National Park Service Photo--Great Lakes
America's forward thinkers and activists were very worried. A hateful philosophy seemed to be gaining traction in the U.S., even at the highest levels of society, the media and the government. They remembered the dark history of past evil movements like Nazism and Stalinism. These movements had prevailed because individuals had not acted to stop the forces of evil.
Finally, the leaders took decisive action. They organized to research and document recognized purveyors of the philosophy. Surely, no proponents of this evil should be allowed to remain in the mainstream of American society where they could influence others.
The activists finally succeeded in getting a few false cultural icons thrown out of their jobs. Maybe there was hope for the country after all. A few people worried about insufficient and hearsay evidence, and a lack of due process. But the activists and groups responsible were well-respected people who could be trusted.
The people of conscience were eventually stunningly successful. After several years, they had a long list of horrible people who had been fired from their jobs. Here are just a few of the people who were exposed by the campaign:
Nelson Algren, writer
Aaron Copland, composer
Charlie Chaplin, actor and director,
W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and author
Linus Pauling, chemist and winner of two Nobel prizes
Lena Horne, singer
Artie Shaw, jazz musician
J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist, scientific director of the Manhattan Project of WWII
The imaginary description I just wrote above is an example of something called McCarthyism. The famous victims are real, however, and this actually happened to them.
Joseph McCarthy was a U.S. Senator who held hearings. According to the website word IQ, "the term McCarthyism has entered the American vernacular as a general term for the phenomena of mass pressure, harassment, or blacklisting used to instill conformity with prevailing political beliefs. The act of making insufficiently supported accusations...."
"McCarthyism" was first coined during the period from the end of the 1940's through the 1950's. Many Americans became terrified of Communism after the horrors of WWII, when the Soviets violently took over other countries. The Americans watched China and North Korea also fall to the Reds The Soviet Union was actually conducting espionage in the U.S. at the time.
Communism had been quite common among intellectuals and liberals before WWII, before it got a widespread scary reputation. But after the war, many Americans began to seriously fear that the country might be subverted from within by all the former, and possibly still current Communists. The FBI and Congress began to hold hearings. Anti-Communist panels, loyalty review boards and even private companies began investigating numerous people.
The Justice Department began keeping a list of groups considered subversive that included 154 organizations. One was the Washington Book Shop Association, a left-leaning cultural group, where the FBI installed a permanent camera crew.
Many of the accusers of the targeted people remained anonymous. So the targets never had a chance to refute the charges. People could be fired not even knowing what they had been accused of.
Supreme Court Justice William O.Douglas was a dissenter to the process. He spoke out against a dangerous law passed during the scare: "The present law proceeds on a principle repugnant to our society -- guilt by association.... What happens under this law is typical of what happens in a police state. Teachers are under constant surveillance; their pasts are combed for signs of disloyalty; their utterances are watched for clues to dangerous thoughts."
About one in five American workers was eventually forced to sign a loyalty oath. For years, Hollywood kept a secret blacklist of over 300 people who could not be hired because they were suspect. Other occupations kept blacklists as well. By the time the first McCarthyism was over, at least a hundred Americans had been imprisoned because of it, and around 10,000 people had lost their jobs. A few of the targets were, in fact, Communists. But most of the people were later found to be totally harmless to the country. And innocent lives and careers had already been ruined.
These 1950's activists thought that the people they accused were truly evil and immoral. They honestly thought that the accused had wicked intentions, that they were a threat and that they must be silenced.
But the activists were simply mistaken.
These 1950's activists thought that in this one dangerous period, it was necessary to violate the American value of free speech.
But the activists were simply mistaken.