The Origins of McCarthyism – America on the Defensive

Senator Joseph McCarthy points to newspaper

Senator Joseph McCarthy points to a newspaper with an inflammatory headline


In the 1950s paranoia was rife. Fear of encroaching communist influence known as was spreading throughout the West.

What was once a healthy suspicion of the enemy had transformed into paranoia and resulted in the political witch hunt known as McCarthyism.

The Soviet’s new status as a nuclear power, along with its network of agents embedded in American society sent shockwaves through the public. This was the driving force behind McCarthyism and this is why President Harry Truman did not act before it got out of hand.

After the Soviet’s first atomic test in 1949, suspicion ran high within the scientific community. The Soviets had exceeded all expectations. Their nuclear test took place much sooner than British and US Intelligence had predicted, it was believed that highly classified information had been leaked to the Soviets.

America’s worst fears were verified by the discovery of a team of Soviet agents embedded within the Manhattan project. These agents had indeed passed secrets on to the Soviets. The spy ring included Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Despite the perpetrator’s capture in 1950, the United States was gripped by the possibility of further Soviet subterfuge.


The Red Iceberg

McCarthy-era propaganda poster


Amongst this atmosphere of panic, one man – Senator Joseph McCarthy – stole the spotlight. Joe was looking for the most potent way to make an impact in American politics, and at the time it happened to be persecuting communist sympathisers, or red-baiting.

His bold, extroverted persona made him the ideal voice for the Republican Party’s anti-communist witch hunt. In return for the support he received from the GOP, McCarthy took on the Truman administration, and their “soft” approach on communism.

What truly set McCarthy apart from other red-baiters was his willingness to use underhanded techniques to achieve the results that he favoured. In this regard he was not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI, who were accused of overstepping their boundaries by performing illegal wire-taps on suspected Communists. In contrast to Hoover, Joe’s methods were overt and relied on knee-jerk reactions from the American public. McCarthy was able to play up to the hysteria and presented his witch hunt as a public service.

McCarthy did not warp US politics on his own. He had help from the Republican Party and the infamous China Lobby – which took its name from America’s loss of China to communism in 1949.

This was a significant blow to the US. Their special relationship with China had included missionary work and the hopes of trade agreements in the budding Chinese economy. China’s shared border with Soviet Russia was also of great strategic importance.

After China’s communist revolution, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Government had fled to the island of Taiwan with the promise of one-day retaking mainland China, but this never came to pass.

Truman’s State Department blamed Chiang Kai-shek for the Communist’s victory. Whereas, Republican critics like Richard Nixon and Senator William Knowland blamed Truman for not supplying Chiang Kai-shek with enough support to ward off the communist threat.

Nixon, Knowland, Democratic Senator Pat McCarran, and several other politicians would come to be known as the China Lobby. The pressure group opposed Truman’s soft approach to communism, that later leaped to McCarthy’s aid in 1950.

The GOP and the China Lobby may have paved the way for McCarthyism, but the true causes are attributed to increased Soviet activity and the reaction of the American public. To them, Soviet Russia had crossed a line by stealing US classified information. This acted as justification for the political repression that followed the events of 1949 and created a vacuum in national security that McCarthyism filled.



Written by Michael Ade-Kunle on 17th February 2018



Video: Youtube/Ted-Ed/What is McCarthyism?

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