- The film “Trumbo” and “Red Letter Days” provide a vivid window on what McCarthyism meant, especially in the entertainment world and the motion picture industry during the 1950s, early years of the Cold War.
- It was a vociferous campaign directed at alleged communists also in government, academia, left-wing politicians, and labor union activists
- It involved forced testimony in Congressional committees, blacklisting, loss of jobs, imprisonment, and requirements for declarations of loyalty by people not charged with any crime, demands for naming others as communists. A moment of national hysteria.
- Casting all of this in a much larger perspective:
- No other western country experienced the kind of internal witch-hunt and suppression of dissent as the USA. How to account for this distinctive response to the beginning of the Cold War? An example of American exceptionalism?
- There was a socialist party – founded in 1900, Eugene Debs - had 118,000 members by 1912; Debs ran for President in 1912 and got 6% of the vote. This = high point of socialist politics; not even during The Great Depression did a powerful socialist response emerge.
- Compare: Germany 1912: Social Democratic party held more seats in parliament than any other party; France — socialist party became a fixture of French political life; so too did Britain’s Labor Party, which attracted support from unions.
- American radicalism not absent… strikes, urban violence, populist movements, and progressivism in the early 20th century: but none of this was framed in a socialist context. To this day, socialism = un-American to many people.
- American labor organization generated a conservative trade union movement: AFL: accepted capitalism, presented itself as a partner with corporations; limited its enrollment to highly skilled workers, leaving out the more radical unskilled workers; refused to align with any political party: sharp contrast with unions in Western Europe.
- Very diverse working-class society: created by immigration; on top of sharp racial divide; eroded solidarity; could blame the Italians, Jews, blacks for one’s situation; capitalist owners
- Remarkable economic growth higher standard of living for American workers; land was cheaper; homeownership more available than in Europe: large group of service workers aiming at middle class status: all of this diluted the socialist appeal.
- Growth of a welfare state: unemployment, social security; labor legislation and other government action to address the health and economic welfare of the people: esp. in New Deal
- showed that a capitalist system could reform itself somewhat; adopted elements of moderate socialist platform, though without “socialism”
- though more slowly and less extensively than in Europe. For example, absence of national system of health care.
- All of this generated a strong aversion to socialism in US political life…and then, beginning in 1917, the US faced a new version of socialism: Soviet communism.
2. Soviet Communism: a new version of socialism.
A. Soviet Communism: revolutionary and violent; sought to eliminate private property; no competing parties; militantly atheistic 2 immediate reactions
- Intervention in Civil War in Russia: 1918-20: along with Britain, France and Japan, the US sent troops to oppose the communists; Communists had withdrawn from WWI
- Red Scare: 1919-20: Triggered by a series of strikes, anarchist bombings, and race riots — branded as RED, unpatriotic, and linked to communist revolution in Russia — led to investigations to uncover communist revolutionaries; thousands arrested or deported; 32 states made it illegal to display the Red flag; a kind of dress rehearsal for McCarthyism.
C. After WWII, that alliance quickly disintegrated as communism seemed on the march globally: Eastern Europe; Berlin airlift, China, Korean War; a sense that communism was on the move and that American communists were infiltrating the media, academia, the military, and the state department.
These early years of the Cold War were the immediate context for McCarthyism, as a country with a long term and strong aversion to socialism became a global superpower in direct and mortal conflict with an expanding communist world that seemed to threaten everything that America stood for.