U.S. anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s, specifically addressing the entertainment industry

McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.[1] The term refers to U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and has its origins in the period in the United States known as the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s.[2] It was characterized by heightened political repression and a campaign spreading fear of communist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.[2]

What would become known as the McCarthy era began before McCarthy's rise to national fame. Following the First Red Scare, in 1947, President Truman signed an executive order to screen federal employees for association with organizations deemed "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive", or advocating "to alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means." In 1949, a high-level State Department official was convicted of perjury in a case of espionage, and the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb. The Korean War started the next year, raising tensions in the United States. In a speech in February 1950, Senator McCarthy presented an alleged list of members of the Communist Party working in the State Department, which attracted press attention. The term "McCarthyism" was published for the first time in late March of that year in the Christian Science Monitor, and in a political cartoon by Herblock in the Washington Post. The term has since taken on a broader meaning, describing the excesses of similar efforts. In the early 21st century, the term is used more generally to describe reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, and demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries.

During the McCarthy era, hundreds of Americans were accused of being "communists" or "communist sympathizers"; they became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private industry panels, committees, and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, academicians, and labor-union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs were sometimes exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment or destruction of their careers; some were imprisoned. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts that were later overturned,[3] laws that were later declared unconstitutional,[4] dismissals for reasons later declared illegal[5] or actionable,[6] or extra-legal procedures, such as informal blacklists, that would come into general disrepute.

The most notable examples of McCarthyism include the so-called investigations conducted by Senator McCarthy, and the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).


One of the earliest uses of the term McCarthyism was in a cartoon by Herbert Block ("Herblock"), published in the Washington Post, March 29, 1950.

President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9835 of March 21, 1947, required that all federal civil-service employees be screened for "loyalty". The order said that one basis for determining disloyalty would be a finding of "membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association" with any organization determined by the attorney general to be "totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive" or advocating or approving the forceful denial of constitutional rights to other persons or seeking "to alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means."[7]

The historical period that came to be known as the McCarthy era began well before Joseph McCarthy's own involvement in it. Many factors contributed to McCarthyism, some of them with roots in the First Red Scare (1917–20), inspired by communism's emergence as a recognized political force and widespread social disruption in the United States related to unionizing and anarchist activities. Owing in part to its success in organizing labor unions and its early opposition to fascism, and offering an alternative to the ills of capitalism during the Great Depression, the Communist Party of the United States increased its membership through the 1930s, reaching a peak of about 75,000 members in 1940–41.[8] While the United States was engaged in World War II and allied with the Soviet Union, the issue of anti-communism was largely muted. With the end of World War II, the Cold War began almost immediately, as the Soviet Union installed communist puppet régimes in areas it had occupied across Central and Eastern Europe. The United States backed anti-communist forces in Greece and China.[citation needed]

Although the Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley affairs had raised the issue of Soviet espionage in 1945, events in 1949 and 1950 sharply increased the sense of threat in the United States related to communism. The Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, earlier than many analysts had expected, raising the stakes in the Cold War. That same year, Mao Zedong's communist army gained control of mainland China despite heavy American financial support of the opposing Kuomintang. Many U.S. policy people did not fully understand the situation in China, despite the efforts of China experts to explain conditions.[further explanation needed] In 1950, the Korean War began, pitting U.S., U.N., and South Korean forces against communists from North Korea and China.

During the following year, evidence of increased sophistication in Soviet Cold War espionage activities was found in the West. In January 1950, Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official, was convicted of perjury. Hiss was in effect found guilty of espionage; the statute of limitations had run out for that crime, but he was convicted of having perjured himself when he denied that charge in earlier testimony before the HUAC. In Britain, Klaus Fuchs confessed to committing espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union while working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the War. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested in 1950 in the United States on charges of stealing atomic-bomb secrets for the Soviets, and were executed in 1953.

Other forces encouraged the rise of McCarthyism. The more conservative politicians in the United States had historically referred to progressive reforms, such as child labor laws and women's suffrage, as "communist" or "Red plots", trying to raise fears against such changes.[9] They used similar terms during the 1930s and the Great Depression when opposing the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many conservatives equated the New Deal with socialism or Communism, and thought the policies were evidence of too much influence by allegedly communist policy makers in the Roosevelt administration.[10] In general, the vaguely defined danger of "Communist influence" was a more common theme in the rhetoric of anti-communist politicians than was espionage or any other specific activity.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

McCarthy's involvement in these issues began publicly with a speech he made on Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. He brandished a piece of paper, which he claimed contained a list of known communists working for the State Department. McCarthy is usually quoted as saying: "I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department."[11] This speech resulted in a flood of press attention to McCarthy and helped establish his path to becoming one of the most recognized politicians in the United States.

The first recorded uses of the term "McCarthyism" were in the Christian Science Monitor on March 28, 1950 ("Their little spree with McCarthyism is no aid to consultation");[12] and then, on the following day, in a political cartoon by Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block (Herblock). The cartoon depicts four leading Republicans trying to push an elephant (the traditional symbol of the Republican Party) to stand on a platform atop a teetering stack of ten tar buckets, the topmost of which is labeled "McCarthyism". Block later wrote:

"nothing [was] particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he's welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap."[13]