United States History, 1877-


The "Second" Red Scare:
Fear and Loathing in High Places, 1947-1954

Kyle Wilkison


Other Red Scares

Mainstream American political culture evidenced as much derision as hostility toward the democratic Socialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), for some derision turned to abiding hostility and fear.  The government's wave of arrests, deportations and trials during the period 1918-1920 is often referred to by historians as the "First Red Scare."  During World War II, however, both the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union promoted Russo-American friendship out of the need for a solid front against the Axis Powers.  With Hitler's defeat, then, came the mutual fear and rivalry that produced the new hostility of the Cold War era. American mainstream political culture saw Communist affiliation as fundamentally treasonous.

The Truman Loyalty Campaign

Under the demands of the Cold War's Truman Doctrine, the Truman Administration set up a Loyalty Campaign at home as well as funded anti-Communist efforts abroad.

In order to counteract charges that liberal Democrats were soft on Communists, the Truman Administration set up Loyalty Boards to rid the government of anyone suspected of Communist affiliation.  Federal administrators--not judges-- ran the hearings without the constraining rules of evidence that would have governed a court. Witnesses did not testify under oath and there was no penalty for perjury. These Boards kept trial-like transcripts, however, and regularly leaked their results to the press. For many citizens, persons named as suspected members of the CPUSA were guilty of treason.

The Boards could not imprison; they could only fire people. Losing one's job, however, was less severe than the social ostracism and blacklisting that followed.

Further, the Truman Justice Department compiled lists of organizations that opposed American foreign policy. Since American foreign policy was essentially anti-Communist, then those opposed must surely be Communists. The Attorney General's office circulated membership lists of such disfavored groups.

HUAC v. Hollywood

The Congress's House Un-American Activities Committee launched an investigation into purported Communist influence in the movie business. HUAC subpoenaed writers, directors, actors and studio executives and inquired whether they "were now or had ever been a member of the Communist Party."

A panicked movie industry frantically sought good will with Congress and the public by launching its own Communist hunt. They brought in ex-FBI agents to clean up the studios. The agents recorded anyone thought to possess suspicious political beliefs on a blacklist.   Such individuals did not work for the movie studios again.  A similar wave of frantic self-purging took place within other news and entertainment media, including television and radio. 

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(Authentic History Center)

One group collected and published the names of people in the world of the arts and entertainment thought to be un-American in their politics.   The most famous were able to successfully fight off such attacks but Red Channels:  The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, ruined or harmed many people's careers.  Among the best-known specifically named in Red Channels were musical director Leonard Bernstein, composer Aaron Copland, actor Will   ("Grandpa Walton") Geer, actress Ruth ("Harold and Maude") Gordon, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, actress-singer Lena Horne, poet Langston Hughes, folksinger Burl Ives, actor Burgess Meredith, playwright Arthur Miller, actor Edward G. Robinson, actor-director Orson Welles and folksinger Pete Seeger. 

(Library of Congress)

Others were soon caught up in the atmosphere of fear and suspicion.  Among the better known was comedic genius Lucille Ball whose experience was atypical in that she recovered her career and popularity.  Ball's grandfather had been an old railroad man who idolized Eugene Debs and convinced young Lucy to register to vote in California as a Communist.  Years later when her "crime" was discovered, the blacklisters banned Lucy from the studios, thus ending a promising movie career.  She fought back by forming her own production company and making the well-known television series "I Love Lucy."

Public anxiety increased dramatically in 1949 when Americans learned that the Soviet Union had successfully tested its first atomic bomb.  For the first time in recent American history, the United States faced a realistic threat from abroad.  Reaction was sharp and swift.  The government began investigating possible links between American Communists and the passing of U.S. atomic secrets to the Russians.  This led to a number of high-profile prosecutions, culminating in the conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  During the sensational Rosenberg trial, a flamboyant young prosecutor named Roy Cohn caught the eye of an ambitious U.S. Senator named Joseph McCarthy.  McCarthy recruited Cohn and the up-and-coming communist hunter became the Senator's chief of staff.  Before they were done, their partnership would cut quite a swath across the American political and social landscape.   

The Rise and Fall of the Pepsi-Cola Kid: Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin

Joseph McCarthy won a Senate seat in 1946. Over the next four years he distinguished himself only by his dedicated drinking and otherwise scandalous behavior.

Soon he earned his nickname "The Pepsi-Cola Kid" by taking a bribe from that soft drink giant to lead the fight for continued government regulation of sugar prices. McCarthy successfully kept the government ceiling on the price of sugar. His dalliance with Pepsi was so embarrassingly blatant that even his fellow Senators (who usually took care of each other in such matters) derisively dubbed him the "Pepsi-Cola Kid."

Casting about for a sure-fire reelection theme, McCarthy settled on the hunt for Communist subversives.

It is important to note that McCarthy did not invent this issue. The climate of fear and anxiety accompanying the growing Cold War rivalry with the now atomically-armed Soviet Union caused many Americans to give credence to any "danger" pointed out to them by an authority figure.

So, during a speech at the Wheeling, West Virginia, Republican Ladies' Auxiliary Club Lincoln's Birthday Dinner in February 1950, the junior Senator from Wisconsin whipped up the crowd when he dramatically waved a sheet of blank typewriter paper over his head and intoned that thereon he held the names of 205 known Reds currently working inside Truman's State Department. Not to worry, however, because he, fighting Joe McCarthy, was hunting them down. The following evening in Salt Lake City the Senator told a similarly enthusiastic gathering that he was hot on the trail of 81 known Communists willingly employed by the Democrats in their State Department. Later, he returned to Washington and confided to overjoyed GOP leaders that he was in pursuit of 57 Communist agents in the State Department. McCarthy was an alcoholic.

Given the chairmanship of the Senate's Government Operations Sub-committee, McCarthy now possessed full subpoena power. He immediately launched into his crusade, perfecting a form of persecution and slander now known as "McCarthyism."

"McCarthyism" consisted of hurling unsubstantiated charges against a particular individual until he was pressed too closely for evidence. He would then turn his accusations on his challengers, having sufficiently destroyed his original victim's public reputation.

In the late 1940s and 1950s it was enough to be accused of being a Communist. Unproven charges could be profoundly damaging. McCarthy hurled his accusations with energetic abandon. Political opponents were not just mistaken or misguided; they became part of "a conspiracy so immense" that unless they were stopped America and the whole world would fall to communism. He personally traveled to his Congressional opponents' and critics' home states and campaigned against them as traitors to their country. Nor was McCarthy alone. Before McCarthy's rise to prominence, others had already used the tactic.  Most notable, Richard Nixon won his first Congressional race in 1946 by falsely charging that the incumbent Democratic Congressman received secret support from Communists.  

One of McCarthy's many indirect victims was John Henry Faulk of Texas.  A professional Red-hunting corporation known as AWARE, Inc. essentially destroyed Faulk's career.  The young CBS radio commentator from Texas was widely thought to be the rising star of his generation until he encountered the power of AWARE.  For a fee, the company claimed to investigate whether individuals, businesses and institutions were suitably free of Communist tendencies to appear as performers, broadcasters or advertisers for big media networks. Crossing the company could be death to a career.  Faulk believed that such an unaccountable private concern exercised too much power over the press and he challenged their de facto control over who worked in radio and television.  The company fought back with a vengeance by falsely alleging that Faulk was a Communist.  Once on their blacklist, Faulk's media career never recovered despite a court "victory" in a libel suit against AWARE years after the fact.  See The Handbook of Texas' brief online sketch of Faulk's career.

At the height of his popularity, one poll found that 69 percent of the American public believed that Senator McCarthy was doing a good job in ridding the nation of the menace of secret Communists.

Pressured to produce at least one Communist with real evidence, in 1954 McCarthy took on a fight he could not win. He challenged two powerful giants in American culture--the United States Army and CBS television news anchor Edward R. Murrow.

The nationally televised Army-McCarthy Hearings allowed the public a raw look at the man Joseph McCarthy. He claimed that top Army officials were either Communists, Communist sympathizers, or Communist "dupes" (that is, the unwitting tools of Communist manipulators). He had no evidence.

Desperate to bolster his flagging standing with the public, McCarthy decided to explain his troubles as a journalistic conspiracy against him. He decided to denounce the almost universally admired and respected Edward R. Murrow of CBS Television News as a secret subversive.

Finally, McCarthy had overreached himself. Between the efforts of the Army's dogged defense counsel James Welch and the blistering personal profile that Murrow produced, McCarthy's credibility with the public all but disappeared. Suddenly, the Senate became emboldened to issue him an official reprimand and strip him of his leadership roles.

McCarthy died three years later due to complications associated with his alcoholism.


The period's enforced cultural conformity lived well past McCarthy and produced a climate tense with anxiety. Teachers were routinely questioned and those found to hold to odd or unpopular ideas were summarily fired.  School children as early as the elementary grades were asked to sign "Loyalty Oaths" in which they swore that they would never seek to overthrow the United States government; further, many children were instructed to bring back parental signatures to such oaths.  Local vigilance committees pulled suspect books off library shelves and burned them.  McCarthy's own ironic contribution was to bring the Red Scare into disrepute.  By his grandiose buffoonery, McCarthy forced many Americans to take a more skeptical look at the prevailing fear of secret subversives.