George Bingham discusses anti-communism in the USA in the 1940s and 1950s

What accounts for the intensity of domestic anti-communism in the USA in the 1940s and ‘50s?

The American public’s opposition to communism is only to be expected as the communist ideology of collectivism directly opposes and challenges their society’s core value of individualism. This concept was and is entrenched in the economic and political systems of the United States. However, this ideological contrast does not account for the intensity of domestic anti-communism during this time frame. For the purposes of this essay ‘domestic anti-communism’ is defined as legislative and government actions targeting communists within the USA. On the surface, this intensity seems to be the result of the formidable Joseph McCarthy, senator for Wisconsin, who has become synonymous in the public conscience with this Second Red Scare[1] and the accompanying strict legislation. This is demonstrated by the use of the term ‘McCarthyism’, which is defined as “the practice of accusing someone of being a communist and therefore avoiding or not trusting them”[2]. However, in my opinion McCarthy is more of a symbolic figurehead and there are other, more significant, factors that account for the intensity of domestic anti-communism. These factors include the intense political rivalry created by the lack of bipartisanship within the two-party system, the hidden influence of the FBI and the Protestant Church. Once anti-communism was pushed to the forefront of domestic politics there was substantial support for any accompanying legislation due to a climate of anxiety. This was partly a result of stress created by external international events such as; the success of communist revolutions (for example the fall of nationalist China and North Korea in 1949), Soviet troops remaining in supposedly liberated countries after the end of World War 2 and espionage activities leading to the USSR developing nuclear capabilities. This period was also a time of great social change which led to the status of certain groups, such as the shrinking middle class, declining. This fed into the anti-establishmentarianism aspect of domestic anti-communism based on the resentment towards the stability of the upper class compared to the working class’s unstable economic and societal status. Overall domestic anti-communism in the 1940s and ‘50s has come to be defined by the actions of an ambitious senator but the reality is the American political and legislative systems allowed McCarthy to gain immense symbolic power but also tore him down.


Despite McCarthy’s power being largely symbolic, Politicians believed he had immense political power, and this ensured there were few challengers to his narrative between 1950 to 1953. But was this assumption correct? It was largely based on the results of key senatorial elections in 1950 in which McCarthy appeared to have a decisive influence. In several races McCarthy appeared to intervene decisively whenever he vigorously supported the Republican candidate. But the two elections which seemingly demonstrated his ability to sway the public were the defeats of Senator Millard E. Tydings and Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas. Both were notable vocal challengers to McCarthy’s initial claims of a communist conspiracy, and both succumbed to surprise electoral defeats following speeches McCarthy gave against them and where he encouraged his supporters to give financial support to their opponents. This seemed to confirm the fears of liberals that McCarthy’s unfounded claim of having a list of 205 communists working in the State Department had attracted the unanimous support of the people. This perceived support ensured politicians only expressed concerns about McCarthy in private and granted him a quasi-political immunity as well as the freedom to continue to make unfounded accusations without fear of any consequences. Repercussions only came once politicians were certain his popularity was on the wane following his disastrous performance at the Army-McCarthy hearings which took place from April to June 1954. Here he was exposed for having no evidence to support his accusations and was himself accused of using these hearings to pressure the Army into releasing a recently drafted friend. However, even when the public turned against him, the Senate only censored him for his conduct rather than his message. Some have since argued that politicians misinterpreted the elections results and that McCarthy’s political power was “built on a fictional foundation”[3]. In 1960 Nelson W. Polsby examined county election returns in Connecticut and concluded McCarthy had very little influence on the election outcome. Although the defeats seemed surprising at the time the overall trend across that senatorial election showed declining support for the Democrat Administration partly due to the reversal of fortunes in the Korean War, where US troops had been pushed back to the 38th parallel. Overall, the senatorial election results were misinterpreted by politicians who failed to account for the anti-democrat public sentiment. It is clear that McCarthy had small groups of ardent supporters whose fervent support perhaps created an illusion of wide-ranging support, but it seems the wider population tolerated rather than supported him. This mistaken belief in McCarthy’s influence allowed him to further increase public hysteria over domestic communism without a challenge until the public turned on him rather than the politicians.

Before McCarthy rose to relevance, domestic anti-communism was taken up by partisans in the Republican party after the election victory of Harry Truman in 1944. Robert Griffith argues that this group created a “political dynamic” that McCarthy managed to align himself with[4]. This dynamic meant that domestic anti-communism gained respect but what really pushed anti-communist legislation through was the intense competition between the two sides to appear to be harsher on communism. This competition was established by a lack of bipartisanship and the assumption that attacking communism would attract almost unanimous public support. This is shown by the democrat response to the proposed McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 by the leader of conservative Republicans, Pat McCarran. This bill proposed the registration of all communist groups, emergency detention of those likely to commit sabotage or espionage and stricter legislation on espionage and sedition. Truman and many Democrats were determined to oppose the bill but were nervous about the unpatriotic impression this could give. Despite this Truman promised to use the presidential veto “regardless of how politically unpopular it was”[5]. However, Democratic liberals, led by Paul H. Douglas of Illinois and Harley M. Kilgore of West Virginia, favoured a high risk response of proposing an even stricter, poorly written substitute bill that recommended an emergency detention plan for the internment of those suspected of espionage upon the presidential declaration of an “internal security emergency”. This bill allowed liberals to rally against regulations on constitutional grounds which granted them some immunity from appearing unpatriotic. But in a legislative disaster the “concentration camp bill” was rejected as a substitute to the McCarran Act and was instead was passed as an addition, overriding Truman’s presidential veto. This shows how desperate the majority of politicians were to avoid accusations of being ‘soft’ on communism. This combined with a lack of bipartisanship led to the passing of severe anti-communist legislation. The reality was that the passing of these extreme internal security measures was not due to the influence of McCarthy and this is further demonstrated by Congress continuing to pass ‘anti-subversive’ legislation even after McCarthy was censored by the Senate in 1954. This includes the Communist Control Act, passed later that year, which was later ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, as it stripped Communist Party members of their rights as American citizens. It demonstrates just how extreme domestic legislation against communists had become due to the intense political rivalry between the two parties on the issue. This legislative competition assumed that being strict on communism would draw unilateral support.

This assumption was partly the result of the FBI who have come under increased scrutiny for their role in promoting anti-communism throughout these two decades. Analysis of FBI files has only been possible since the mid-1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act was updated. However, the files are not complete as some politically sensitive documents, many relating to the FBI’s role in the rise of McCarthyism, had been destroyed. Kenneth O’Reilly concluded that “That FBI officials worked tirelessly to create a climate of opinion conducive to the style of a Joseph R. McCarthy …. is incontestable”[6]. In domestic politics the anti-communist movement had been side-lined before the war but what caused it to re-emerge? Perhaps it was the legitimacy granted to the movement by FBI raids, investigations and leaks which eventually resulted in the convictions of both Alger Hiss and the ‘Hollywood Ten’, moments traditionally associated with McCarthyism. An early example was the FBI raid of Amerasia, a left-wing periodical with suspected communist affiliations, where they found several classified documents leaked from the State Department. This provided evidence to senators, including Pat McCarran, who were arguing for stricter security measures and background checks for government officials. Until the files were released this seemed to be the first action of the FBI against communist espionage and influence. But in the released files it was revealed that an FBI investigation had been launched in 1942 into communist influence within Hollywood. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, had ordered the head of the Los Angeles field office to prepare a “comprehensive report indicating Communist infiltration and control of the motion picture industry”[7]. This letter shifted the focus of the FBI in Hollywood from unions to investigating the alleged communist affiliations of directors, producers and actors on the basis they could produce films that had communist undertones or propaganda. This shift is shown by the extensive investigation launched that year, code named COMPIC, which finally ended in 1956 with the conclusion that communist influence in the motion picture industry was “practically non-existent at the present time”[8]. This clearly demonstrates the FBI was gathering information on suspected communist sympathisers as early as 1942 despite the Soviet Union being a wartime ally. However, they also contributed to the intensity of domestic anti-communism by leaking classified information in order to silence critics and protect their own agenda.

The impact of this is clearly shown by how Hoover leaked evidence of Alger Hiss’ communist associations to important senators, including Richard Nixon, to ensure Hiss was fired from his role as Director of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs. This was done to protect the secrecy of the FBI investigation into Hiss and the image of the State Department. This instance as well as other leaks resulted in a number of senators, led by Pat McCarran, attacking State Department loyalty measures which resulted in the first significant bill that targeted communists in government. This bill granted the Secretary of State absolute authority to dismiss anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the communist cause and was the direct consequence of tactical leaking of confidential information by the FBI. The FBI consistently used leaks to politicians and commissions to fulfil their agenda without revealing their ongoing investigations and informants. This was once again demonstrated by the actions of the FBI after the Attorney General, Francis Biddle, and a White House aide, Harry Vaughan, both ignored FBI recommendations of legal action based on the report on communist influence in Hollywood in October of 1944[9]. In response the FBI decided to leak the communist membership cards of the renowned ‘Hollywood Ten’ to HUAC (House Un-American Activities Commission) as well as evidence of them attending Communist Party meetings. As a result, they were subpoenaed and interviewed by the commission. However, their absolute refusal to answer any questions based on First Amendment grounds resulted in them all being charged with contempt of Congress. Once again, the FBI involved themselves in this narrative by illegally placing wire taps on the attorneys, Martin Popper and Bartley Crum, who were representing two of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ in their defence against these charges[10]. They then passed extensive details of their defence strategy to the prosecution, making the unlikely claim that the information came from a confidential informer. This extremely unethical violation of attorney-client privilege demonstrated how obsessive FBI agents were in their pursuit of those sympathetic to communism, even being prepared to ignore any legal restrictions. Therefore, Athan G. Theoharis is justified in describing the FBI as “a lawless agency” during this period[11]. This is further supported by the use of leaks to smear critics. For example, after the National Lawyers Guild demanded a special investigation into the alleged false testimony of FBI agents and illegal surveillance, the FBI gave HUAC a classified report on the guild which was paraphrased and published[12]. In addition to this when ex-guild member, Max Lowenthal, was about to publish a scathing study into FBI investigations, they used their allies in the media, like Morris Ernst[13], and their own covert publicists to attack him and his publicist for unproven communist affiliations. This clearly demonstrates how the FBI produced a climate of fear and paranoia about a communist conspiracy by leaking information to Senate commissions and the media. Through these constant leaks they heavily influenced legislation and created a climate where even an unfounded accusation of communist affiliations was a career death sentence. McCarthy took advantage and used false accusations as a political weapon which enabled him to become the most “successful demagogue this country has ever known”[14].

Although there was no wide spread communist conspiracy as the unfounded accusations suggested, there is definitive evidence of Soviet espionage. However, the danger and extent were widely exaggerated by the media allies of the FBI and by the overbearing legislation which suggested there was extensive espionage at all levels of government. However, Soviet espionage was clearly a genuine internal security threat. Suspicions of this were initiated by the Canadian Royal Commission report, released in 1946, that revealed wartime Soviet espionage which led to the US Congress setting up their own sub-committee to investigate. But the threat only really entered into the public conscience when the Soviets dropped their first atomic bomb in August of 1949. This rapid advancement in nuclear capabilities was the result of espionage within the Manhattan project. This was evidenced when Klaus Fuchs, a theoretical physicist who had been passing nuclear secrets to the USSR, was caught in 1949. He would reveal a spy ring, led by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were convicted of espionage and controversially executed in 1953. This evidence of high-level espionage came at a time when communist revolutions were taking place in Asia, most notably the fall of Nationalist China, and Soviet troops remained in supposedly liberated Eastern Europe and Iran. The rapid spread of communism, particularly to third world countries, created a sense of urgency to combat communist influence internationally but also on the domestic front. Many Historians, such as Herbert Agar and Eric Goldman, have argued that the stress created by supposed toppling of capitalism as the world’s majority ideology was the main factor of the intensity of American anti-communism[15]. The inability to stop the tide of communism on the international front meant the Government turned to the easier task of attacking domestic communism. But this stress created by the Cold War does not fully explain the fervent drive to eradicate domestic communist influence especially when you compare it to the more lenient reaction of Europeans, despite the Soviet Union being a more direct threat. This leniency is evidenced by polls throughout the Cold War in which 25% to 50% of Europeans reported neutral or favourable reactions to the Soviet Union[16]. Compare this to the US where in a poll 77% agreed that communists should be stripped of their citizenship[17]. Therefore, an internal factor, rather than the international threat of Communism, is a more likely explanation for the intensity of domestic anti-communism feeling that far surpassed that of Europe.

Some historians have argued that this internal factor is the influence of the Protestant Church. Mark G. Toulouse stated that the “Cold War represented a religious battle rather than a political one”[18] and Kenneth D Wald describes American anti-communism as a “moralistic crusade”[19]. The founders of communism were atheist and hostile to the principle of religion, so it was likely that church leaders viewed the development of domestic communism as a threat. Therefore, Protestant preaching did contain anti-communist sentiments which may have influenced parishioners. This is shown by polls concluding that being strongly committed to a faith was conducive to hard-line views on communism[20]. This is further supported by another poll in which only 11% of Americans agreed that a man can be a good Christian and a member of the communist party[21]. However, the American public justified their support of anti-communist legislation by the ideological differences which were exacerbated by a climate of anxiety rather than any defence of their religious identity which was, in all likelihood, only the justification for a small minority. This perhaps symbolises the start of the decline of religious influence upon American society.

In conclusion, although the FBI heavily influenced the intense public feeling of anti-communism it was politicised by the political parties exposing their bitter uncompromising rivalry. This resulted in severe bills, proposed for political gain rather than national interest. This demonstrates the crucial flaw in the American political system where a lack of bipartisanship led to the two major parties descending into petty competition that resulted in increasingly strict, verging on unconstitutional, anti-communist legislation. Therefore, this prioritization of political ambition over national interest, combined with public paranoia heavily influenced by FBI leaks, was what accounted for the intensity of domestic anti-communism during this time period. And although the stress of early Cold War success of communism did contribute to this paranoia, the disproportionate American reaction relative to that in Europe demonstrates how it was the strategic leaks of the FBI that pushed public reaction to such an extreme. And as for McCarthy, the man synonymous with this movement in the public conscience, he was just a symbolic figure. Even if he was removed from this narrative, the movement of domestic anti-communism would still have dominated the landscape of 1940s and ‘50s politics, perhaps immortalising a different ambitious senator.




















[1] The First Red Scare occurred after the Russian Revolution of 1917. There was widespread paranoia about the presence of Bolsheviks within the United States.

[2] Accessed 6 Apr.2020

[3] BERINSKY, ADAM J., and GABRIEL S. LENZ. “RED SCARE? REVISITING JOE MCCARTHY’S INFLUENCE ON 1950s ELECTIONS.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2014, pp. 369–391., Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

[4]Griffith, Robert. “The Political Context of McCarthyism.” The Review of Politics, vol. 33, no. 1, 1971, pp. 24–35. JSTOR, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

[5] Stephen J. Spingarn, Memorandum for the Files, July 22, 1950, National Defence – Internal Security and Individual Rights, vol. I, Spingarn Papers.

[6] O’Reilly, Kenneth. “The FBI and the Origins of McCarthyism.” The Historian, vol. 45, no. 3, 1983, pp. 372–393. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.

[7]Letter, Hoover to SAC, Los Angeles, September 6, 1942, and accompanying 3-page list of radical activists, FBI 100-138754- 1; Teletype, Hoover to SAC, Los Angeles, November 9, 1942, FBI 100-138754-2; Report, name with- held agent.

[8] 754-4. The order discontinuing this investigation is Memo, Belmont to Boardman, January 3, 1956, FBI 100-138754-1103.

[9] Personal and Confidential Memo, Hoover to Attorney General, October 31, 1944, and accompanying report Re: Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, FBI 100-138754-59. And Memo, Hoover to Vaughan, May 4, 1945, and accompanying report Re: Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, FBI 100-138754-94.

[10] On the Crum wiretap, see Memo, Ladd to FBI Director, October 9, 1947, FBI 100-138754-248; Memo, SAC, San Francisco to FBI Director, November 13, 1947, FBI 100-138754-unclear. On the Popper wiretap as well as transcripts of some of the intercepted conversations, see, for example, Memo, Coyne to Ladd, November 10, 1947, FBI 100-138754-309. Memos, Hottel to FBI Director, October 18, 1947, FBI 100-138754-338; November 15, 1947, FBI 100-138754-318; December 8, 1947, and accompanying wiretap summary, FBI 100-138754-364; December 29, 1947, FBI 100- 138754-373; and January 14, 1948, and accompanying wiretap summary, FBI 100-138754-386.

[11] Theoharis, Athan G. “A Lawless Agency: The FBI and the ‘Hollywood Ten.’” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 2, no. 3, 1999, pp. 415–430. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Apr. 2020.

[12] National Lawyers Guild, 81st Cong., 2d sess., 1950. For a comparison of the HUAC report and the FBI report, see Christy Macy and Susan Kaplan, comps., Documents (New York, 1980), 25-28.

[13] “Memos, Nichols to Toison, 18 October, 2 and 17 November 1949, 17 January, 16 February, and 4 April 1950, all in Nichols FBI Files-Morris Ernst; memos, M. A. Jones to Nichols, 15 December 1949, 19 January, 9 March 1950, all in ibid.; letter, Nichols to Oursler, 13 March 1950, ibid.; letter, Oursler to Nichols, 7 December 1949, ibid.; letter, Ernst to Nichols, 1 November 1949, ibid.; letters, Hoover to Ernst, 20 October, 4 November 1949, ibid.

[14] 1 Richard H. Rovere, “The Most Gifted and Successful Demagogue This Country Has Ever Known,” The New York Times Magazine, April 30th1967.

[15]Herbert Agar, The Price of Power: America Since 1945 (Chicago, 1957), pp. 86-105; Eric Goldman, The Crucial Decade – And After: America, 1945- 1.960 (New York, 1960), pp. 91-145.

[16]Michael Barone, Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 209; Martin D. Abravanel, “Affect, Beliefs and International Affairs,” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1971, 23-24.

[17] Gallup Organization and the National Opinion Research Centre, May-July 1954

[18] Mark G. Toulouse, “Christianity Today and American Public Life: A Case Study,” Journal of Church and State 35 (Spring 1993): 268.

[19] WALD, KENNETH D. “The Religious Dimension of American Anti-Communism.” Journal of Church and State, vol. 36, no. 3, 1994, pp. 483–506., Accessed 13 2020.

[20] Milton J. Rosenberg, “Attitude Change and Foreign Policy in the Cold War Era,” in Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy, ed. James N. Rosenau (New York: Free Press, 1967), 157.

[21]“Do you think a man can be a good Christian and at the same time be a member of the Communist Party?” (Gallup poll, July 22-28, 1949)


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