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During the 1940s and 1950s the united States saw her main enemy in communism. Against this background the U.S. authorities campaigned against actual and suspected communists. This period is named after the U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy.






  • Date: Mid 1940ies – End of 1950ies
  • Location: United States of America
  • Event: Persecution of suspected & actual communists in the USA


Parties & Persons Involved

  • Joseph McCarthy (1908 – 1957), U.S. Senator
  • J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972), FBI Director


Prehistory & Background

  • 1933 – 1938: The New Deal era leads to social & liberal reforms in the USA
  • 1933 – 1939: A large number of left-wing activists & anti-fascist immigrate to the U.S. during the Nazi period in Europe
  • 1945: The Gouzenko Affaire & the Bentley Affaire uncover the extensive North American espionage activities of the Soviet Union
  • 1949: Successful atomic bomb test of the Soviet Union
  • 1949: Mao & his communist army gain control over mainland China

Communists are perceived as the main enemy of the USA & the people are afraid of the communist threat from inside.



Rise of the McCarthy Era

  • 1947: With the Executive Order President Truman launches the Security Program which tests the loyalty of all of the federal employees (approx. 7,200 lose their jobs)
  • 1947: The Hollywood Ten are summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (founded 1938) but plead the fifth Amendment & are put on the Hollywood Blacklist
  • Private investigation firms draw further blacklists
  • 1950: The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee is founded to secure the measures against communists (espionage & sabotage)
  • 1951: Hoover authorises the covert Responsibilities Program which gathers intelligence about potential communists
  • Further FBI operations follow
  • 1950: McCarthy is elected Senator for Wisconsin & makes a name for himself being a loud & aggressive anti-communist
  • 1953 – 1954: McCarthy uses the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for his “communist hunt”
  • To be summoned before a committee or one’s name on a blacklist is normally enough to lose one’s job


Decline of the McCarthy Era

  • 1950: Senator Margaret Chase Smith demands an end of the “character assassinations“ & the “cancerous tentacles of knowing nothing, suspecting everything attitudes“ & is supported by 6 Republican Senators
  • 1953 &1954: The well-respected journalist Edward E. Murrow attacks McCarthy & his methods via TV
  • 1954: McCarthy’s conflict with the U.S. Forces lead to the Army-McCarthy Hearing during which the people can form their own opinions of McCarthy’s methods because of TV coverage
  • The public opinion turns against McCarthy & the associated measures
  • 1956: Slochower vs. Board of Education is the first of many decisions of the Supreme Court against measures of the McCarthy Era
  • 1960: Dalton Tumbo, famous member of the Hollywood Ten, is officially mentioned for the screenplays of Spartacus & Exodus


Consequences & Impact

  • Victims of the McCarthy Era:
    • >100 U.S. citizens are arrested
    • >10,000 U.S. citizens lose their jobs
  • Examples of prominent victims of the McCarthy Era
    • Leonard Bernstein
    • Albert Einstein & Robert Oppenheimer
    • Charlie Chaplin
    • Thomas Mann
  • Political controversy:
    • Condemnation vs. legitimisation of the McCarthy Era with regards to the current political situation, i.e. the U.S. war against terror after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001
  • Historical controversy:
    • McCarthy Era = Measures against freedom, the Constitution & the American spirit
    • McCarthy Era = Measures against an existing communist threat