From The Mason Historiographiki
McCarthyism is a time characterized by vicious attacks and ruthless investigations of communists and supposed communists. What was the cause of this 1950s red-scare? Who was Joe McCarthy and what was his role? What type of people were victims of the McCarthy era?
According to Richard M. Fried’s Nightmare in Red, the anticommunism hysteria that gripped the country in the 1950s was a direct product of Conservative frustration over the changes brought on by the New Deal. Out of power and disgusted with the burgeoning size of the federal government, Republicans and some conservative Democrats became convinced that the administration of Franklin Roosevelt had let communists infest the country. Conservatives celebrated the conviction of Alger Hiss, a low level New Dealer, as proof that they were correct. According to Fried, the 1930s American Communist Party was of the “revolving door” variety—meaning that men and women were constantly joining and leaving the Party. It was therefore inevitable that some people with ties to the Communist Party would end up working for New Deal programs.
The anticommunism of the 1950s will be forever linked to Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. But, as Fried points out, the country was already deep into a Red Scare before McCarthy seized on the issue. Even though the Red Scare was in many ways a reaction to the New Deal, its origins can be traced to FDR himself. Truman institutionalized and expanded on FDR’s informal anticommunism. But the anticommunism of the 50s is known as McCarthyism for a reason. Joe McCarthy was a master at pageantry and loved the limelight. For a four year period between 1950 and 1954 McCarthy was one of the most powerful men in Washington and easily the most feared. McCarthy would in the end overplay his hand and Washington quickly turned against him. Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s Supreme Court appointee Earl Warren began to challenge many of the tactics employed by red-baiters. By the election of 1960, anticommunism had lost its appeal.
The Red Scare reverberated throughout all levels of government. Local and State governments took their own measures to weed out possible Communists. The result was that nobody really felt safe. Artists, actors, musicians, homosexuals, feminists, pacifists, civil rights activists, and scientists were just some of the groups that were harassed during the Red Scare. Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus , a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, tells the story of how the nation’s most celebrated scientist and the father of the atomic bomb fell victim to charges of being sympathetic to the USSR.
Oppenheimer was in many ways a typical 1930s liberal intellectual. His wide social circle included many Communist Party sympathizers. In the grips of the Great Depression, it is no surprise that he found some of the Communist theories attractive. There is no conclusive evidence that Oppenheimer ever joined the Communist Party. Whatever his sympathies in the 1930s, by the time he was tapped to head the nation’s nuclear bomb program in 1942 he made a conscious effort to cut off ties to friends that may be viewed with suspicion. His efforts at Los Alamos were indispensable.
After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer quickly shifted into a champion of nuclear regulation. He knew firsthand the awesome power of the bomb and hoped that it would never have to be used again. To the horror of some of his colleagues, Oppenheimer also used his newly established celebrity status to lobby against the development of a Super-H bomb. As the country plunged into the Red Scare, Oppenheimer’s enemies in conjunction with the conniving J. Edgar Hoover set their sights on bringing him down. In 1954, Oppenheimer was humiliated and deemed a security risk. He was stripped of his security clearance and his collaboration with the Federal Government effectively ended.
- Richard Gid Powers. Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New York: Free Press, 1995. x + 554 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $30.00.
David Oshinsky presents a comprehensive look at the life of Joe McCarthy in A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy.
In Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era Robert M. Lichtman and Ronald D. Cohen use the biography of famous anti-communist informant Harvey Matusow to expose the false subtext which underlied much of the antisubversive movement.
Questions of labor, public works, and other domestic politics.
- Jonathan Bell. The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Politics in the Truman Years. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. xix + 408 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $37.50.
The Cold War affected life in America in many ways. Americans accepted the use of the atomic bomb in Japan as a necessary and welcome means to end WW II. Thereafter, the bomb penetrated American culture as a reality to be lived with. Initial fears of nuclear war motivated people to build bomb shelters in the 50s, and school children were taught to "duck and cover." However, as time passed without nuclear conflagration, Americans learned to live with the bomb and accept it as part of the culture.
Books to consider:
- Paul Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Boyer states that although the greater majority of Americans approved of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American public soon came to fear atomic weapons. Boyer shows that this increased concern about living in the atomic age happened shortly after war. However by 1950, the fear gave way to an acceptance of the weapons race with the Soviet Union.
- Dee Garrison. Bracing for Armageddon: Why Civil Defense Never Worked. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 256 pages. $35.
- Philip Jenkins. The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania, 1945–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xvi, 271 pp. $19.
- Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. Basic Books, 1988. 290 pages. $22.
- Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998).
- Joanne Meyerson, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 . (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).
- Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and. Kyrill M. Anderson. The Soviet World of American Communism. Yale University Press, 378 pp., $35.00
- Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2002.
In 1958, an African-American handyman named Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to die in Alabama for stealing two dollars. Shocking as this sentence was, it was overturned only after intense international attention and the interference of an embarrassed John Foster Dulles. Soon after the United States' segregated military defeated a racist regime in World War II, American racism was a major concern of U.S. allies, a chief Soviet propaganda theme, and an obstacle to American Cold War goals throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each lynching harmed foreign relations, and "the Negro problem" became a central issue in every administration from Truman to Johnson.
Mary Dudziak interprets postwar civil rights as a Cold War feature. She argues that the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image. But improving the nation's reputation did not always require real change. This focus on image rather than substance--combined with constraints on McCarthy-era political activism and the triumph of law-and-order rhetoric--limited the nature and extent of progress.
In The White South And The Red Menace, George Lewis presents a top-down view of anticommunism as a form of massive resistance to federally mandated desegregation in the wake of the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka. Segregationists and white supremacists argued against desegregation as a violation of states' rights as well as the end of racial purity. Communism viewed as form of centralized government control provided segregationists and Southern white supremacists with another perceived threat to violate their states' rights. Those in political power such as Joseph McCarthy played on the fears of the majority regarding communism which lived next door to Florida in Cuba as well as the possibility of racial intermarriage to gain public support to maintain their traditional policy of segregation and resist the potential violation of their states' rights.
- Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War. By K. A. Cuordileone. (New York: Routledge, 2005. xxiv, 282 pp. Cloth, $85.00, ISBN 0-415-92599-1. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-415-92600-9.)
- Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert, eds. Rethinking Cold War Culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. 232 pp.
Science, Technology, and Medicine
What was the state of Science, Technology, and Medicine in the 1950s? How did anticommunism effect these areas?
What effect did anticommunism have on the field of medical research? Would polio research have received the national and international attention it garnered if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not been a polio victim?
The first documented polio epidemic occurred in 1894 in the Otter Valley near Rutland, Vermont and was recorded by Dr. Charles Caverly. His records revealed 123 cases (50 permanently paralyzed and 18 deaths). Sixty-one years later in 1955 57,000 cases of polio were recorded (21,000 permanently paralyzed and 3,000 deaths). This dramatic increase is most likely due to better diagnosis and documentation of cases. David Oshinsky's Polio: An American Story relates the story of the scientific race to develop a viable vaccine to protect children from the devastating effects of poliomyelitis. He skillfully encompasses the history of medicine and science providing insight into the intersection of science and medicine with social, cultural, economic and political history. Much of this research occurred during the McCarthy era and potentially affected Jonas Salk. Dr. Salk was under the observation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and investigated by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI as a suspected communist based on his political activity during the late 1930's and early 1940's while Russia was our ally. He was never summoned to appear before the committee nor was he actually interviewed by the FBI. This turn of events was fortunate because had he been summoned his career as a scientist would have ended and his vaccine would never have been developed.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was instrumental in the development of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) which flourished under the directorship of his law partner, Basil O'Connor. The NFIP provided research grants to scientists who were developing polio vaccines as well as special equipment for the treatment and rehabilitation of polio victims. FDR provided the NFIP's best fundraising campaigns such as birthday bashes held in his honor. Oshinsky's Polio: An American Story focused on the devastating effects of polio on children, families and communities in the context of the search for a life saving, viable vaccine in contrast to Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time which focused on FDR's experience as a polio survivor and his personal crusade against polio. Polio research would not have received national attention and the development of the NFIP would not have occurred without FDR and his personal crusade against polio.
- David M. Oshinsky. Polio: An American Story. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Other Science Topics
The first half of the 20th century witnessed some of the greatest breakthroughs in Physics. Sadly, the work will forever be tied to the creation of the world's most destructive weapons. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus follows the life and career of the "father of the atomic bomb," J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was recognized as a prodigy at a young age and was admitted to graduate standing in Harvard based on independent study. After graduation, he studied in Europe under the world's foremost physicists. Under the guidance of Max Born, Oppenheimer quickly made a name for himself. He published a number of papers and contributed greatly to advancement of the field. Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the United States atomic bomb project in 1942. Although he was certainly capable of contributing scientifically he seemed to play the role of a muse more than contributor. He managed hundreds of scientists. Fearful that Nazi Germany would develop a bomb first, Oppenheimer did everything in his power to lobby the nation's top scientists to come to Los Alamos. Although his work on the bomb as a scientist was minimal, his skills as a manager were indispensable.
The project was a success, but it came at a price. Oppenheimer would later say that theoretical and experimental physics had been set back years because of the bomb. Physics was thrust onto the national stage--not as a way of understanding the world but as a way of blowing it up.
- Jessica Wang. American Science in an Age of Anxiety. Chapel Hill: University of N. Carolina Press, 1999
- Paul N. Edwards. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.