In 1950, fewer than 50,000 Americans out of a total US population of 150 million were members of the Communist Party. Yet in the late 1940s and early 1950s, American fears of internal communist subversion reached a nearly hysterical pitch. Government loyalty boards investigated millions of federal employees, asking what books and magazines they read, what unions and civic organizations they belonged to, and whether they went to church. Hundreds of screenwriters, actors, and directors were blacklisted because of their alleged political beliefs, while teachers, steelworkers, sailors, lawyers, and social workers lost their jobs for similar reasons. More than thirty-nine states required teachers and other public employees to take loyalty oaths. Meanwhile, some libraries pulled books that were considered too leftist from their shelves. The banned volumes included such classics as Robin Hood, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
The post-war Red Scare is often called “McCarthyism,” a name derived from one of the era’s most notorious anti-Communists, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet the anti-Communist crusade of the late 1940s and 1950s extended both in time and scope well beyond the activities of the junior senator from Wisconsin. Its roots can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century. As far back as 1848, when Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto, many Americans viewed communism as an alien ideology. The Bolshevik Revolution only added to such anxieties, fuelling an earlier Red Scare in 1919.
Post-war anti-Communism was rooted even more directly in the political culture of the 1930s. During the Depression, many Americans became disillusioned with capitalism and some found communist ideology appealing. Others were attracted by the visible activism of American Communists on behalf of a wide range of social and economic causes, including the rights of African Americans, workers, and the unemployed. Still others, alarmed by the rise of the Nationalists in Spain and the Nazis in Germany, admired the Soviet Union’s early and staunch opposition to fascism. (This opposition ended abruptly, if temporarily, with the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in late August 1939.) In 1935, Joseph Stalin announced that he would allow Communists around the globe to ally with liberals and non-communist leftists in a broad anti-fascist coalition. All of these developments swelled the membership of the US Communist Party from some 7,500 at the start of the decade to an estimated 55,000 by its end. More importantly, many Americans who did not join the party sympathized with what they saw as its goals. They joined dozens of other groups with tangential connections to the Communists: unions, theatrical troupes, lawyer’s guilds, ethnic organizations, and political committees devoted to causes ranging from anti-fascism to civil rights. Many victims of the postwar Red Scare were hounded for activities they had engaged in a decade or more before.
If the Depression decade boosted the profile of international communism in the United States, it also sparked an anti-Communist backlash. Some of those who warned of a growing “red menace” during the 1930s feared Soviet influence in the US, but most hoped to use anti-communist language to discredit labor and social activism and New Deal policies. Ironically, anti-Communists were sometimes aided by liberals and leftists whose primary fear was fascist subversion. In any case, nearly all of the tactics deployed by anti-Communists in the decade after World War II had a trial run in the late 1930s. This period saw the renewal of FBI spying, the adoption of loyalty oaths for teachers and a political litmus test for federal employees, and passage of the first peacetime sedition law since 1798. In 1938, anti-Communists and anti-fascists in Congress joined forces to create the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which would...