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Beware The Red Scare: Another Red Threat to America

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During the American Revolution, Paul Revere warned that the Redcoats were arriving, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Following World War II, a different red threat loomed; the Red Scare. America has gone through many unsettling events, including the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR). The Cold War was a time period when both countries were determined to outdo each other in virtually every way. This tension resulted in the Red Scare, pitting Americans against each other. The Red Scare, during the Cold War, was a period of mistrust and suspicion driven by fear. 

The Cold War began almost immediately after World War II as the Soviet Union and the United States competed for territory and allies. Tension escalated between Soviet leader Josef Stalin, his successors, and American Presidents. America and the USSR did not fight directly, but they did fight indirectly with proxy wars, including the arms race and the space race. During the proxy wars, the fear of communism spreading to America increased dramatically, and the US government became fearful of communist spies and traitors. This became known as the Red Scare or Red Menace.

The Red Scare caused Americans to immediately become defensive to the point that they started lashing out at each other. Neighbors spied on and were wary of each other, especially regarding comments about the country and political party affiliation. During the Cold War period, Senator Joe McCarthy spearheaded this fixation. “No lives were taken as a result of this obsession, nor did many go to jail. But some lost their jobs, still more had careers disrupted, and many suffered agonizing periods of unwarranted scrutiny in which their patriotism was impugned”. Patriotism began to be questioned immediately after President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order 9835, also called The Loyalty Order. This order allowed the government to investigate government employees’ personal and professional activities to eliminate anyone who may have had communist ties (“Red Scare”). In addition to Senator McCarthy’s obsession, mentioned above, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover developed files on questionable Americans, going so far as to wiretap phones and use undercover agents to gather information from reputed communist organizations. Twelve American Communist Party leaders were imprisoned as a result of Hoover’s actions (“Red Scare”). 

The Red Scare began to influence most of the debate between Democrats and Republicans in 1952. Republicans and their allies started to use communism as an advantage over Americans in the upcoming presidential election. This pressured the Democrats to try and make American citizens realize that Republicans had done nothing to help stop communism. The Republicans, though, ended up being victorious with Dwight D. Eisenhower, a respected military general, winning over Adlai Stevenson in the election. This was not the first time the Republicans manipulated the people by invoking the threat of the Red Scare (“Red Scare Dominates . . .”). The Red Scare even extended into pop culture. Hollywood films and directors did not escape suspicion and were even questioned by members of congress. Senator McCarthy held up a list that supposedly contained the names of over 200 suspected traitors. Even though the paper was blank, the investigations proceeded in full force. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was a government inquiry that questioned Hollywood actors and directors believed to have communist relations. They forced the actors and directors to detail their activities to the committee. Those who would not testify, known as the Hollywood Ten, were punished by being sentenced to jail for contempt of court and blacklisted by the industry once they were released. 

All but one of the ten, Edward Dmytryk, maintained their innocence. Dmytryk confessed during his imprisonment and gave up the names of over twenty additional conspirators. One man who testified in front of the committee was director Elia Kazan. He had been investigated for sympathizing with and belonging to various radical organizations, including the American Communist Party. Rather than allowing himself to be blacklisted, he offered up the names of other colleagues within the motion picture industry for investigation, becoming a pariah among the group. Ironically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to honor Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, much to the dismay of many. 

The Hollywood Blacklist was just one stain on American culture. The obsession to root out undesirable elements eventually led to the Rosenberg Trials, those of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Government agents and prosecutors believed that the Rosenbergs were both Soviet spies, accused of selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Julius himself was of Russian descent, had been a member of the American Communist Party (ACP), and had access to sensitive, secret information as an engineer working for the U.S. Signal Corps, working with military weapons. He was fired from his job because of his communist ties. Soon after, prosecutors claimed that Julius started giving information to his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, who was a member of the Manhattan Project who helped to develop the first atomic bomb. Greenglass personally gave information to the Russians. 

Ethel Rosenberg was also born to Russian parents and was a member of the ACP. She worked as a secretary. She was accused of typing the messages her husband forwarded to her brother along with David’s own notes for Soviet spy agent Harry Gold. After a four-month trial, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death and their co-conspirators received 15 to 30-year sentences. Despite some evidence and testimony to the contrary, the Rosenbergs kept claiming their innocence right up until the end of the trials. The Rosenbergs refused to make a deal which would have spared their lives from the death sentences but would have forced them to admit they were guilty. Both Rosenbergs were electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953. Many people believe that the Rosenbergs were only convicted because they were both admitted members of the American Communist Party and the testimony of Greenglass, not because of solid evidence. 

The terrifying events of the Red Scare may have negatively impacted certain individuals; however, it instilled a sense of pride in America and the strength of a democratic government. Some personal freedoms were suspended because of suspicion and political ties, but many Americans banded together to resist and defeat the common communist enemy. 

Works Cited

  1. Dorau, Bethany Groff. “VOLUME 1: THE RED SCARE: Executive Order 9835.” Defining Documents: The Cold War (1945-1991). October 2016, 233-240. EBSCOhost, Retrieved 29 March 2019.Farris, Nettie. 
  2. “VOLUME1: THE RED SCARE: Rosenberg Case Excerpts.” Defining Documents: The Cold War (1945-1991). October 2016, 272-299. EBSCOhost, Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  3. “Hollywood Ten.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019., Retrieved 5 May 2019.Muravchik, Joshua. 
  4. “Seeing Red.” National Interest, no. 45, Fall 1996, p. 101. EBSCOhost, Retrieved 1 May 2019.Paul, Andrew. 
  5. “Making the Blacklist White: The Hollywood Red Scare in Popular Memory.” Journal of Popular Film & Television, vol. 41, no. 4, Oct. 2013, pp. 2018-218, EBSCOhost, Retrieved 29 April 2019.
  6. “Red Scare.” A&E Television Network. 13 Sept. 2018. Red-scare, Retrieved 5 May 2019. 
  7. “Red Scare Dominates American Politics.” A&E Television Network. 22 Feb. 2019. Retrieved 2 May 2019.Vaughn, Vanessa E. 
  8. “VOLUME 1: THE RED SCARE: Testimony Regarding CommunistInvestigations.” Defining Documents: The Cold War (1945-1991), Oct. 2016, pp 251–255. EBSCOhost, Retrieved 29 March 2019.

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