In "The Unknown Soldier," one of the stories in Molly Antopol's The UnAmericans, a young actor, Alexi Liebman, has to serve jail time because he comes under suspicion that he is a member of the American Communist party. This fictional account is based on very real events that took place in the United States.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Americans were growing increasingly worried about the spread of Communism in China and Eastern Europe. Espionage cases unearthed at home, where government officials had been convicted of sharing secrets with the "enemy," only compounded fears. The collective nervousness was enough to fuel mass hysteria around the "Red Scare."
It is in this environment that Senator Joseph McCarthy found an opening to catapult himself onto the national stage. The junior Republican senator from Wisconsin entered politics in 1946, but it was during a speech at a prominent breakfast that he made waves by wielding a list of 210 government members, accusing them of Communist sympathies. Since being a member of the Communist Party was not actually a crime, the senator instead tossed around allegations of subversion — that these citizens were looking to overthrow the government, which was illegal.
Soon thousands of Americans were rounded up in front of the Senate Committee on Government Operations that McCarthy headed (It should be noted that McCarthy's committee was distinct from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), originally established in 1939, which was reactivated to ferret out Communists after World War II). An accusation alone was enough to tarnish the reputation of many who lost jobs and careers as a result. Most notoriously, Hollywood was brought under the microscope starting with the "Hollywood Ten" who were high-placed artists charged with Communist tendencies. Even though they all denied it, they were jailed for contempt of Congress. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States" was an interrogation question that became notorious during these hearings. The playwright Arthur Miller compared the McCarthy hearings to the Salem Witch Hunt trials in a play he wrote later.
Strong-arming the accused and threatening them with severe punishment was par for the course during these trials. It was when McCarthy started going after senior members of the Army — and most important, when these hearings were televised — that popular opinion reared against the Senator and he subsequently fell out of grace. "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" was a classic line thrown at McCarthy by Joseph Welch, Head Counsel for the U.S. Army. (See video here.)
It is ironic that while the hearings were going on there indeed were many who were loyal to Communist principles, but the nasty interrogation techniques and harsh lights that McCarthy used were blatant violations of civil rights. Shortly after the Army hearings, the senator was censured and stripped of power. He died three years later at the age of 48 from liver disease.
McCarthyism cartoon from Herbert Block, Herblock: A cartoonist's Life (1993), original owned by the Library of Congress
Movie poster for Storm Center, the first Hollywood movie to overtly take on McCarthyism, made by Columbia Pictures.
Hollywood Ten courtesy of Authentic History Center. Front row (from left): Herbert Biberman, attorneys Martin Popper and Robert W. Kenny, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole. Middle row: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz. Back row: Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott
Joseph Welch and Senator McCarthy courtesy of the US Senate.
This article was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the
October 2014 paperback release.
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