McCarthyism and Social Hierarchy

The very roots of the anti-communist movement evidence this tradition of the exploitation of fear by the upper echelons. The communist movement had its roots in America in the late 1800’s, during the period known as the Gilded Age, when worker oppression was at its peak. During this time the communist movement sought to organize the working class and guarantee them rights such as minimum wages, union rights, and safer working conditions. These reforms – perceived as radical at the time – would have harmed the interests of the capitalist “robber barons” who were essentially using the impoverished working class as a supply of expendable laborers. It was in the interest of these individuals to maintain the oppression of workers, and thus it was advantageous to suppress the communist party, which was fairly easy to do as these individuals wielded significant social influence, for “[o]ften [Police] were directly on corporate payroll… they often broke strikes and infiltrated unions and left-wing organizations.” Thus communists were soon – along with anarchists – associated with a perceived plot to destroy America by breaking apart its framework (i.e. the capitalist system). Indeed, from the birth of the communist movement in America, the Communist Party (CP) was perceived negatively, as the upper classes were able to twist it into something destructive in order to maintain the oppression of workers – a situation which directly benefited the same upper classes.


To blame the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950’s entirely on selfish ambitions is, if nothing, excessive, for the CP had many issues that reflected poorly on it and provided credibility to those that would see it destroyed. One of the prime issues with the CP was its secrecy, as it prevented the public from knowing (one way or another) what was going on within the CP. This secrecy “deprived the CP of its contribution to the labor movement…” , essentially shielding the positive accomplishments of the CP from the public eye, allowing the negatives to prosper. The first Red Scare of the 1920’s had left the party in a bad position, for “understandably but deplorably the repression that the CP faced reinforced its extremism” , which in turn resulted in further repression, creating a vicious cycle that damaged the CP and drove it to secrecy. Thus, undoubtedly to the delight of the upper classes that sought to destroy it, Communism became of mechanism of its own repression, hiding insulating itself from the public eye, in the process hiding all positive contributions of the party, leaving only the “insidious” organization that was easily suspect in the coming crisis.

As World War II wound down and the Cold War wound up, Communism became increasingly antagonized – a prelude to the coming Red Scare. Ever since WWII had begun, tensions had been high between the Soviet Union – which had initially signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler – and the United States, initially leaving many American communists torn between their desires to follow the example of the USSR and their desires to combat fascism. Siding with the USSR, many prominent Communist leaders chose to go underground rather than openly clash with the ideals of the U.S. government. Unfortunately “… the party made the campaign seem subservient to Moscow…” which, given the tensions between the U.S. and the USSR, reflected poorly on the CP. Observations of the parties perceived subservience led to increased anti-communist sentiment, with Raymond B. Allen saying in his essay Communists Should not Teach in American Colleges that “Freedom… is the most essential ingredient of American civilization… a member of the Communist party is not a free man.” As WWII ended and Stalin expressed his own desires for what was to become of Europe, launching and ideological Cold War, the CP was to some extent bound to follow the ideals set forth by Moscow, putting the American party on the un-American side of the war, placing it in clear danger, and, once more, reinforcing its extremism.

In the end it was the CP’s very desire to follow Moscow’s example that truly destroyed it and opened it to persecution. As has already been discussed, the CP was perceived as lacking self-determination, following the whims of the Soviet government, despite the damage it did to the party’s public image. After Stalin died, “Khrushchev delivered a speech… in which he described Stalin’s crimes. Demoralized to find out that they had been supporting a monstrous regime… the bulk of membership had long since [quit].” This, along with certain “…ideological flaws compromised [the CP’s] moral authority and made it hard for liberals who opposed McCarthyism to defend… Communists.” With the increasingly bad press given to the USSR and consequently the CP, it is no small wonder that the group – perceived as allies of the enemy – was singled out for persecution in America by those who were best placed to benefit from such persecution.

This anti-communist sentiment created an environment which permitted individuals to exploit those very sentiments for personal gain. Most notable among these was Richard Nixon, future American president, who repeatedly utilized anti-communist sentiments to further himself. Nixon was first elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives in 1946, after implying that his candidate’s labor support illustrated Communist sympathies, which were political poison. In 1949, Nixon, being fed information by a Roman Catholic “commie” hunter, managed to convict alleged communist - and official of the U.S. State Department - Alger Hiss of perjury. The effect was two-fold: first, the conviction heightened fears of communist infiltration in American government by supposedly providing evidence of such infiltration, and second, the case earned Nixon significant press, bringing him into the public eye, an undoubtedly calculated move. Then, in 1950, Nixon used more “red baiting” tactics to earn himself a seat as a Californian Senator (as well as a new nickname – “Tricky Dick”). Nixon put forth an image of strength – one campaign poster described him as “strong economically, morally, spiritually and militarily”, while his opponent was soft – a supposed communist sympathizer who would fail to achieve anything in congress (and who mistakenly believed that Nixon’s Red Baiting would hurt him more than it would her). As is clearly evidenced by Nixon’s constant exploitation of anti-communist sentiment, Nixon was willing to exploit a culture of fear and uncertainty to further himself, launching himself from obscure politician to VP candidate in a matter of years, serving his own ambitions at the cost of the freedoms of others.

The man who gave this era its name – Senator Joseph McCarthy – was guilty of adhering to this tradition as well, essentially earning himself dangerous (though temporary) levels of power through the exploitation of fears of communism. McCarthy was a rather unremarkable senator until February 1950, when, while delivering a speech, he brandished a list of “known communists within the State Department” who were shaping U.S. policy. Given the mounting Cold War tensions and the recent Alger Hiss case, the American public was ready to believe McCarthy, catapulting him into the public spotlight. Over the following three years, McCarthy frequently brandished his lists and made wild accusations, yet “[w]hen reporters demanded proof, McCarthy faltered; the evidence was always in another briefcase.” Even without any evidence, “McCarthy, sensing that many Americans were behind him, fought on, at least partly because he was receiving hundreds of dollars a week from fans… to finance his investigation, cash he simply stuffed into his pocket.”12 As such, McCarthy has proven to be a prime example of this trend in American whereby individuals will further themselves at any cost, in his case by exploiting the already present communist paranoia to garner personal profits and to earn himself ominous amounts of power.

McCarthyism was only able to persist as long as it did because it benefited not only individuals but also groups as well. “If nothing else, McCarthyism destroyed the left”13, breaking apart much of the labor movement, and this fact was rather popular with members of the right wing. Indeed, “once the GOP’s leaders realized that [McCarthy] was hurting the Democrats, they embraced his campaign”14 as he had “reinvigorated the GOP’s charge that the Democrats were soft on Communism.”15 In essence McCarthy managed to play right into the GOP’s hand, as the Republicans, sensing their own potential to gain power, backed McCarthy who was in turn able to gain personal power. This effectively proves once more, on a larger scale, that not only individuals, but also groups (including political parties) are willing to exploit paranoia and fear if they have something to gain from it, namely political power, even if it necessitates the support of an individual who has – and uses – the power to destroy countless lives and careers on a whim.

Though McCarthyism couldn’t last forever, it still had a wide range of effects on American society. McCarthyism began to decline in 1954 when newsman Edward R. Murrow aired a broadcast highly critical of McCarthyism. Furthermore, when McCarthy attempted to investigate the U.S. Army, he received harsh criticism for his methods of suppressing free speech and opposition. These events destroyed much of McCarthy’s public image and led to his censure, with McCarthy dying only a few years later a broken (and supposedly alcoholic) man. After the movement lost its staunchest proponent, McCarthyism began to decline, yet it still had many long-lasting effects on America. In addition to destroying much of the labor movements of the left, “it stifled criticism of America’s increasingly militarized foreign policy and thus contributed to the growth of the big-spending defense establishment”16, essentially silencing criticism from the left and allowing the militarized government to grow in an almost unfettered manner during a critical period of the Cold War. By silencing a whole set of opinions, McCarthyism’s most detrimental effects were perhaps in what was not said, for the highly militarized policies established by the U.S. government proved to be issues (of debatable necessity) during the ongoing Cold War.

McCarthyism serves as a clear example of a common tradition in American (and world) history, wherein individuals and/or groups exploit paranoia and fear to achieve personal ambitions, even at the expense of the well being of others. This tradition illustrates the fact that, despite what patriotic songs would lead one to believe, America has, and is still having, its fair share of turmoil, and not everything that happens is truly democratic, with much of it relating back to the personal interests of individuals and groups – a statement on the very nature of human motivations to achieve.


  • 1-3: Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Little, Brown and Co. Canada 1998 pgs 50, 25, 19 respectively.
  • 4-5: Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Little, Brown and Co. Canada 1998 pgs 36, 20 respectively.
  • 6: Allen, Raymond “Communists Should not Teach in American Colleges”. Educational Forum, May 1949.
  • 7: Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Little, Brown and Co. Canada 1998 pg 20.
  • 8: Mitchell, Greg. Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. Random House. New York, 1998.
  • 9-12: Mitchell, Greg. Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. Random House. New York, 1998, pgs 8, 9 respectively.
  • 13-15: Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Little, Brown and Co. Canada 1998 pgs 369, 244, 242 respectively.
  • 16: Schrecker, Ellen. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Little, Brown and Co. Canada 1998 pg 406

History | United States

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