One aspect of history is that a country's so-called "friend" one day, can be an enemy the next and visa versa. The United States and Soviet Union during World War II joined ranks against the real threat of Nazi Germany. However, it did not take long after the end of the war for Russia and the United States to once again bully each other. Even before the final surrender of Germany in 1945, the two super powers rapidly found themselves in a new military and diplomatic rivalry. Meanwhile, in the United States, the economy was taking time to build and unemployment was growing. Thoughts of the Depression loomed in people's minds. The friction with the Russians, which would receive the name of Cold War, did not help. Yet it did create a scapegoat for fears and feelings of paranoia. As the tensions between the U.S. And U.S.S.R. mounted, the Communist threat reached American shores. Surely, Russia was infiltrating the government. The Rosenberg's trial in 1951 put all the props on the stage for the director Joseph McCarthy.
The "Red Scare" was nothing new to the United States. Years earlier, when Russia overthrew its tsar and became a communist state, the United States was already leery. It was difficult for the U.S. To understand a non-democratic government.
After Germany was defeated in World War II, the Allies met at Yalta and divided Germany into four occupation zones. The Soviet Union would have the greatest influence in eastern Europe, where its troops were concentrated. It already occupied Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and parts of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. However, elections would be free in these countries, but the governments would be "friendly to the Soviet Union." This is the beginning of what Winston Churchill would later call the "Iron Curtain" that split Europe for the next four decades.
When the Allies later met at the Postsdam Conference, the relationships between the U.S. And Soviet Union were already crumbling. This was especially true, since U.S. President Truman had heard of the successful test of the atomic bomb by the U.S.S.R. In addition, America had stopped giving money to the Soviet Union because of what was occurring in Eastern Europe. The nations of Western Europe still had Hitler on their minds and began to see Stalin as a similar threat.
As Halberstam notes in The Fifties (1993, p. 9), the war had ended, but it had not brought true peace because it allowed hegemony over Eastern Europe. "There had to be an answer; there had to be a scapegoat: These things could not merely have happened, not in a fair and just world." The American public looked at the U.S.S.R. As that scapegoat.
During WWII, the Red Scare was subdued and the media painted the U.S.S.R. In a better light as the Germans came in for the attack. Yet after the war's end, the hesitancy felt at Potsdam began to spread across the U.S. The National Police Gazette's cover blasted the headline "The Truth About Stalin's Bomb" and the Sunday, January 6, 1946, centerfold of the New York Daily News illustrated the Soviet domination in a map headed "The Bear Grows and Grows." Magazines were the next to pick up the Communist theme with articles on Stalin, the U.S. Communist Party and the possibility of a war with Russia. The March 4, 1947 issue of Look entitled "How to Spot a Communist" warned readers to "Check before you sign that petition or join that little-known club; you might be supporting a secret cause (Barson, 1991, p. 63).
As 1947 continued, the Red Scare mounted. Other Look issues explained how a photo-reporter found the Russians unfriendly and how America could lose the next war in seven days and "bring down the curtain on civilized society." The Saturday Evening Post wrote that "nowhere else in this country are there as many commies per square foot as in New York's garment district. Yet the Reds have been licked time after time in their campaign to gain control of the clothing workers' unions" and Look questioned "Does Communism threaten Christianity?" The media coverage in 1948 and 1949 continue to spur the fears about the threat of the U.S.S.R. And the infiltration of the Communists in America. Films such as those called the "The Iron Curtain," "The Red Menace," "I Married a Communist," and "Red Nightmare," were abundant and added to the Cold War fears (ibid, p. 83).
The House Un-America Activities Committee (HUAC), originally established in 1937 to investigate subversive activities, was still in force although it had been quiet for some time. In the mid-1940s, the HUAC consisted of racists and reactionaries (Halbertson, 1993, p.12). In 1947, the HUAC began looking into the Hollywood motion picture industry. In September, it interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as so-called "friendly witnesses." During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
In 1948, a shady character by the name of Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss, who earlier had filled a minor role in the State Department and was then head of the Carnegie Foundation Endowment, as a fellow Communist. Although HUAC did not give credence to Chambers initially, Richard Nixon, then California Representative, kept pushing the committee to act. In time, the name of Chambers disappeared and Hiss became a symbol for the beginning of the Cold War. The American public became totally wrapped up in the Hiss case and it did not matter that the evidence was slight if anything at all. Hiss received a five-year term, of which he served 44 months.
Oakley (1986, p.49) calls this an ugly time in American history when large numbers of Americans were caught up in an irrational fear of a great Communist conspiracy, orchestrated from the Kremlin, that was supposedly subverting the country from within, causing the setbacks the nation was suffering in foreign affairs, and contributing to the onward march of world communism.
The fear somewhat resulted from the long-term American suspicion of anyone or anything that threatened, or appeared to threaten, democracy, capitalism or Christianity.
It is recalled that after the Pearl Harbor bombing, a similar situation arose with the Japanese-Americans. On February 19, 1942, soon after the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the evacuation of 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage to one of ten internment camps in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.
The Internal Security Act of 1950, named for Nevada's Senator Pat McCarran, who picked up wording from an earlier version by Richard Nixon, argued for the fingerprinting and registration of all subversives at large in the U.S. It also authorized concentration camps for emergency situation. President Truman, who had imposed the Loyalty Order for federal government employees in 1947 vetoed the legislation because, he said, it "would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights [and] would actually weaken our internal security measures." But his veto was overridden by an 89% majority vote, and McCarran's newly formed Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and Hoover's FBI started their hearings (ibid, p. 51)
Thus, both the government and the public were prepped for a major witch hunt of communists infiltrating the U.S. government, and not too many individuals were better than playing on fears than Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. The former circuit judge and marine had been elected to the Senate in 1946 after using smear tactics to defeat Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr. In the primary and Democrat Howard McMurray in the general election (ibid, 56).
McCarthy was looking for a cause that would give him notoriety. A friend suggested hitching himself to the communists-in-government issue. This would give attract national publicity and enhance his reelection bid. Earlier, McCarthy had somewhat raised this concern in his speeches, but now he saw how this could become the way to build his career. "That's it," he told his companions (ibid, 57).
The Wisconsin Senator was given a boost by external events. In 1950, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were on trial for committing "The Crime of the Century." The Rosenbergs were born and raised in the Lower East Side of New York City. They were married in 1939. Julius joined the United States Army Signal Corps in 1940, but was discharged five years later after being accused for being a Communist. After leaving the Army, he worked with Ethel's brother David Greenglass in a small self-owned machine shop in New York City. Prior to running the shop, Greenglass had worked at the U.S. government's Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico as a machinist on a project to make an atomic bomb. In 1950, the government arrested Greenglass as a spy for the Soviet Union when he worked at Los Alamos. In a plea bargain to reduce his sentence, Greenglass confessed and told federal prosecutors and the FBI that his brother-in-law recruited him to get information. The Rosenbergs…