Before we get started, I need to make one thing clear about Red Scare History. This post is not about the real Soviet Menace which threatened the world with nuclear destruction. Instead, it is about anti-Communist propaganda run rampant, scaring Americans into thinking that their world could end in a heartbeat — and with very little warning.
Americans were conditioned to fear Communists in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, years before our World War II partnership with the Russians began.
This First Red Scare was spearheaded by an American business community that was fearful of labor unrest and protective of corporate profits.
Industrial leaders, especially, convinced large numbers of Americans that their livelihoods were threatened by Communists.
Years before the American Communist Party was actually founded, the word “communist” was associated with being un American. This was especially true after the 1917 Russian Revolution when Bolshevism became totally entrenched in Russian life.
The founding of the American Communist Party in Chicago in 1919 made the previously abstract fear of communism a concrete reality. Woodrow Wilson was the US president at the time. He committed arms and troops to the war against Bolshevism abroad and increased the level of anti-Communist propaganda at home as well.
Throughout the 1920s, Americans increasingly feared that Marxism/Leninism would penetrate the US and cause the death of capitalism.
During the Great Depression, communism did gain a foothold among the American working and intellectual classes who opposed the policies of President Hoover that they felt had plunged the nation into economic disaster.
Owing to the New Deal‘s social policies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s congressional opponents spent much of their time proposing bills that would limit immigration, free speech, and free assembly for suspected Communists as well as deport foreign-born Communists.
Red scare history tells us that Congress often flirted with the idea of legally prohibiting the American Communist Party.
The war against Germany and the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union temporarily altered these stereotypes. Official government posters and commercial advertising portrayed the Big Three Allies — the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union — marching toward victory. But after the war, the USSR was demonized once again.
By 1948, anti-Communist militancy was sweeping the country.
Communism was blamed for all of America’s ills. Fear of spies, threats of a Communist takeover, and paranoia about nuclear war were offered in large doses in print and on film.
Here is a sampling of early Second Red Scare events:
- May 18, 1948: Congressmen Richard M. Nixon’s and Karl Mundt’s bill to “protect the United States against un-American and subversive activities” — the Mundt-Nixon Bill — is passed in the House by a vote of 319 to 58. The bill, also known as the Internal Security Act, makes it a crime to attempt to establish a totalitarian dictatorship by any means. In effect, this makes the existence of the Communist Party itself a violation of the law.
- June 1948: Washington Witch Hunt by Bert Andrews, which decries the recent abuses of civil liberties by Red hunters, is published by Random House.
- July 20, 1948: After a thirteen-month investigation, a New York grand jury returns indictments against twelve members of the National Board of the Communist Party, who are charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States.
- July 28, 1948: Elizabeth Bentley, dubbed “the Red Spy Queen ” by the press, testifies before a Senate subcommittee and, three days later to HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee ), that she had been the courier to a Washington-based Soviet spy ring during the war. She also implicates the man she replaced in that capacity, Whittaker Chambers .
- December 15, 1948: Former State Department official Alger Hiss is indicted on two counts of perjury for denying his role in passing classified documents to the Russians, but his first trial ends on July 8, 1949, with a hung jury.
Red-Baiting reached its zenith in the United States in the mid- to late 1950s, persisting to some degree until the end of the “Evil Empire” in 1989. Its demise was made most visible in January 1990 when Moscow’s first McDonald’s opened its doors with a Big Mac priced at 3.75 rubles.
For More information on Red Scare History see Red Scared by Michael Barson and Steven Heller.