On February 9, 1950 Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that there were no fewer than two hundred Communists in the State Department. This outrageous allegation unleashed a witch-hunt against everyone who was even slightly "tainted" with left wing, progressive or even vaguely democratic opinions in public life.
After the Second World War, America experienced a period of tremendous and sustained economic growth that set its stamp on her entire development. It shaped the consciousness of its people in a decisive way. For decades, American capitalism seemed to be "delivering the goods". The economy was growing rapidly and the recessions were so shallow and fleeting that they were barely noticed. Living standards were increasing. There was an abundance of things like refrigerators, televisions, telephones and cars that made people feel prosperous.
The feeling that "we have never had it so good" was reinforced by what Americans could see in the rest of the world. Whenever anybody complained, the defenders of the established order could point triumphantly to Stalinist Russia, that monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism and say: "You want socialism? That's socialism for you - dictatorship and the rule of an autocratic bureaucracy! You will be slaves of the state. Is that what you want?" And even the most critical American worker would shake his or her head and conclude that the devil they knew was probably a lot better than the one they didn't.
In case they were not completely convinced, however, a little coercion could be brought to bear. It was not as severe as the white terror that followed the First World War. That was not necessary, given the full employment and rising living standards. But during what was known as the Cold War, state repression was unleashed in quite a ruthless manner. It was known as the McCarthy era.
On February 9, 1950 Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that there were no fewer than two hundred Communists in the State Department. This outrageous allegation unleashed a witch-hunt against everyone who was even slightly "tainted" with left wing, progressive or even vaguely democratic opinions in public life. The hysteria that accompanied this campaign closely resembled the kind of pathological collective hysteria of the notorious Salem witch trials of the 17th century. This comparison was made explicit in Arthur Miller's famous play The Crucible.
In fact, the witch hunting of the American Left had commenced a couple of years earlier. After 1945 the American ruling class lived in dread of Communism and revolution, and launched a "Reds under the bed" campaign, using the House of Un-American Committee (HUAC) to grill suspects. Prominent among the interrogators was an ambitious young Republican congressman, Richard Milhous Nixon (later dubbed "Tricky Dicky") who was out to make a name for himself as a notorious red-baiter. He subsequently became President, only to be removed for crooked practices following the Watergate scandal.
The power behind the scenes of these witch-hunts was FBI chief and ultra-reactionary, J. Edgar Hoover, who for years ran a state within the state, acting as a law unto himself, scorning all the principles of democratic government, and imitating the conduct of the Mafia that he was supposed to be fighting. This Paragon of Public Virtue said in March 1947: "Communism, in reality, is not a political party. It reveals a conditions akin to a disease that spreads like an epidemic and like an epidemic a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting this nation." (Quoted in Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Cold War, p. 109.)
Since his death, Hoover has been exposed as a corrupt gangster who used extortion and blackmail to exert unconstitutional control over elected politicians while he extolled the virtues of American democracy, and secretly led a luxurious and degenerate lifestyle while he delivered lectures on the need for puritanical morals. These were the kind of heroes who led the crusade against Communism in the U.S.A.
Obsessed with his hatred of Communism and radicals, Hoover ordered his agents to use illegal means: wiretaps, break-ins, phone intercepts and bugging of private homes to get incriminating evidence. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on neighbors; parents were asked to spy on their children, and children on their parents. When defence lawyers exposed these illegal practices and used this to get cases thrown out, Hoover launched an attack on the National Lawyers' Guild, which he accused of being a Communist front (!).
One of the first great achievements of the witch-hunt was to send to the electric chair a young electrical engineer, Julius Rosenberg, and his wife Ethel. They were charged with passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The evidence against Rosenberg came largely from his brother-in-law David Greenglass, who had been part of a wartime spy network. Though interrogated by the FBI, Julius Rosenberg refused to give information or name any other agents. So the FBI arrested his wife, Ethel, although she was clearly not a spy, in order to break her husband. It did not work. He remained silent.
Rosenberg was found guilty of passing secrets to the Russians. Spying in wartime is punishable by death, but when Rosenberg passed secrets to Russia, it was an ally of the U.S.A. But despite pleas for clemency, among others from Albert Einstein and Pope Pius XII, both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair. What is interesting is the conduct of the judicial system in this case. The judges were clearly intimidated to the point where they did not dare defy the general hysteria. Arthur Kinoy, the Rosenberg's lawyer, reports the words of one such judge:
"Judge Frank looked at us and he said something that we have never, never forgotten. He said, â€˜If I were as young as you are, I would be sitting there saying the same things you're saying, arguing the same points you're arguing, making the same argument that these planned executions are invalid. But when you are as old as I am, you will understand why I cannot do it.' And he stands up, turns his back to us, and walks away, and we were devastated. We began to sense something which in later years we understood so clearly. That was that Jerome Frank, as the leading liberal judge, was terrorized himself and frightened by the atmosphere of fear in the country. That if he as a liberal would do something to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's life, he would be charged as a commie." (Quoted in Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Cold War, p. 113.)
The tentacles of the witch hunters extended into every branch of public life. Given the importance of the film industry in American life, Hollywood became a key target. Hoover established an extensive network of spies and informers, chief among whom was a second-rate actor in B-movies called Ronald Reagan. Based in Los Angeles, Reagan was President of the Screen Actors' Guild. He used his position to pass on information about his colleagues to Hoover. This was the start of a promising political career that ended in the White House. When he died recently, there was flood of laudatory obituaries, praising the former President for his great intellect and ability and attributing to him the posthumous title of "the man who defeated Communism."
Although he could be accused of many things (bad acting, lack of principles, cowardice, dishonesty, ignorance, provincial narrow-mindedness, disloyalty towards friends and colleagues etc.) no serious person could ever accuse Ronald Reagan of possessing either intellect or ability. As a matter of historical record, the U.S.S.R. (which, in the period under consideration, had very little in common with Communism) collapsed because of its internal contradictions and this had nothing to do with the intellect or abilities of Ronald Reagan.
In 1951, the HUAC launched an all-out offensive against Hollywood. Prominent actors and film directors were grilled by the HUAC, in scenes reminiscent of the Inquisition. The only way to escape from this torture was to incriminate others. Some brave souls refused. The great German composer Hans Eisler, who had fled to America from Nazi persecution and wrote distinguished film scores, when he was accused of being the "Marx of the music world", answered that he was flattered by the comparison, and was deported for his courage.
However, others were not so courageous. The bosses of the big Hollywood studios pledged not to employ anybody who had ever been a Communist or had refused under oath to declare that they had never been a Communist. Many of the big names in Hollywood decided that discretion was the better part of valor and collaborated in the dirty name of denouncing their fellow actors. Elia Kazan, the famous director who introduced Marlon Brando to the cinema, named eleven former Communists to the HUAC. Jerome Robbins, the successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer also co-operated with the Inquisition, as did Sterling Hayden. But the man who broke the record for denunciation was screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who named no fewer than 162 Hollywood artists as Communists, past or present.
The consequences for those so-named were dire. They would be sacked and never work again in any studio in Hollywood or any other part of the U.S.A. They would immediately lose their livelihood and reputation and be treated as outcasts and pariahs. About 250 Hollywood personalities were blacklisted in this way in the early 1950s. Some just disappeared. Others went into exile. A few continued to work under assumed names, like Dalton Trumbo, author of Johnny Got His Gun, who caused the whole industry considerable embarrassment when he actually won an Oscar in 1956 for a screenplay written under the name of Robert Rich. One group of blacklisted filmmakers and actors made the marvellous film "Salt of the Earth", brilliantly depicting the class struggle in the silver mines of New Mexico.
Among the victims of McCarthyism were some of the most talented directors, writers and performers in America. Some did not work again till the 1960s. The great Negro singer Paul Robeson was savagely persecuted. The legendary Charles Chaplin, although British by birth and nationality, had lived in the U.S.A. for over 30 years. He had learned while in England that he would be denounced as a Communist and decided to live the rest of his life outside the U.S.A. He did not return to the U.S.A. until 1972 and then only briefly to accept a special Academy Award. American culture was the real loser.
The place of talented people was taken by hacks who were prepared to write third-rate trash like I was a Communist for the FBI, which won an Oscar for the best documentary (this shows how much an Oscar is really worth). Other gems of the period included My Son John, which depicts a nice young American boy, who, unknown to his parents, becomes a Communist, and I Married a Communist, which depicts a nice American girl who married one, Evil Epidemic, in honor of J. Edgar Hoover, and so on.
The health of the American cinema industry was in good hands. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals was presided by good old John Wayne. This fearless, clean-living cowboy of the silver screen was always speaking lines like "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." In this case what a man like John Wayne had to do was to betray his friends and colleagues and throw them to the wolves. This did not require much courage but definitely did one's career no harm.
Other heroes of the same kind were Clark Gable ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn"), Gary Cooper and John Ford, who were all on the executive committee of the MPAPA. The presence of the last two named is perhaps ironical, since the celebrated film High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and directed by John Ford, has been widely interpreted as a criticism of McCarthyism in the guise of a Western.
The witch hunters then turned their unwelcome attentions to American education. The worthy senator from Wisconsin discovered that American colleges and universities were hotbeds of Red subversion. Formally, there was no black list as in Hollywood, but in practice anyone involved in political activity of the "wrong sort" would not easily get a job in academia. J. Edgar Hoover, whose educational qualifications were somewhat comparable to those of Conan the Barbarian, complained that American schools were in the hands of "Reducators". The latter were "tearing down respect for agencies of government, belittling tradition and moral customs and [...] creating doubts in the validity of the American way of life."
The ruling class let these mad dogs off the leash to snap and snarl to their heart's content. It was useful to have such people intimidate the Left. But the real Establishment had no intention of handing power to the mad dogs. In the end McCarthy overreached himself when he began to interfere with the most sensitive part of the state, the armed forces. In a series of sensational television interviews in 1954, McCarthy accused the U.S. Army of being infiltrated by Communists. That was too much. Having made use of the Senator's services, the Establishment unceremoniously ditched him. The Senate voted to condemn him for bringing it into disrepute. He was politically a dead man.