as a “failure of capitalism” and feared a rise of communism. This period is called “the First Red Scare.” The introduction of communism stripped Russian citizens of their rights. This occurrence foreshadows the stripping of United States citizens in order to prevent the feared spread of communism. This scare died down as the decade went on, but subsequent to World War II, the “Second Red Scare” would occur. After the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union began the Cold War almost immediately. The Korean War also began shortly after the end of World War II. It was soon discovered that some American Government workers had been spies for the Soviets because North Korea and the Soviet Union were now equipped with atomic bombs, very similar to the plans created in the Manhattan Project. The American Government was on the lookout for any Soviet spies that had infiltrated the areas pertaining to the atomic bomb, and these pursuits became successful when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found to have been giving government secrets to the Soviets. The Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death. Their convictions in 1951 and their deaths in 1953 created a panic in the United States among the general public.
The little evidence needed to convict someone made it easier for the government to do so. Librarians, college professors, entertainers, journalists, and clergy were all put under suspicion. This was especially true in entertainment. If entertainers were found taking part in suspicious un-American activities, they would be placed on a blacklist, preventing them from working in entertainment. Many illustrious people working in entertainment at the time such as Charlie Chaplin, Artie Shaw, and Arthur Miller were blacklisted. This caused them to lose their jobs and to be under surveillance by the government. In an act of defiance, Arthur
Miller wrote The Crucible, a screenplay about the Salem Witch Trials which very closely resemble the false accusations and the widespread fear taking over a society. Because he had been blacklisted, The Crucible was not adapted to film until 1957, after the preliminary scare of communism was over. Some of these entertainers had to sign oaths to their government in order to keep their jobs, but were still under observation by the American Government. Many people supported McCarthyism because of the tactics used my McCarthy to scare the general public. Stirring speeches scared Americans into believing that what was being done was the right thing to do. McCarthyism set a tone for that decade, one of fear and panic because of the hysteria conjured up. In 1954, Edward R. Murrow, a very well respected and popular news journalist, ran a report on his program, See It Now, about the McCarthy trials. This report illustrated the brutality and the false claims that McCarthy had used to his advantage. This caused a loss in credibility for the Wisconsin Senator. A further loss in merit occurred when McCarthy was accused by the United States Army of giving preferential and insubordinate treatment to his aid, David Schine. With television cameras focused on the trials, it seemed the tables had glaringly turned on McCarthy.
McCarthyism is still alive in the United States, only in more subtle forms. The foreign policy of the current administration and the treatment of their own citizens echoes the time when Senator McCarthy patronized the Americans of the 1950’s. The method of accusing without evidence is exemplified by the actions of the present politicians. For example, over the past few years, many scholars on the cultures of the Middle East are being eschewed from the intellectual and political realm because of the matter they are experts on. Additionally, people of Middle Eastern descent and people from that region are being persecuted in this post 9/11 mindset. This mindset, known as neo-McCarthyism, is not as apparent as the original, but it is present and fast affecting our culture. There is also a hint of McCarthyism in the tactics used by the current administration. Strategies used today forfeit civil rights for the sake of information. Phone tapping and illegal means of interrogation are two issues that clearly have allusions to McCarthyism and unquestionably forfeit civil rights. The tactics used by the senator could surely be considered demeaning and cruel and the continuation of these tactics only prolongs the effects of McCarthyism on society. Overall, the discrimination of all immigrants, very recently immigrants from Mexico, can also be classified as neo-McCarthyism. The classification of a certain people, whether it is communists, Muslims, Jews, or Mexicans references the McCarthy era that set the precedent for these actions.
There was no issue of individual rights to Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin. In fact, this mindset almost mirrors the approach to society taken by the communist Soviet Union. Through brutality, corruption, and propaganda, McCarthy managed to set the tone for an era. Contrary to what was alleged by the senator, the real threat looming over the United States was its own government, not communism. Although it did pose some threat, the outright panic, accusations, viciousness, audacity, and terror of the McCarthy era changed a nation and the effects are still very present today.

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