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The Red Scare


In the late 1940s and 1950s a fear of Communism was growing in the United States. The events of the Second World War had started a growing concern for the ambitions of the Soviet Union. Fueled by a fear of the Communist Party in the U.S., politicians like then Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to challenge anyone with a history of association with the Communist Party, fearing they might be Soviet spies. The nation questioned whether the Communists could destroy the American way of life.

The Communist Party in the United States had seen a surge in the 1930s as a result of the depression and despair over the distribution of wealth. As a political movement, those who later belonged in the sphere of politics might have been associated with the Communists of the 1930s. The same was true in the arts, especially the Hollywood movie industry. Artists saw a system aimed towards equality of all people as the benefit of Communism, although this condition may never have actually existed in the Soviet state.

In 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy from Wisconsin made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he claimed to have a list of 205 people in the state department who were members of the Communist party. In actuality, that was the number on a list of security risks for all reasons, and many of them no longer worked for the State Department. Senator McCarthy later adjusted this to 57 people. With J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Senator McCarthy began a search for Communists, bringing them before the Congress to testify about their loyalty to the United States and asking them to report any friends, family, or neighbors who might have Communist ties.

The search for Communists continued through the early 1950s, with investigations against the Hollywood entertainment community, books in libraries, the State Department, and private citizens. The entertainment industry suffered a blacklist, a list of people who were denied work because of their sympathies or suspected sympathies with Communism and the American Communist Party. They were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to be investigated for implanting Communist messages or themes into Hollywood films, some refusing to answer the question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" either as a protest or as a First Amendment right. Others agreed to "name names". In the end, industry groups like the Screen Actors Guild (headed by Ronald Reagan) and the Motion Picture Association of America cooperated by vowing to never employ any proven or admitted Communist. In truth, art was a tool Communists used to influence thinking, but for many in the arts, Communism was a humanitarian belief system more than it was an attack on America.

Senator McCarthy's fall began in 1954, when he accused the Army Signal Corps Center, located in New Jersey, of Communist infiltration. The army countered with a report accusing McCarthy of seeking favorable treatment for his colleague, David Schine. As Americans watched the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, the observed actions of McCarthy caused him to begin to lose credibility. At the end of the hearings, McCarthy's tactics were not seen in a favorable light, and in December 2, 1954, he was formally censured by the U.S. Senate for his methods of investigation. He continued to quietly serve out the rest of his term until his death on May 2, 1957, at the age of 48.

The height of the Hollywood Blacklist period was 1952 to 1956. By the end of the 1950s, the Hollywood blacklist began to fall apart as established performers insisted on collaborating artistically with known blacklisted writers and actors. Screen credits and employment were again available, although it took until the mid-60s for some performers to find their way back. Some of those who named names lived the rest of their lives with regret, others justified their choices. In retrospect, the intrusion of the Red Scare into the entertainment industry is considered to be a regrettable aspect of American history.

Published in sections: The Fifties ::

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