What is McCarthyism? And how did it happen?

Imagine that one day, you’re summoned before a government panel. Even though you haven’t committed any crime, or been formally charged with one, you are repeatedly questioned about your political views, accused of disloyalty, and asked to incriminate your friends and associates. If you don’t cooperate, you risk jail or losing your job. This is exactly what happened in the United States in the 1950s as part of a campaign to expose suspected communists.

Named after its most notorious practitioner, the phenomenon known as McCarthyism destroyed thousands of lives and careers. For over a decade, American political leaders trampled democratic freedoms in the name of protecting them. During the 1930s and 1940s, there had been an active but small communist party in the United States. Its record was mixed.

While it played crucial roles in wider progressive struggles for labor and civil rights, it also supported the Soviet Union. >From the start, the American Communist Party faced attacks from conservatives and business leaders, as well as from liberals who criticized its ties to the oppressive Soviet regime. During World War II, when the USA and USSR were allied against Hitler, some American communists actually spied for the Russians.

When the Cold War escalated and this espionage became known, domestic communism came to be seen as a threat to national security. But the attempt to eliminate that threat soon turned into the longest lasting and most widespread episode of political repression in American history. Spurred on by a network of bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, and businessmen, the campaign wildly exaggerated the danger of communist subversion. The people behind it harassed anyone suspected of holding left-of-center political views or associating with those who did.

If you hung modern art on your walls, had a multiracial social circle, or signed petitions against nuclear weapons, you might just have been a communist. Starting in the late 1940s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover used the resources of his agency to hunt down such supposed communists and eliminate them from any position of influence within American society. And the narrow criteria that Hoover and his allies used to screen federal employees spread to the rest of the country.

Soon, Hollywood studios, universities, car manufacturers, and thousands of other public and private employers were imposing the same political tests on the men and women who worked for them. Meanwhile, Congress conducted its own witchhunt subpoenaing hundreds of people to testify before investigative bodies like the House Un-American Activities Committee. If they refused to cooperate, they could be jailed for contempt, or more commonly, fired and blacklisted.

Ambitious politicians, like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, used such hearings as a partisan weapon accusing democrats of being soft on communism and deliberately losing China to the Communist Bloc. McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin became notorious by flaunting ever-changing lists of alleged communists within the State Department. Egged on by other politicians, he continued to make outrageous accusations while distorting or fabricating evidence.

Many citizens reviled McCarthy while others praised him. And when the Korean War broke out, McCarthy seemed vindicated. Once he became chair of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations in 1953, McCarthy recklessness increased. It was his investigation of the army that finally turned public opinion against him and diminished his power. McCarthy’s colleagues in the Senate censured him and he died less than three years later, probably from alcoholism. McCarthyism ended as well.

It had ruined hundreds, if not thousands, of lives and drastically narrowed the American political spectrum. Its damage to democratic institutions would be long lasting. In all likelihood, there were both Democrats and Republicans who knew that the anti-communist purges were deeply unjust but feared that directly opposing them would hurt their careers.

Even the Supreme Court failed to stop the witchhunt, condoning serious violations of constitutional rights in the name of national security. Was domestic communism an actual threat to the American government? Perhaps, though a small one. But the reaction to it was so extreme that it caused far more damage than the threat itself. And if new demagogues appeared in uncertain times to attack unpopular minorities in the name of patriotism, could it all happen again?

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