Within his speech in the State Department, Joseph McCarthy defined communist nations as a significant threat to the USA. He stated that world domination is the ultimate goal of communist leaders. Thus a global conflict between two political systems becomes inevitable. At that time, the Soviet Union was expanding its influence to more and more states in Europe and Asia. Therefore arguments declared by Senator McCarthy seemed reasonable for American citizens.
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Despite the increasing military power of the Soviet Union, McCarthy said that the primary danger to national security was domestic communism. He brought charges to “those who have been treated so well by this Nation” (McCarthy, 1950), members of the U.S government. McCarthy claimed that he possesses an inclusive list of infiltrators who intent to undermine political order and overthrow democracy in the USA. He did not call them by their names and provoked by that an overwhelming public interest in identifying the secret enemies of the state.
Investigation of subversive actions in the USA was in the sphere of activity of The House Un-American Activities Committee, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Approximately three million government employees were tested on their allegiance to the state within the frame of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. Thousands of people were marked as communist sympathizers, fired from their jobs, and arrested. Investigative hearings conducted by McCarthy were concerning not only politicians but also artists, scientists, and other public figures. Charlie Chaplin, Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles, and many other talented Americans were blacklisted and harassed by the FBI. Those who cited the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination or refused to appear to hearings were accused of contempt of Congress and often sent to prison. Some chose to cooperate with authorities and testified against their friends and colleagues.
Political paranoia gained further momentum in the USA due to some real evidence of the growing military power of the Soviet Union and its allies. Nuclear weapons were successfully tested that increased fear and contributed to the strengthening of McCarthy’s influence on public opinion. According to Oshinsky (2019), “Americans portrayed the Communists as evil people and supported the extreme measures like the deportation to Russia” (p.92). Aggressive rhetoric was also fueled by the fast spread of communist supporters in the world, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.
Although some State Department employees were implicated in real espionage for the Soviet Union, most of the accusations turned out to be falsified. Panic in the society was used by authorities to defame political opponents within the US government. Gradually people in the USA recognized that measures taken to prevent the spread of hostile activity caused more damage than communists themselves. As authorities faced public pressure supported by a number of journalistic investigations, they had to stop bringing unjust accusations.
McCarthy proved his professional incompetence and resigned in 1954. He never presented to the public that list of Kremlin’s agents which triggered panic among the American populace in 1950. Soon it became clear that the danger of the red threat was exaggerated. Unfortunately, by that time, a great number of lives had been irrevocably destroyed. Although innocent people were rehabilitated after Red Scare ended, their reputations had been seriously damaged. The political climate was characterized by total mistrust and unbalance as leftist groups were suppressed, and everyone in the government feared accusations of espionage.
The paradox of the Red Scare was in the fact that the government was fighting for democracy using non-democratic tools. Political intimidation led to limitations of freedom and violations of the civil rights guaranteed by the US Constitution. The atmosphere of conspiracy and suspicion was a symptom of profound instability in American society (Feffer, 2019). Even after McCarthyism subsided, the consequences of mass persecutions continued to reverberate in the USA for a few subsequent decades. The authorities were totally discredited in the eyes of Americans and had to come up with a new political agenda.
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Similar processes of mass prosecutions took place in other countries throughout history, but as a rule, they occurred in states with totalitarian regimes. Governments in those cases neglected principles of liberty in the name of national power. Thousands of innocent people were prosecuted and condemned to death in the Soviet Union during The Great Terror when Stalin was a leader. Nowadays, public executions for dissidence and espionage are still carried in North Korea where the government uses propaganda to manipulate public opinion and retain power. Discrimination and deprivation of basic human rights and freedoms is a common feature for a high number of regimes in the Middle East.
In modern times Red Scare and McCarthyism are synonyms for unfair prosecutions and witch hunts. This phenomenon proved that even a democratic society might experience destructive processes in case panic and fear takes precedence over justice. The lesson is that propaganda and manipulation of public opinion may not be efficient if citizens are learned to think critically. Therefore civic education appears to be a necessary component in the development of any democratic state.
Feffer, A. (2019). Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
McCarthy, J. (1950). Speech on Communists in the State Department. Web.
Oshinsky, D. (2019). A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.