Red-baiting, witch hunts, political repression, HUAC, Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Hollywood Ten. Talk about any of these topics and the first thing you’ll associate it with is McCarthyism.
This dark period of political repression was named after Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy took over the news with his allegations of Communists in the federal government, proclaiming that he had a list of names within the State Department who were active communists. The number of supposed members in numerous speeches varied from 57 to 205, to 80, but, nevertheless, in a time where the Soviet Union was considered the bad guy and the Iron Curtain closing in Eastern Europe, the damage was done and the paranoia among Americans was reminiscent to the Salem witch hunts.
Among the Right, eliminating Communism from all groups became a crusade with the supposition that Communist thought was a threat to national security and that it was an anathema to the American way of life. The attacks against Communism came in stages. The first one began in Washington D.C. when the Truman administration under pressure from conservative Republicans started a campaign against home-grown Communists. The core of the campaign was a loyalty-security program (Executive Order 9835 of March 1947) for government employees. It prohibited Communists, fascists, and other totalitarians as well as any sympathizers to be government employees. There was some criticism about EO 9835, but most of it was procedural and its reliance on anonymous stool pigeons. But the crux of the program wasn’t questioned and it spread to private employers.
The program was part of a two stage campaign against domestic Communism and it became a priority. The process was simple: first identify the Communists and then punish them.
Once these so-called subversives were identified, private employers (like the film studios) who collaborated with the red baiters fired the individuals who were deemed an ideological threat. This was the most recognized action of McCarthyism—destroy a person’s livelihood.
An important factor in the campaign were the congressional investigations and hearings (HUAC) to identify radicals that provided a forum from the Republicans that charge Democrats and their administrations to being tolerant of communist subversion.
One of the more famous cases that came out of the hearings was the Alger Hiss case. Hiss was accused of being a Communist and charged with espionage when he worked the State Department, he denied the charges but was convicted of perjury based on the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist and spy.
Because employers collaborated with HUAC by firing workers who refused to cooperate, the committee’s witnesses had few options other than naming names. Those who squealed and named names kept their jobs, but those who didn’t ultimately lost their jobs and risked going to jail for contempt of Congress.
What was the Supreme Court’s position? The only protection the court upheld was taking the Fifth Amendment’s privilege of testifying against oneself, but otherwise, in spite of the majority of the justices condoning the crusade, they did nothing to protect people from answering the committee’s questions about political beliefs and associations.
And the outcome? It’s estimated that approximately 10,000 people lost their jobs. Foreign born radicals where threatened with deportation by The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department denied passports to suspected Communists.
How does McCarthyism play into Julius? I mention at early on that Corinne’s father was blacklisted and wasn’t able to work at a university as a professor because he refuses to sign a loyalty pledge … and that’s all I’m saying.
For more information about McCarthyism, I recommend the following books as a good introduction on the topic:
- Naming Names, by Victor S. Navasky
- The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60, by Larry Ceplair and Steve Englund
- Many Are the Crimes, by Ellen Schrecker
- The Politics of Fear, by Robert Griffith