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McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Definition, Causes & Effects

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  • 0:05 Defining McCarthyism…
  • 1:32 A Period of Great Fear
  • 3:07 Supporting McCarthy
  • 3:50 The Downfall of McCarthyism
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The fear of communism, known as the Red Scare, led to a national witch hunt for suspected communist supporters, which was known as McCarthyism. Learn about the rise of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the impact of McCarthyism on American society and the legacy of the short-lived fear campaign.

Defining McCarthyism and the Red Scare

The Red Scare, which gained notoriety during the First World War, represented the widespread concern that Americans had developed over the fear of communist (or anarchist, during the First World War era) subversion within society. Americans believed, especially during the Cold War, which was a period of tension between the United States and Soviet Union, that communism was attempting to infiltrate every aspect of their lives. While this is not necessarily the best analogy, you can relate the widespread fear of communism during the Cold War as being similar to the heightened alert Americans had toward terrorism and suspected terrorists during the beginning of the modern century.

Instigating this fear was Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin and was the leader behind the ethos of McCarthyism. The term was created in 1950 by Washington Post writer Herbert Block. Simply put, McCarthyism was the practice of attempting to minimize the threat of communism by accusing and detaining suspects deemed to be a security threat or disloyal to the United States. Investigations ranged from the federal government (especially the State Department), to Hollywood, to the general American public.

No one was safe because McCarthy was the judge, jury and executioner. McCarthy's vitriolic campaign of identifying and eliminating suspected communists raged from roughly 1950 to 1954. This was a rude awakening to Americans who thought the trials and tribulations of the Cold War rested outside of the United States borders.

A Period of Great Fear

With the onset of the Cold War following the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Americans were made to believe that communists were figuratively lurking around the corner. This fear of the 'red menace,' or communism, spurred a great reorganization in federal policy both internationally and domestically.

The Truman Doctrine, created by President Harry Truman, established the basis for protecting the nation from communist subversion. As a result, anti-communist groups such as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, rose to prominence. However, Senator McCarthy took the battle against communism further than ever imagined.

Beginning in 1950, McCarthy targeted individuals within the United States who were suspected communists. His witch hunt began at the federal level. He accused individuals, such as General George Marshall, who served both as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under Truman, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson of supporting communism. McCarthy targeted the United States Army and, eventually, President Truman himself when he made the decision to remove General Douglas MacArthur from power during the Korean War.

McCarthy's search eventually trickled down to the ground level as he began attacking artists, musicians, writers and movie stars. Names you might recognize include individuals such as Charlie Chaplin, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. McCarthy contended that all of these individuals worked within communist organizations and/or belonged to the Communist Party of America. Additionally, McCarthy's wanton accusations often led to those who were not famous and worked in the private sector being ostracized from their respective profession.

Supporting McCarthy

As reckless as McCarthy's anti-communism campaign was, he enjoyed support from a select group of powerful individuals. Most conservative members of Congress backed McCarthy's tireless search. Why? The simple answer is because a good portion of McCarthy's campaign attacked liberals and members of the Democratic Party. Supporting McCarthy helped conservatives gain notoriety and votes during national elections.

McCarthy also had the support of the Roman Catholic Church due to its anti-communist stance. It also helped that John F. Kennedy, a prominent Catholic, future President of the United States and quite possibly the only Democrat to do so, supported McCarthy. All of this powerful political backing helped McCarthy escape federal libel and defamation suits.

The Downfall of McCarthyism

McCarthy's aggressive campaign of routing out suspected communists eventually ran out of fuel. Two major hearings brought about the downfall of McCarthyism: the Army-McCarthy Hearings and McCarthy's censure, both in 1954.

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