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McCarthyism was a campaign led by Joseph McCarthy in search for Communist party members or supporters through the 1940s and 1950s. Along with the help of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and Roy Cohn, the three worked tirelessly to find and expose communists in the American community.
McCarthyism started around the time of the Cold War, during the mid 1940s. The HUAC was created shortly before the war in 1938. The House of Un-American Activities Committee used fear and distrust of people in the community to expose communists. The Cold War was not a true war in the sense that there was hand to hand combat between the Soviet Union and the United States. The war can be better described as a nuclear arm race, aimed to establish deterrence superior fire power. During this “war,” there was a growing hysteria over the threat of communism in the United States (history.com). This was known as the Red Scare.
The Red Scare left Americans threatened because they believed that if the Soviet Union took control over the arms race, the pursuit of communism would overthrow American government. This sense of paranoia heightened when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949. On October 1 of the same year, China was declared a communist nation under Mao Zedong. The United States also joined in the Korean war the following year (1950-1953) to fight the communist supporters of North Korea. The rise of communism in powerful countries, pushed American citizens over the edge and caused serious paranoia and suspicion of communist activity and spies in the United States.
Senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on this state of hysteria in the United States by intimidating and accusing people of supporting the Communist party. McCarthy spoke out in front of a crowd on February 9, 1950 claiming that 205 workers of the State Department were communist or supported the communist party. Senator McCarthy’s speech in Wheeling, West Virginia is known as the start of McCarthyism (history.com).
McCarthyism primarily focused on people in power. Entertainers, Government workers, and high ranking officials were the people in question. The alleged supporters could suffer from serious punishments that could alter their lives. Although many times, there was not enough evidence to truly find them guilty, the suspicion was enough to ruin their reputation. These people would be prosecuted by Roy Cohn, a new york lawyer. Cohn worked as chief counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and became known for his intense interrogations. The HUAC, Cohn, and McCarthy all worked together to fight the communists in the United States when in reality they were just ruining reputations of thousands (pbs.org).
However, McCarthy did not remain in power forever. Eventually his colleagues began to question the tactics he used to bring down the communist threat in the country. The Secretary of the army gathered evidence from telephone calls between Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy harassing and threatening officials. The army lawyer, Mr. Welch even said, “…Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last have you no sense of decency?” (Miller, David). McCarthy’s investigation was watched by millions and publicized all over the country.
However, at McCarthy’s height, he had many supporters. His support group was generally made up of people who either feared McCarthy, or genuinely feared communism itself. He left a trail of fear throughout the country that had no evidence to justify it. Many people compare McCarthy’s accusations to those of the Salem Witch Hunts.
The Salem Witch Hunts took place in Salem, Massachusetts, beginning in the year of 1692. These witch trials consisted of a widespread paranoia over the colony of Massachusetts. The colonists feared there was paranormal activity throughout the community and demanded justice to be served. Mostly women were charged as being witches or having supernatural capabilities. There was no true supernatural activity going on, but people throughout the community would seek to ruin the reputation of others for personal gain. The women charged would be hung regardless if they were declared guilty or innocent. Eventually in 1697, the Massachusetts government deemed the witch hunt to be unlawful and put a stop to the hanging of innocent women. (History.com 2)
During the 1950s and the post war, the greatest threat to society was America losing the cold war, and the spread of communism over the country. If we look back farther in history, to the colonial times, the Witch Hunt in Salem Massachusetts was a hysteric threat to our society. Today, a big threat to our American society is terrorist attacks and the threat of Islamic rule. It is important to look back on our past and learn from it, so we do not make the same mistakes as America’s Red Scare.
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