The so-called ‘Red Scare’ as McCarthyism

Essay 2010 9 Pages

Didactics - English - Applied Geography


Essay question:

Since Joseph McCarthy’s name has become synonymous with persecution and the suppression of dissent, is it accurate to describe the so-called ‘Red Scare’ as McCarthyism? What other factors were there which explain this intolerance?

February 9, 1950, Wheeling, West Virginia: Joseph R. McCarthy, senator of Wisconsin, gives a speech at a meeting of the Republican Women’s Club, claiming that he owns a list of 205 names of members of the Communist party who are employed in the State Department.[1] Although the number of the names changes with the place where the speech is given, the press is electrified by his claims and the senator soon personifies American anti-Communism.

In order to explain the circumstances under which it was possible to persecute and harass American citizens in the way McCarthy did after his speech had been successful, a closer look at the decades previous to McCarthy’s appearance is necessary.

Therefore, this essay will first focus on the Red Scare of 1919-20, since it can serve ‘both as an analogy and a legacy’[2] for the events to come. Afterwards the ‘little red scare’ of the thirties will be examined, since anti-Communist sentiments aroused again under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal programme. During the ‘little red scare’, anti-Communism was rather a domestic issue. Therefore, it could easily be ended by the 2nd World War, since foreign affairs dominated American politics then. However, the following section will focus on the aftermath of the 2nd World War, since several events in America’s foreign policy transferred the anti-Communist sentiments to being international concerns. Thus, the years directly preceding McCarthy’s speech will be examined in detail. Particular attention will be paid to McCarthy himself and the reasons for his success. Finally, the essay will conclude by answering the question whether or not it is accurate to describe the so-called ‘Red Scare’ as McCarthyism.

The politics of the McCarthy era were not a product of the post-war period. In fact, there had been another Red Scare before McCarthy appeared on the scene: the Red Scare of 1919-20. According to Griffith, ‘the intolerant atmosphere of World War I politics, the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia, the organization of the American Communist Party, and widespread labor unrest all served as proximate causes.’[3] However, these events did not create the Red Scare themselves. The anti-Communist sentiments were created and intensified by conservative patriotic organizations. Certain groups, such as the American Protective League and the American Defense Society incited the crusade by promoting 100 per cent Americanism.[4] Moreover, the Red Scare was fuelled by the press, since ‘sensational reporting by conservative newspapers […] further aroused popular anxieties.’[5] These impulses were finally implemented in the actions of politicians, which can particularly be observed for the actions of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Since Palmer was convinced that Communist spies were planning to overthrow the American government, he ‘recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.’[6] As a result, raids took place in several cities, which became known as the Palmer raids. Although no evidence of a planned insurrection was found, many suspects were arrested and held without trial.[7]

The Red Scare of 1919-20 eventually declined. Griffith suggests, that ‘Americans were probably not deeply troubled by the imminence of a red revolution and were aroused only fitfully by politicians and the press.’[8] However, the Red Scare of 1919-20 was still very important and pioneer for the events to come. In fact, it left as its legacy its anti-Communist laws and ‘a reinforced set of popular myths and stereotypes susceptible to future manipulation by interest groups and politicians.’[9]


[1] cf. O’Brien, Michael, McCarthy and McCarthyism in Wisconsin, (London, 1980), p. 99.

[2] Griffith, Robert, ‘American Politics and the origins of McCarthyism’ in Robert Griffith and Athan Theoharis (eds.), The Specter: Original Essays on the Cold War and the origins of McCarthyism (New York, 1974), p. 6.

[3] Griffith, Robert, ‘American Politics and the origins of McCarthyism’, (New York, 1974), p. 6.

[4] Heale, M.J., Twentieth Century America: Politics and Power in the United States 1900 – 2000 (London, 2004), p. 68.

[5] Griffith, Robert, ‘American Politics and the origins of McCarthyism’, (New York, 1974), p. 6.

[6] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAredscare.htm (14/11/10)

[7] cf. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAredscare.htm (14/11/10)

[8] cf. Griffith, Robert, ‘American Politics and the origins of McCarthyism’, (New York, 1974), p. 6-7.

[9] Griffith, Robert, ‘American Politics and the origins of McCarthyism’, (New York, 1974), p. 7.


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Title: The so-called ‘Red Scare’ as McCarthyism