Historic Spotlight: The Red Scare

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during their trial for espionage in 1951.

Photo credit to Encyclopædia Britannica

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during their trial for espionage in 1951.

Nicholas Silva, Layout Editor

See the rest of the Series here.

The stage is set for the Red Scare, a dark moment in U.S’s history. With the Cold War ramping up, there was more fear of Communist “Reds” than ever, owing to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. President Truman, in 1947, created a Federal Employee Loyalty Program which analyzed federal workers for any sign of disloyalty. Hundreds of employees were laid off. The claim: Reds had infiltrated the government.

This claim was largely exaggerated, especially as time wore on, but it was not entirely unfounded. For example, between 1940 and 1945, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -secret but very active members of the Communist Party- worked to leak sensitive U.S. Army secrets to the Soviet Union. They even went so far as to leak nuclear secrets from Project Manhattan with the help of Ethel’s brother, Sgt. David Greenglass. However, they were eventually discovered, convicted, and sentenced to death -aside from Greenglass and couriers who only received between 15-30 years in prison.

China had fallen to communism, and Russia was upping its nuclear game. There was plenty of reason for fear, and examples of legitimate espionage only worsened the matter. The Employee Loyalty Program was only one of the questionable decisions made against American citizens as the Red Scare moved on.

To ensure security of the nation, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC was formed in 1938, and began to target more aspects of American life as the Cold War progressed. Their main goal was to identify communist influence or spies in the government, but eventually came to investigate businesses and industries such as the movie industry of Hollywood. This pressure caused directors and studio executives to ban anyone who was a suspected radical or communist supporter from employment in Hollywood. Similar bans were soon carried into other industries.

Then came McCarthyism. Between the period of 1950 and 1954, U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy sparked a vicious and fearful campaign against government workers and the nation. He claimed to have a list, which was unsupported, that would show an unknown number of State Department employees who bore loyalties to the Communist party. There was no evidence, and most of the people on the list were not communists, but nonetheless, the charges sparked fear, and many of the employees were fired or blacklisted.

Another key player in the Red Scare was FBI director John (J) Edgar Hoover. Hoover had been behind the information gathering that had led to the Palmer Raids of the first red scare, the Red Summer. With the renewed fear of Communism, Hoover jumped on the opportunity to continue his work. Under his leadership, the FBI gathered files on suspected supporters through the use of wiretaps, surveillance, and infiltration of suspected radical groups. However, the new efforts on part of Hoover and the FBI did prove vital in the trial and prosecution of many legitimate Communist supporters, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Then came the start of the Korean War, which you can read about in part here, and further fueled concerns about the spread of communism. In the United States, the Democratic party and other leftist groups began to lose members as they began to realize that such parties were more prone to suspicion of communist sympathy. More conservative officials were elected to office, and the remaining politicians made efforts to seem as anti communist as possible. The political hysteria came to a peak in the 1951 Supreme Court ruling in Dennis v. United States, in which it was decided that citizens accused of communism were not entitled to First Amendment rights, as they posed a threat to the nation.

The fears of the Red Scare also disrupted the lives of thousands of everyday American citizens. Anyone suspected of communist activities were liable to be followed by law enforcement, alienated by friends, and at risk of losing employment. Most of these citizens were not revolutionaries, and most were not even passive members of a communist group.

The Red Scare was indeed a dark chapter of American history. However, history repeats itself. There is always the possibility, that despite past lessons, a new Red Scare could be around the corner.