America after World War II was the world’s preeminent power, both militarily and economically, as the only major power whose homeland was not ravaged by war. But it soon found itself in another war, this time against communism as embodied by the Soviet Union. In postwar America, people became more fearful and paranoid of communism than at any time since the "Red Scare" of 1919-1920.
Many Americans, including high government officials, suspected that the Soviet Union had spies at every level of American government. J. Howard McGrath, President Harry Truman’s attorney general, said there were "many communists in America,” each bearing “the germ death of society.” These domestic fears reflected a very real concern about the reach of the Soviet Union abroad, as it expanded in Eastern Europe and developed its own atomic bomb in 1949. With Great Britain severely weakened by the war, it fell to America to became the main western defense against communism, particularly after 1950, when the Americans engaged Chinese communist forces on the Korean peninsula.
HUAC Investigates Hollywood
In 1938, the House of Representatives had formed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate communist sympathizers within the U.S.; in 1947, these investigations took on new urgency, fueled by suspicions that the Soviet Union was bent on world domination. Hollywood became the target of HUAC investigators who were concerned that movies held hidden communist messages. One result was the prosecution, jail time and blackballing of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who refused to testify against others in the entertainment industry.
Famous Trials and Ordinary Citizens
The postwar period saw a number of well-publicized espionage trials. In 1948, Alger Hiss, an assistant secretary of state and former adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was accused of being a Soviet spy by a former communist agent. Hiss was convicted of perjury and sent to jail. The most sensational trial of the period was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who in 1950 were convicted of being a part of a spy ring that sold atomic secrets to the Soviets, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Nor were ordinary people exempt from the paranoia that gripped America. Navajos facing starvation during the cold winter of 1947-48 were denied government relief funds because their traditional way of life was felt to border on communism. Left-leaning college professors lost their jobs; others were forced to sign “loyalty” oaths in order to keep working.
Turning Away From Paranoia
American hysteria about communism probably reached its apex with Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, who claimed in 1950 that he had a list of 205 known communists in the State Department. Although he was never able to substantiate this list, he opened a series of investigations that saw thousands of federal workers lose their jobs or face prosecution. McCarthy’s accusations of communist sympathies within the U.S. Army in 1954 ultimately lost him the support of the American public; after this, sentiment in the country gradually began to turn against the rabid anti-communism that had been the postwar norm.
Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.