Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Villains of the 'Red Scares' of 1950

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Villains of the 'Red Scares' of 1950

Article excerpt

Three antiheroes stoked the fires of anticommunist hysteria in the United States in 1950. Joseph R. McCarthy, Patrick A. McCarran, and Alger Hiss, public officials claiming the country's best interests, took center stage in "Red Scares" that shook the foundation of the land.

Joseph McCarthy led witch hunts

The most famous "Red Scare" was the work of McCarthy (1908-57), Republican Senator of Wisconsin, who came into the office under questionable circumstances. He had spent three years in World War II in the South Pacific debriefing combat pilots, and word got back to Wisconsin that he fought as a tail gunner and suffered a war wound. But the limited tail gunning he did do was over islands already abandoned by the Japanese and the wound occurred when he broke his foot falling down a ship ladder. Nevertheless, in 1946 he won a Senate seat partly through the slogan, "Congress needs a tail gunner."

The youngest member of the Senate at age 38, McCarthy kept a low profile in the Upper House, as a first-term senator was supposed to, working most notably on housing legislation. That is, until in a conversation with a Jesuit priest from Georgetown University he learned that the leading issue in American politics was the danger of communism. Addressing a Republican women's group in Wheeling, W.Va., on Feb. 9, 1950, McCarthy declared that communists "thoroughly infested" the U.S. Department of State (State Department) and that "I have here in my hand a list of 205" of them.

The media took the bait. So did the government, which appointed a committee and began hearings. In subsequent days and weeks the list decreased to 57, then rose to 81. In revealing his accusations, but almost never his evidence, McCarthy became daily viewing on television, whose national reach was expanding as coaxial cables spread coast to coast.

The stupidity of his crusade was that there was no real danger of communist spies in the U.S. in 1950. (But earlier, it was a different story. For instance, in 1945 the principal Soviet courier in the U.S., Elizabeth Bentley, a Vassar alumna dubbed the "Red Spy Queen," and the lover of Jacob Golos, an operative for the Soviet secret police, told all to the FBI, turning in some 40 spies in her network.) In March, McCarthy accused Owen Lattimore, an East Asian expert at The Johns Hopkins University, of being "the top Soviet espionage agent in the United States." President Harry S. Truman was furious and almost said so, but a White House aide stifled a presidential letter indicating this. Once the personal American adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Chinese government, and the deputy director of Pacific operations for the Office of War Information in the U.S., Lattimore wasn't a spy, and years later the case was dropped.


When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, it seemed proof of McCarthy's accusations, as the North Korean attackers of South Korea were certainly communists and so were the Chinese who intervened in November on the side of the North Koreans. McCarthy's popularity soared. His smear tactics would ruin the lives of scores of people.

His downfall began in 1952 through General Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign for the presidency on the Republican ticket. The final draft of a summer speech removed a critical reference to the Wisconsin senator, a fellow Republican, but the advance copy that had been distributed to the media included it. Eisenhower was embarrassed and did not forget this. In fall 1953, McCarthy turned his investigators on the U.S. Army, and President Eisenhower persuaded the Senate to censure his abuse of power. Though he remained in the Senate, he was ignored by the government and the media and the politician died of acute alcoholism four years later.

Patrick McCarran went after just about anybody

A second red-baiting occurred under four-term Senator Patrick McCarran (1876-1954), Democrat of Nevada, whom Truman, also a Democrat, called "wicked" (in private), and with good reason. …

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