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McCarthyism, named after Joseph McCarthy, was a period of intense anti-communism, also known as the (second) red scare, which occurred in the United States from 1948 to about 1956 (or later), when the government of the United States actively persecuted the Communist Party USA, its leadership, and others suspected of being communists. Although many of the charges seemed far-fetched at the time, information uncovered since the fall of the Soviet Union, combined with the public release of documents from the VENONA project in 1995, show extensive espionage activity within the CPUSA. After the discovery that both Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White and FDR advisor Alger Hiss were Soviet agents, loyalty tests were required for government and other employment and lists of subversive organizations were maintained. McCarthyism could be described as a moral panic where Communists became folk devils.

The word "McCarthyism" is not a neutral term, but now carries connotations of false, even hysterical, accusation, and of government attacks on the political minority. From the viewpoint of the great majority of American citizens in the then fairly conservative political climate, the suppression of radicalism and radical organizations in the United States was a struggle against a dangerous subversive element controlled by a foreign power that posed a real danger to the security of the country, thus justifying extreme, even extra-legal measures. From the radical viewpoint it was seen as class warfare, particularly by those communists actually targeted. From the viewpoint of people who were caught up in the conflict without having done anything objectionable, it was a massive violation of civil and Constitutional rights.

Another major element of McCarthyism was the internal screening program on federal government employees, conducted by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. This comprehensive program vetted all federal government employees for Communist connections, and employed evidence provided by anonymous sources whom the subjects of investigation were not allowed to challenge or identify. From 1951, the program's required level of proof for dismissing a federal employee was for "reasonable doubt" to exist over their loyalty; previously it had required "reasonable grounds" for believing them to be disloyal.

The hearings conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy gave the Red Scare the name which is in common usage, but the "Red Scare" predated McCarthy's meteoric rise to prominence in 1950 and continued after he was discredited by a Senate censure in 1954, following his disastrous investigation into the U.S. Army which started on April 22 of that year. McCarthy's name became associated with the phenomenon mainly through his prominence in the media; his outspoken and unpredictable nature made him ideal as the figurehead of anti-communism, although he was probably not its most important practitioner.

Charlie Chaplin was one person accused of un-American activities, and the FBI was involved in arranging to have his re-entry visa cancelled when he left the States for a trip to Europe in 1952. In effect, his American film career was over despite not being found guilty of any offence. Walt Disney worked closely with the FBI at this time also, chiefly by way of giving inside information from the film industry, but himself came under suspicion at one stage. Some people feel he used these alleged powers to denounce people who may have been a commercial threat to his operations.

The most publicly visible elements of McCarthyism were the trials of those accused of being communist agents within the government. The two most famous trials were those of Alger Hiss (whose trial actually began before McCarthy started brandishing his lists, and who was not in fact convicted directly of espionage, but of perjury) and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed for handing over American nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Such trials typically relied on information from informers, such as Whittaker Chambers (whose testimony led to the downfall of Hiss) and the three men whose confessions and testimony were vital to the Rosenberg trial, Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greengrass.

McCarthy's anticommunist crusade faltered in 1954 as his hearings were televised, for the first time, allowing the public and press to view firsthand his controversial tactics. The press also started to run stories about how McCarthy ruined many people's lives with accusations that were in some cases not sufficiently backed up by evidence. Famously, he was asked by the chief attorney for the Army, Joseph Welch, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" McCarthy suffered a backlash in public opinion and was investigated and then censured by the Senate for not cooperating with the investigating committee, and for publicly calling them the "involuntary agent" and the "attorneys-in-fact" of the Communist Party. After the censure, McCarthy lost his other committee chairmanship, and reporters stopped filing stories about his claims of continuing communist conspiracies. He faded from the spotlight overnight. McCarthy died in office of hepatitis, probably caused by alcoholism, in 1957.

McCarthyism as a generic concept

Since the time of the red scare led by Joseph McCarthy, the term McCarthyism has entered the American vernacular as a general term for the phenomenon of mass pressure, harassment, or blacklisting used to instill conformity with prevailing political beliefs. The act of making insufficiently supported accusations or engaging in unfair investigatory methods against a person as a purported attempted to unfairly silence or discredit them is often referred to as McCarthyism. The Arthur Miller play "The Crucible", written during the McCarthy era, used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the McCarthyism of the 1950s, suggesting that the process of McCarthyism-style persecution can occur at any time and place. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953) addresses the general theme as well.

Accusations of McCarthyism are often made by both liberals and conservatives against their political opponents for allegedly persecuting people for political reasons. For instance, conservatives often say that the fact that there are few politically conservative faculties in American universities is the result of McCarthyism by liberal university establishment. On the other hand, many conservatives dislike the term because it appears to them to legitimize and perpetuate the scorn the liberal establishment traditionally had for McCarthy's anti-Communist and anti-espionage activism which they may regard as a wise and proper thing under the circumstances.

See also