Reds Under the Beds: Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War

Aggressive, intimidating, and unfazed by the truth, Joe McCarthy single-handedly whipped 1950s USA into a frenzy of anti-communist fear and paranoia.

It was near the beginning of the Cold War: the Soviet Union had surged ahead of America in the arms race, Chairman Mao had not long come to power in China, and Americans everywhere feared the presence of ‘Reds Under the Beds’ within their own communities. In stepped Joseph McCarthy to shock the nation with a sensational announcement that confirmed their worst fears.

McCarthy exposes the Reds

It was the evening of February 9, 1950, at a Republican Women’s Club meeting in West Virginia, when 41-year-old McCarthy declared that he had in his hand a list of 205 names of State Department employees known to be members of the American Communist Party. (A month later, McCarthy had reduced the figure to fifty-seven.)

These informants, said McCarthy, were passing on information to the Soviet Union: “The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer.”

And so began the era of the communist witch-hunts. The eruption of the Korean War four months later with the communist North invading the democratic South Korea, merely confirmed the aggressiveness of global communism.

McCarthy’s rise

A Republican, Joseph McCarthy slandered his opponents on his way up the political pole, accusing them in turn of senility, financial irregularity, draft-dodging, and war profiteering. But when his own political career came under threat with claims that he had lied about his role during the war, McCarthy played on American’s fear of communism, and overnight became the most talked about politician in America.

Red Hollywood

Hollywood, already under suspicion, became the target of McCarthy’s intense scrutiny. From the struggling novice to the stars, actors were interrogated. Those who confessed could wipe the slate clean by repenting and providing names of others. One screenwriter named 162 Hollywood actors, writers or directors who were communist, ex-commie, or sympathetic to the socialist cause. Many were purged, not to work again for years. Others fled abroad rather than face their turn in the McCarthy spotlight.

The studios, desperate to claw back the trust of the American people, turned out a series of propagandist films, I Married a Communist, or I Was A communist for the FBI (which won the 1951 Oscar for Best Documentary).

Next in McCarthy’s glare came the universities, the “Reducators” of the impressionable American youth. Libraries were targeted and 30,000 anti-American titles banned from the shelves.

Joe and Ilk

Republican President candidate, Dwight Eisenhower, disliked McCarthy but needed his support to win the 1952 election. McCarthy had the gall to accuse George C. Marshall, originator of the post-Second World War Marshall Plan, of having communist leanings and being “part of a conspiracy so immense, an infamy so black, as to dwarf any in the history of man.” Eisenhower planned to defend Marshall but, concerned at losing McCarthy’s support at such a vital time, failed to do so.

Once in power Eisenhower still felt reluctant to pull in the increasing excesses of McCarthyism, which by now were targeting members of Eisenhower’s administration. “Attacking him,” said one purged victim, “is regarded as a certain method of committing suicide.”

In 1953 a young New York couple, the Rosenbergs, were executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. The case intensified still further the paranoia of mid-50s America. McCarthyism was rampant.

McCarthy takes on the US Army

In 1954 McCarthy decided to take on the US Army, right up to the Secretary of the Army, Robert Stevens. The army, according to McCarthy, was full of “dangerous spies”. The Republican Party tried to stop their renegade senator but too late – the subsequent investigations based on McCarthy’s allegations were televised throughout a 36-day hearing.

The nation watched aghast as McCarthy shouted, heckled and bullied his way through the hearing, with little regard for etiquette or procedure and failing to back up his wild claims with any substantial evidence.

Fall from grace

This time he had gone too far. The media, for so long in awe of McCarthy, attacked him for his “degrading travesty of the democratic process”. The Republican Party finally brought his misadventures to an end and in December 1954 stripped him of office, asking of McCarthy on live television: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy faded into obscurity. “McCarthyism,” said Eisenhower, “was now “McCarthywasm.”

Already an alcoholic, McCarthy drank himself into hospital and on May 2, 1957, aged only 48, died of an inflammation of the liver.

Rupert Colley

Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.