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McCarthyism: Historical Background
written by Tom Gray
from National Archives and Records Administration

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy stepped into the spotlight of national attention with a speech given at Wheeling, West Virginia. McCarthy was nearing the end of his first term as senator and needed a big issue to energize his run for a second term. Holding up a piece of paper, he claimed to have in his possession information proving that more than 200 employees in the State Department were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. The charge--never substantiated--grabbed headlines at a time when friction with the Soviet Union and fear of communist subversion were growing in the country.

Fear of communism had existed since the 19th century but did not merit congressional investigation until after the Bolshevik Revolution and the close of World War I. In response to the "Red Scare" of 1919 a special Senate committee was convened. During the decade of the 1930s, governments adopted new and experimental techniques to combat the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Communist state economic planning, as well as certain Nazi and fascist economic measures, appealed to some desperate Americans. Some of the experimental programs of Roosevelt's New Deal fostered concerns that the federal government was falling under communist direction. These suspicions and fears led to the creation of a series of temporary House and Senate committees to investigate subversive threats to the government.
During World War II the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, but as soon as the war ended the two superpowers began to struggle against each other for supremacy. It was against the backdrop of this "Cold War" that the threat of internal subversion and external attack began to preoccupy Congress. Anticommunism dominated the political debates of the immediate post-World War II-era. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), established in 1938 to monitor disloyalty to the United States government, was made a permanent committee in 1945. Postwar HUAC investigators probed whether Communists and sympathizers to communism had played an active role in the labor movement, the movie industry, and the executive departments of the federal government.

In 1948, before the HUAC, professed-Communist Whittaker Chambers accused former high-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss of espionage during the 1930s. State Department and other high-level administration officials publicly defended Hiss in his denial of the charges. Then Chambers led investigators to a pumpkin patch where microfilmed secret State Department documents were hidden. The media-charged proceedings that followed and the 1950 conviction of Hiss on charges of perjury (the merits of the case are still debated today) linked Communist activity and high government officials in the minds of many Americans. This case further fueled the anticommunist hysteria in the nation.
During the weeks before McCarthy delivered his Wheeling speech, China had fallen to the Communists and the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. With Alger Hiss's perjury conviction and the confession of Klaus Fuchs, a physicist on the Manhattan Project, to having delivered atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, it was clear that government security had been compromised. Particularly disturbing to average citizens was the Soviet Union's new atomic capability. Fearful Americans began to view all communists as traitors to our country. The stage was set for the freshman senator from Wisconsin.

Senator McCarthy was placed on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations and became its chairman in 1953. At the time of his chairmanship, the jurisdiction of the subcommittee was principally the investigation of waste, inefficiency, impropriety, and illegality of government operations. McCarthy manipulated the workings of the new committee to continue sweeping accusations of communist activity in the executive branch. His 1954 probe of the U.S. Army lead to his downfall. The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised nationally, and the public recoiled from McCarthy's bullying tactics. He was censured by the Senate and died in 1957.

Woody Background information:
Woody often played at labor gatherings. He had a column, "Woody Sez", in the Daily People's World, the Communist . Guthrie often joked about his political tendencies saying: "Left wing, chicken wing, it's all the same to me," and, as Pete Seeger quotes Woody in the film, "I ain't a communist necessarily but I been in the red all my life." Woody continually championed the causes of the common man. Woody Guthrie was on the list of subversives compiled by the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Before the video:

  1. What do you know of the political climate in the U.S. after World War II?
  2. What do you know about 'Blacklisting"?

After viewing the video:

  1. What would you have done if you were asked to destroy the film about the dams? Keep in mind the temper of the times - who could you turn to and what would have been the consequences?


  1. Read a Woody biography (Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives or American Studies Group at the University of Virginia) and prepare a three paragraph defense that could have been presented, on Woody's behalf, to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
  2. After reviewing the actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, write the lyrics to a folk song as Woody would have.
  3. Woody was not alone in his identification with the Communist Party. During the 30's and 40's the Communist Party experienced tremendous growth. Read a definition of communism (Encyclopædia Britannica or Encarta). What influenced the growth of the Party at this particular point in time?
  4. Written in the 1940's, This Land Is Your Land was considered a very patriotic song however, the last three verses of were routinely omitted. Look over these verses and explain why, given the tenor of the times, they were left off.
  5. Several lesson plans are available on the Web that explore the comparison of Arthur Miller's The Crucible to the McCarthy Era.
    Individual sites:
    Listings and ratings of several Crucible teaching sites:
    ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection: American Literature Resource


Books and other materials

Bell, Daniel. The Radical Right The New American Right Expanded and Updated. 1st ed. ed. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1963.

Bennett, David Harry. The Party of Fear From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Caute, David. The Great Fear the Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red the McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Haynes, John Earl. Communism and Anti-Communism in the United States an Annotated Guide to Historical Writings. Garland Reference Library of Social Science: Garland Reference Library of Social Science v. 379. New York: Garland, 1987.

Heale, M. J. American Anticommunism Combating the Enemy Within, 1830-1970. The American Moment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Hixson, William B. Search for the American Right Wing an Analysis of the Social Science Record, 1955-1987. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Kovel, Joel. Red Hunting in the Promised Land Anticommunism and the Making of America. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Rogin, Michael Paul. The Intellectuals and McCarthy the Radical Specter. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1967.

Spivey, Christine. "This land is your land, this land is my land: Folk music, Communism, and the Red Scare as a part of the American landscape " Student Historical Journal 19 1996-1997.

Theoharis, Athan G. Spying on Americans Political Surveillance From Hoover to the Huston Plan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

Web sites:

Testimony of Pete Seeger before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. August 17 & 18, 1955

National Archives and Records Administration.
New Deal for the Arts: Activists Arts
Examples of works by politically active artists involved with the New Deal projects and the backlash they sometimes experienced against their work.

Woody Sez
Example of Woody Guthrie's writing for the Daily People's World.

New Deal Muralists: "not in harmony with existing conditions" from: McKinzie, Richard D. The New Deal for Artists (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973)


The Weavers, wasn't that a time / Jim Brown Productions, George Stoney Associates, Harold Leventhal Management ; directed by Jim Brown ; produced by Jim Brown, George C. Stoney, and Harold Leventhal ; written by Lee Hays.
PLACE: Burbank, Calif. :
PUBLISHER: Warner Reprise Video,
Description: Documentary about the blacklisted folk group, "The Weavers," and the events leading up to their triumphant return to Carnegie Hall..

The crucible
PUBLISHER: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment,
YEAR: 1998 1996
118 min. Description: Production of Arthur Miller's Crucible.