‘Senator McCarthy was unfairly blamed for the Cold War hysteria of the Truman and Eisenhower years.’ Assess the validity of this view.

Introduction

  • In the post war years, anti-communist sentiment in America increased rapidly.
  • This has been dubbed ‘McCarthyism’, after Senator Joe McCarthy who famously carried out a communist ‘witch-hunt’ to root out subversives.
  • Some historians would argue that he has been unfairly blamed for the hysteria which resulted as there are other factors which influenced public opinion at this time.
  • Ultimately, it is clear that McCarthy was not unfairly blamed for the Communist hysteria as many of his assertions were unfounded and his black and white approach to dissent was very damaging to American society.

The Impact of McCarthy…

  • In 1950 Senator Joe McCarthy made a speech claiming that he had a list of 205 names of State Department employees who were also members of the Communist party.
  • Under Eisenhower, McCarthy also began working with the HUAC to investigate subversion in the army.
  • Many of his claims were based on very little evidence but in televising the trials, especially of the army, this ramped up anti-communist hysteria.
  • McCarthy was also encouraged by the democrats who wanted to end the 20 years of democrat presidencies and bring in a Republican administration. This heightened hysteria.
  • It is also significant as it contributed to Adlai Stevenson’s loss in the election campaign in 1952.

The Ambitions of other Politicians..

  • There were also other factors which contributed to communist hysteria, which may show that McCarthy was unfairly blamed for the rise in anti-communist sentiment.
  • McCarthy was not alone in conducting investigations of ‘subversives’.
  • Richard Nixon had been a member of HUAC (The House of Un-American Activities) and had pursued Alger Hiss  in 1948.
  • J Edgar Hoover also oversaw the investigation of 3 million suspected subversives as the head of the FBI.
  • It could be argued that these individuals wanted to exploit existing anti-communist sentiment or indeed rally in support of McCarthy for their own political gain and therefore were also culpable for the hysteria.

A Historical Fear of Communism…

  • The fear of communism had existed in American since the Russian Revolution of 1817 and therefore it is important to consider that ‘McCarthyism’ was not a new thing.
  • Especially among rich Republicans, who had seen the impacts of mass state-intervention under Roosevelt following the Great Depression, feared the economic consequences of what Communism might bring.
  • Immigration throughout the 1920s meant that it was possible for communists to be living within society and therefore, even at the beginning of Truman’s presidency, there was a weariness about Communism.
  • Truman’s handling of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences is evidence of this as he would not allow communist governments to be established in newly liberated states.

The Influence of International Leaders…

  • Winston’s Churchill coined the phrase the ‘Iron Curtain’ in 1946 which highlighted the apparent divide between the capitalist west and the communist east in the post-war world.
  • Truman’s Doctrine and the beginning of the Marshall Plan in 1948 established the Soviet Union and communism generally as enemies of the USA.
  • This contributed to the hysteria as the government was painting communism as a threat to the USA and made it clear to the American people that they were no longer allies.
  • Therefore, it could be argued that there were other factors which contributed to the anti-communist hysteria as opposed to it all being the fault of McCarthy.

The Actions of the Soviets…

  • In some ways that Soviets did take action which warranted fear among the American public.
  • Their testing of the their first atomic bomb in 1949 meant that the USA had a decreasing advantage over the USSR in terms of the threat which they posed.
  • Furthermore, the very public convictions of Alger Hiss and the Rosenburgs highlighted to the American people that while McCarthy did tend to make false accusations, his motives were correct as communist infiltration couldn’t be denied.
  • Espionage was indeed happening and undoubtedly contributed to the advancement of the Soviet atomic programme.
  • This shows that perhaps McCarthy was unfairly blamed as there really was a reason to be fearful.

Truman’s Actions…

  • Despite the fact that Truman thought that McCarthy’s actions were largely unwarranted, he did not help the situation.
  • In 1947, Truman passed Executive Order 9835 which allowed McCarthy to begin investigating the loyalties of federal employees.
  • Under Truman, the Internal Security Act was also passed which required all communists to register their political ideology or face arrest.
  • These actions simply facilitated further hysteria among the public.
  • It is important to point out here however that Truman was in a difficult position. Any action taken against McCarthy would have led to accusations of Truman himself being a communist and therefore, it would be unfair to blame Truman here for his part in the hysteria.

Conclusion

  • Overall, the most influential factor in the communist hysteria were the events on an international scale which highlighted the threat of Communism to the American people.
  • However, McCarthy was not unfairly blamed for his part as his exploitation of this fear for his own political gain was excessive and for the most part inaccurate.
  • His approach to the investigation of subversives left many people without a job, shamed within their communities and the majority were innocent.
  • The large impacts of McCarthy’s actions in damaging the unity of American society means that he deserves the majority of the blame for the Cold War hysteria during the Truman and Eisenhower years.

 

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