As World War I finally concluded on November 11, 1918, the United States became swept up in a fear-driven, anti-communist movement, following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. From 1919-1920, the United States entrenched itself in the First Red Scare, the American public anxious at the prospect of communism spreading across continents. The first Red Scare occurred in the global context of the struggle by contemporaries to envision their future amid the chaos and horror wrought by World War I. However, the Red Scare resurged in the late 1940s well into the 1950s in the United States during the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Once again, the United States found itself in a state of anti-communist unrest, yet the second Red Scare lasted nearly a decade.
Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin made himself famous in 1950 by claiming that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. McCarthy’s fear-mongering and anti-communist maneuvers yielded “McCarthyism”: the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States. The second Red Scare predated and outlasted McCarthy and its machinery far exceeded the reach of a single maverick politician.
As anti-communist sentiments heightened, the government and nongovernmental actors at national, state, and local levels deemed the American Communist Party as a serious threat to national security. The identification and punishing of Communists, as well as their alleged sympathizers, spawned a McCarthy-era witch hunt for Communists, forcing many thousands of Americans to face congressional committee hearings, FBI investigations, loyalty tests, and sedition laws. The Communist prejudice continued, creating negative consequences for those accused, ranging from imprisonment to deportation, loss of passport, or, most commonly, long-term unemployment.
This video delves into the lasting legacy of the second Red Scare, as well as McCarthyism in American culture, highlighting the strain of Communist fear on working-class Americans and Civil Rights activists.
Featured image credit: “Blurry American Flag” by Filip Bunkens. Public domain via Unsplash.