The responsibility of McCarthy for the Red Scare

The Cold War marked the significant beginning of the uproar that was the Red Scare. Communist threat was imposing the United States more than ever, and as the tension between both politically opposing countries intensified during the late 1940s and 1950s, the impact of this communist threat started to influence all sectors of American society. The Red scare showcased social upheaval as a product of political suspicion. Affecting all levels of society, it distributed mass suspicion, as well as introducing to individuals the use of the Red Scare as an element of control. The impact of the Red Scare was fuelled by the anti-communist propaganda that stemmed through all waves of society, further sparking this hysteria. A key fear that played a focal role towards this, was the fear of losing freedom. As a prominent American sentiment, displayed through the ideal of the American dream, the prospect of the loss of freedom was something that greatly powered this communist subversion.

This initial infrastructure that built up the domestic fear of communism was starting to expand into the wider more political sectors of American society as ‘the anti-Communist fervour permeated American politics’. [1] The rise of ‘McCarthyism’ was formulated after Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), made himself famous in 1950 by claiming that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department during his Lincoln Day speech. His polarising character was demonstrated through his search for communists in the Central Intelligence Agency, the State department and other highly prominent sectors of the government. His constant presence within the spotlight played a key role towards the control that he possessed, such as being able to control the press to the rise of House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1954. His role towards the Red Scare was highly influential.

The differing views on McCarthyism’s impact ranges from the idea that McCarthyism was only a catalyst to the hysteria that was the Red Scare, to the view that McCarthyism encompassed all that was the Red Scare, and acted as a pioneer to this movement of subversion. To view the whole impact that McCarthyism played on the Red scare, and subsequently American society, three interpretations have been chosen. ‘McCarthyism was more than McCarthy’ by Don. E Carleton as suggested by the name highlights the idea that McCarthy was not the focal point of the Red Scare. Carleton’s research stems around the more domestic impacts of the Red Scare that McCarthy did not account for. In addition to that, Richard H. Rovere’s interpretation ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’[2] further suggests the view that McCarthy played a more potent role towards the Red Scare, diverging from the already prevalent anti-communist attitudes of the time and focusing on the expansion of McCarthyism, predominantly through politics. Finally, the third interpretation will be focused on the impact of the government against that of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Deborah K. Palmer[3], showcases the unstable response of ‘control groups’[4] as a key reason towards the Red Scare. Ultimately the impact of the McCarthyism was significant towards not only the Red scare, but the ideology of American values such as capitalism and laissez-faire. This impact was fundamental, and in some eyes the turning point.

Dr. Carleton’s interpretation on McCarthyism highlights the ephemeral nature of McCarthyism and focuses on how the Red Scare already ‘permeated all levels of society’.[5] Published in 1987, this interpretation assesses the Red scare and the impacts of McCarthyism from a more analytical perspective due to his writings not being within the time period of McCarthyism. Coming to the end of the Cold War, it could suggest a less bias perspective. This because of the fact that he would not have been writing in the midst of the Red Scare tension whereby political stances could have been easily swayed, in amongst the hysteria. Carleton examines the value of McCarthyism by looking at the Red scare beforehand, as opposed to looking at the full extent of the impact of McCarthyism. The result of analysing the impact of the Red scare from this approach means that there is distinct comparison created for the reader from the social conditions before and after the uproar of McCarthy. To exemplify the weight that McCarthyism placed on the Red scare, Carleton focuses on the effects of the Red scare from a local level, examining the ways in which innocent members of society were affected by this.  This not only highlights the extent to which the Red Scare infused sectors that weren’t political, but also highlights the sheer degree to which these accusations were being made, further showcasing the spectrum at which these local level attacks were situated. Carleton purposely highlights the idea that ‘the Red scare had a virulent effect in components of American life outside the national, political and entertainment areas’[6]. This brings the focus of the Red scare elsewhere from that of the influence of McCarthy. As said by Landon Storrs ‘McCarthyism’ remains an apt label for the demagogic tactic of undermining political opponents’[7]. Storrs described it as a term too ‘narrow and complex’[8] to fully encapsulate the extent of the impactful factors of the Red Scare. This emphasises the idea that when looking at the Red scare as a whole, McCarthyism did not encompass all of the responsibility, further supporting Carleton’s view that it was the primary force of the Red Scare mania. Carleton supports this view through a series of case studies, focused around the records kept of suspected communist advocates. One example mentioned, is of ‘a Cleveland engineer with an otherwise spotless record’[9] who kept close affiliation with his parents whose names appeared on lists by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The HUAC was known for carrying out strident attacks on Roosevelts administration prior to the outbreak of the war[10], further showcasing how not only was the anti-communist sentiment existent long beforehand, but also that McCarthy’s role was non-existent in it. The impact of the HUAC was a way in which the government ‘fed off the hysteria’[11] and marked a way for movements such as McCarthyism to unravel. This is the focal point that is displayed in Carleton’s source, suggesting that the fear and hysteria of such anti-communist sentiments was the main responsibility for the Red Scare.

In addition to this, Carleton showcases further examples of the constituency files of Texas congressmen, such as the Red Scare ‘foot soldiers in local communities’[12] further reporting on Red Scare participants. This clearly emphasises the disassociation of the impacts that the Red Scare in contrast to that of McCarthyism. Looking at the ‘multiplicity’[13] of how it panned out at the local community level it shifts the focus away from McCarthy but also does not place the blame elsewhere. A key flaw that this example possesses is that it only displays examples in the state of Texas, not showing a more widespread impact, hindering his thesis. Furthermore, it can be argued that even though Carleton disproves the potency of McCarthy’s influence, he also does not focus on what the prominent reason for the Red scare was. This leaves the question of whether it was due to the Cold War tension, or the pre-existing anti-communist ideals that were already rooted in America. Despite this, the weight of this interpretation bodes well with the criteria of assessing the responsibility of McCarthy during the Red Scare, embedding case studies from an individual perspective to the perspective of collectives affected by the Red scare. Without directly focusing on the role of McCarthy, Carleton proves to exemplify many other factors that were just as prominent. The lack of focus on McCarthy can be seen as a hindrance with regards to the direct focus of the criteria. Nevertheless, it can still strengthen the case with the focus of directing the reader to other more pressing issues that stemmed from the Red Scare- issues that did not gain enough recognition towards the responsibility of the Red Scare.

Whilst Carleton addresses the impact of McCarthyism at a more local and concentrated level, it is important to assess McCarthy’s responsibility of the Red Scare and its impact on a broader spectrum. Carleton’s view addresses the idea that the Red Scare was very much evident before the rise of McCarthy. However, it is crucial to understand the influence that the figure of McCarthy played on the already present issue of anti-communist sentiments, and to assess if his impact inflamed the issue or stagnated it; a factor which Carleton’s interpretation did not place enough emphasis on. In Richard Rovere’s interpretation ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’[14], he emits a very biographical tone in his interpretation of the impact of the senator. The result of this is that is sheds a glorifying light on McCarthy’s actions, placing full blame on him for the Red Scare. The image of McCarthy during the Red Scare was seen to have emitted great recognition, and Rovere highlights his renown in the light of the American political system at the time, which focuses on the effectiveness and his impact of his actions during the Red Scare.

Rovere was an American political journalist during the period of 1915-1979. He was initially a member of the Communist movement in 1939, during the Great Depression, writing for the ‘New Masses’ paper. However, in the same year, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he broke with Stalinism and became an anti-communist liberal. Due to this, it is evident to see that Rovere was very much influenced by the political climate at the time, turning to communism during an economically gruelling period, and then going against those ideals after its affiliations with the Nazi movement. This affects the validity of the source as it showcases how Rovere could have been very much swayed by the heat of the prevalent anti-communist sentiments, and writing in 1959, shortly after McCarthy’s death, it is evident that he viewed McCarthyism as highly impactful, suggesting that McCarthy fuelled the drive for the Red Scare.

Rovere highlights how McCarthy was ‘the most gifted demagogue’[15] that had a swift access to ‘the dark places of the American mind’[16]. McCarthy’s use of propaganda and popular prejudices were shown to have created a mass fear in unemployment, as they seeped into the areas of government employment, labour unions, higher education, the media and party politics. McCarthy’s demagogic tactic ironically influenced anti-communist crusaders to undermine democracy by suppressing the expression of dissent. Justin Gustainis highlights McCarthy’s impact as a demagogue in a ‘rhetorical situation’[17] during a gruelling economic climate, such as the recovering period after the Great Depression. His influence was rife within all sectors of society, which is chiefly exemplified in the notion of “The Black silence of fear”[18] coined by the Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, deploring how it ‘blanketed the nation’[19], diluting political dissent and further encouraging political conformists. This showcases the extent of control that McCarthy not only had on his victims but his supporters, and further reinforces Rovere’s portrayal of his ‘towering figure’.[20] However, despite this, McCarthy’s evident presence in American society, infiltrating a sense of security for that of the public, is a factor that Rovere does not highlight within his interpretation. When assessing the extent of responsibility, the idea of impact plays a focal role in evaluating this. Rovere’s interpretation of McCarthyism, is seen to concentrate vastly on the bearing that he had on the higher ranks of administration and government bodies. In conjunction with Carleton’s interpretation, Rovere approaches McCarthy’s role predominantly from a political standpoint, when in reality the Red scare was the cause of mass hysteria on a social front, which arguably held the most fervent and influential positions in the framework of American society.

Rovere’s prominent focus on the political influence that McCarthy held over the government body and how it penetrated large sectors of the Democratic party is reinforced through his report of key case studies and anecdotes highlighting the influence made under the name McCarthyism. Rovere mentions his past career as a journalist, and his insights into the effects of McCarthyism through the lens of the press and media, a viewpoint that was crucial during a period of dissent and conform. He states how ‘in 1953, the very thought of Joe McCarthy could shiver the White House timbers and send panic through the whole executive branch’[21]. Rovere goes onto recall a story about how his interview with one of the Presidents assistants. Rovere’s intention was to not bring up the topic of McCarthy, however, inevitably the topic was brought up and ‘at the mention of McCarthy, his whole manner and expression changed’[22]. Rovere’s own personal accounts of his insight into the effects of McCarthyism can be deemed as a highly valuable component for the strength of the interpretation. In comparison to Carleton’s view of McCarthy, he utilises primarily second-hand sources, that can question the full validity of his view, however Rovere’s first-hand account, gives strength to his insight of McCarthy.

Rovere’s view of him as an essentially ‘destructive force’[23] towards the government is exemplified through all stages of McCarthy’s force within American society. This is reinforced from his dealings with Millard Tydings- a chairman of the committee that was to inquire into McCarthy’s charges against the State Department However despite this he put down Tydings by spreading the word that he was pro-communist. McCarthy’s use of inquiry and attack was a key way in which he could grasp control. The federal employee loyalty program was a ‘crucial instrument’ [24] of the growth of the Red Scare through McCarthy, an example of how the party was used as a key tool towards his works. Truman’s institutionalisation of the loyalty program in 1947 further showcased the persistent nature that McCarthy’s anti-communist ideals were taking on. This expanded the existing procedures for dismissing the political dissidents. McCarthy’s exploitation of the political system was daring and corrupt, expanding the boarder of his influence.

The component that played a significant role in the mass hysteria of McCarthyism, is the role of the government and the impacts of its arguably shadowing nature towards the movement. The leniency by which the government initially approved of McCarthy’s accusations can be seen as a way in which McCarthyism was highly propelled, giving it its notorious legacy.

Deborah K. Palmer, in her interpretation of ‘An Analysis of the Leadership and Rhetorical Strategies of Agitation and Control’[25] makes a clear focus on the role of the government towards McCarthy. McCarthy’s role as the state senator of Wisconsin, meant that his influence towards the government body was significant, from President Truman, to Eisenhower, McCarthy’s influences were prominent. When assessing the responsibility of McCarthy, the nature of an interpretation can differ from the perspective of placing the full blame and authority of McCarthy on the Red Scare, such as Rovere’s perspective. Contrastingly it can take on the stance of how the Red Scare was already a prevalent issue, placing little responsibility on McCarthy, much like Carleton. The premise of this interpretation counteracts the intentionalist approach that Rovere displays, and further develops the structuralist approach that Carleton fails to shed full light on, in terms of the Red Scare.

A significant emphasis that Palmer displays through her thesis, is the idea of ‘the strategy of avoidance’[26] from the government; or what she refers to as the ‘control group’.[27] Palmers interesting portrayal of the government as the control group serves as a way to highlight the lack of control that they had of McCarthyism. This referral further reinforces the idea of how control played a key part within the Red Scare, as a way to shift public perception of the Cold War chiefly displayed through Truman’s anti-communist foreign policy, and the ‘elaborate Federal Employee Loyalty Program’ [28]. This government form of control was seen to have been less strident than that of McCarthy’s methods of investigation. Palmer’s interpretation of how McCarthy’s control over the ironically named control group, serves to reflect Rovere’s viewpoint on how McCarthy ‘held two Presidents captive’[29] however Palmer makes sure to highlight this government inefficiency as the focal reason towards the hysteria of the Red Scare, not McCarthy’s dealings with such government counterparts. The effect of Palmers twist on placing the blame of the impacts of the Red Scare on the government suggests that the consequences were an inevitable cause due to the lack of intervention from the government, as opposed to a calculated attack on American society. This imminent nature of the effects of the Red Scare is a view that Carleton advocates, highlighting how it was a problem that was already rife within society, placing specific emphasis on the House of Un-American activities and its ‘proliferat[ing]’ nature[30].

Palmer develops her criticism of the control group and its ‘avoidance tactic’[31], and states examples of these ‘avoidance tactics’. A key illustration that Palmer displays is through John E. Peurifoy’s tactics of challenging McCarthy after his Wheeling speech when he ‘cited the subversive character’ of government policies. Peurifoy challenged McCarthy by asking him to name some card-carrying communists. The aim of this was to involve McCarthy in a discussion with the control group so that they could catch him out through his accusations. As a counter to this, McCarthy was seen to have questioned the reliability of members of the Secretary for discharge. Palmer goes on to suggest how this move seemed to strengthen McCarthy’s campaign due to the fact that the Senate were unable to implement the ‘principles of superiority and preparedness’[32]. This is a key way in which Palmer makes sure to highlight he dynamics between that of the control group, being the government and the agitative group being the movement of McCarthyism throughout the Red Scare, and their abrasive relationship throughout most of the Red Scare. The conceding nature of the government to give strength to McCarthyism is a key point not fully raised by Rovere. He conveys how McCarthy exploited the American party system as well as the government body in ‘brilliant and daring ways’[33] as opposed to the government exploiting itself by giving into this ideal of the ‘strategy of avoidance that Palmer so fervently proposes. The two contrasting perspectives, goes to further reinforce the impact in the differences within the time periods both historians were writing in.

The potent influence of the Red Scare was fuelled by the undeniable heat between McCarthy and the senate, however a key component Palmer fails to put enough emphasis on is the impact of public response, and how the reaction of the public was one of the most crucial driving forces of the Red Scare. Her lack of emphasis on this very significant sector of the Red Scare, weakens her argument on the incompetency of the control groups due to the fact that the responsibility could have been laid on the public perception. Carleton’s source chiefly focuses on this idea, highlighting how the red scare was a ‘simplistic device’ for the ‘community to use against…the conception of the perfect and proper community’[34] Carleton’s persistent focus on the public perception is a key way in which he makes sure to highlight the upheaval of the solid foundation of American society- the public, as opposed to Palmer’s perspective on the ever-changing foundation that is the government. The public perception and the fear of communism ‘generate[d] a great passion in people’ [35]It can be argued that this is a factor of Palmer’s interpretation that does not cover the wider perspective of the responsibility of the Red Scare.

The terror of the Red Scare was a fear that fed all elements of American society upon the ideals that it laid its foundation on. The interpretations focus on the prominent sectors of American society, that made up the very premise of what the Red Scare was. Carleton’s interpretation highlights the idea that the Red Scare was a force before McCarthyism stepped into focus within society. Carleton’s view supports the impact of the public voice and the influence of their discontent and fear with the hysteria of the phenomenon. His interpretation sheds light on the ideals of the Red Scare shifting the prospect of the American dream. Through his display of the case studies, the idea of the disruption within a person’s career is exemplified.

Contrastingly, Rovere’s interpretation takes on a completely different stance on the prospect of the responsibility of the Red Scare. Rovere places the full focus of the second Red Scare on McCarthy as a leading figure of demagoguery, enhancing the portrayal of his political role in instigating such hysteria. The nature of Rovere’s perspective can be seen as, being selective with the facts due to his previous communist involvement and his political bearing towards the far left, portraying McCarthy in a prominent light towards the anti-communist movement. Unlike Carleton, Rovere does not shed light on the conditions of the Red Scare before McCarthyism, suggesting that Rovere does not acknowledge the point of reference for the criteria of the question; comparing responsibility of McCarthy against what it was like beforehand. In conjunction to that, the last interpretation by Palmer, serves to move away from the figure of McCarthy and the body of the public, and places her focus on the government body, and its inability to keep such terror at bay. Palmer highlights the key dynamic between the forces of McCarthy, and the rest of the Senate, displaying their inability to control McCarthy, referring to them as the control group. Palmers view can be seen as a vital part that played towards the image of McCarthy as a powerful demagogue, however streamlined her view by restricting it to one focus, severely hindering the perspective of the Red Scare as a whole movement. The amalgamation of all interpretations can give the reader a good insight into all the competing factors towards the potency of the Red Scare, despite their differing assessments.

The Red Scare, was a force that encompassed many factors. It was the creation of fear and control, over a country that supposedly advocated freedom. Whilst assessing the three interpretations, it is clear to see the impact of the Red Scare did not derive from solely one factor. The Red scare was seen to have been a union of the incompetency of government forces, the fear and perception of the public and the agitating nature of McCarthy. All these forces worked towards the development of anti-communist sentiments, symbolising the American attitude in the midst of Cold War tension. The impact of McCarthyism can be seen as a prominent aspect of the hysteria of the Red Scare, with his countless scapegoating and ‘McCarthy hearings’ he deepened the importance of American capitalist values, yet was not the force that instigated the Red Scare. McCarthy became a label of political attack, yet did not fully permeate to local sectors, that serves as a way to display the influence of social attitudes towards the wider framework of politics. He was a key component to the uproar of the Red Scare, yet was not vital, due to the already prevalent nature of it.

Word Count: 3839


[1] Don E. Carleton – “McCarthyism was more than just McCarthy”: Documenting the Red scare at the state and local level

[2] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’

[3] Deborah K. Palmer – McCarthyism: An Analysis of the Leadership and rhetorical strategies of agitation and control

[4] Ibid pg 37

[5] “McCarthyism was more than just McCarthy”: Documenting the Red scare at the state and local level- Don E. Carleton pg 14

[6] Ibid pg 14

[7] Landon R.Y. Storrs Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of American History: McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare pg 3

[8] Ibid

[9] Don E. Carleton “McCarthyism was more than just McCarthy”: Documenting the Red scare at the state and local level pg 17

[10] Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary: House Un-American Activities Committee

[11]  The First Amendment Encyclopaedia: House Un-American Activities Committee

[12] Don E. Carleton “McCarthyism was more than just McCarthy”: Documenting the Red scare at the state and local level pg 17

[13] Ibid pg 17

[14] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’

[15] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’ pg 3

[16] Ibid pg 13

[17] J. Justin Gustainis -Rhetoric society of America: Demagoguery and Political Rhetoric: A review of the Literature- pg. 156

[18] Ibid pg 156

[19] Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Marvin’s Press, 1994. (pp. 92-94)- The Legacy of McCarthyism

[20] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’ pg.4

[21] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’ pg.16

[22] Ibid pg 16

[23] Ibid pg8

[24] Princeton Paper- McCarthyism pg. 2

[25]Deborah K. Palmer- McCarthyism: An Analysis of the Leadership and rhetorical strategies of agitation and control

[26] Deborah K. Palmer -McCarthyism: An Analysis of the Leadership and rhetorical strategies of agitation and control- pg 37

[27] Ibid pg7

[28] Encyclopaedia Britannica: The Peak Cold War Years- The Red Scare

[29] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’ pg 5

[30] Don E. Carleton- “McCarthyism was more than just McCarthy”: Documenting the Red scare at the state and local level pg24

[31]Deborah K. Palmer McCarthyism: An Analysis of the Leadership and rhetorical strategies of agitation and control- pg36

[32] Ibid 36

[33] Richard H. Rovere ‘Senator Joe McCarthy’ pg 37

[34] Don E. Carleton “McCarthyism was more than just McCarthy”: Documenting the Red scare at the state and local level-pg14

[35] Charles Martelle -The college at Brockport: State University of New York- Fanning the Flames: Interpretations and Reactions to McCarthyism pg 30

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