Cold War America was a hotbed of fear and suspicion of possible Communist infiltrators and spies – known as ‘the enemy within’ – and the resulting atmosphere of hysteria enabled the unscrupulous activities of one rogue Senator to blight the lives of hundreds of innocent people, and limit the foreign policy of two presidents . . .
In 1950, the surest way to mark yourself as a Communist sympathiser in the US was to publicly oppose thewar in Korea. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, advised its readers to report ‘peace petitioners’ to the FBI.
“Don’t punch him in the nose,” the newspaper warned, “Reds are used to that. Get his name and address and phone the FBI”.
The New York Times also reported that Hollywood’s Monogram Studio had shelved a film on the life and exploits of Indian brave Hiawatha, fearing that it might be regarded as Communist propaganda.
The studio worried that Hiawatha’s efforts as a peacemaker might cause the film to be interpreted as pro-peace, and therefore pro-Communist.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy began an anti-Communist crusade on 9 February 1950, announcing that he was aware of Communist activity in the State department. He claimed, in fact, to hold a list of about 200 Communist Party members working in the Department – which was in part inspired by the Alger Hiss case.
McCarthy continued a witch-hunting campaign against, among others, members of the Harry Truman administration.
In 1953, McCarthy was appointed Chairman of the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, which conducted what became known as “the McCarthy hearings”, legitimising his ‘sensationalism, cruelty and reckless disregard for due process’.
The hearings also widened the scope of McCarthy’s investigations and thereby the damage they caused. At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was using McCarthyite tactics in its investigations of the entertainment industry.
When McCarthy turned his attention to the US Army, and it was shown that he and his aides had been falsifying evidence, President Eisenhower denounced his tactics.
His unsubstantiated claim started a wave of anticommunist hysteria, wild accusations, and blacklists, which continued until he was discredited in 1954. He was censured by the Senate for misconduct.
After his censure, McCarthy continued senatorial duties for another two and a half years, but his career had been largely ruined. His colleagues in the Senate avoided him and his speeches on the Senate floor were delivered to a near-empty chamber or were received with conspicuous displays of inattention.
By this time, however, many people in public life and the arts had been unofficially blacklisted as suspected Communists or fellow travellers (Communist sympathisers).
In September 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act, which enabled the Subversive Activities Control Board to register members of groups that the Attorney General had determined to be fronts for Communism. The Act also included a provision for establishing “emergency” concentration camps for Communists . . .
As the Korean War dragged on, America’s Communist witch-hunt hysteria shifted into high gear as the American Committee for Cultural Freedom was founded to “counteract the influence of mendacious Communist propaganda”.
More than 300 Hollywood personalities were implicated as Communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), usually by colleagues looking to save their own careers. Most of them were blacklisted and many actors and directors looked for work in theatre or left to find greener pastures in Britain and Europe.
Not everyone joined in the witch hunt, and many were shocked by the methods used. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, John Huston, Danny Kaye and others chartered a plane and flew to Washington to protest.
Charlie Chaplin was harassed by the FBI and IRS and accused of being a Communist (he had spoken out in defence of Russia during WWII). Refusing to testify before the HUAC, Chaplin simply decided to relocate to Switzerland.