McCarthyism was a term coined to describe activities associated with Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy from Wisconsin. he served in the senate from 1947 to 1957.
McCarthyism described the practice of publicly accusing government employees of disloyalty
In the American political lexicon, the term originates from a March 1950 Washington Post editorial cartoon by Herbert Block, depicting top four Republicans trying to push an elephant onto a pile wobbly 10 buckets of tar. the highest-ranking Republican in the cartoon was labeled “McCartoon”.
The term McCarthyism soon evolved to describe the practice of publicly accusing government employees of political disloyalty or subversive activities and using unsavory investigative methods to prosecute them. the practice dominated between 1950 and 1954, a period of intense suspicion during which the us. The government actively participated in the fight against communism, in particular, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).
As evidenced by congressional passage of the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, which made up Title 1 of the Homeland Security Act of 1950 (also called the McCarran Act), a majority of Congress also shared the belief that cpusa constituted a conspiracy that was secretly loyal to a foreign power and engaged in the clandestine infiltration of u.s. cultural and political institutions.
the supreme court’s 6-2 decision in dennis v. united states (1951) confirming the constitutionality of the convictions of cpusa leaders eugene dennis, william z. foster, and ten others for advocating the violent overthrow of the us. the government in many ways also lent constitutional support to this belief.
sen. joseph mccarthy led investigations with little evidence
Although McCarthyism is considered by most scholars to be a consequence of the Palmer raids and Red Alert of the 1920s and the Smith Act of 1940, which made it illegal to advocate, abet or teach the desirability of overthrowing the ee uu. government, was for the most part synonymous with sen. joseph mccarthy.
As chairman of the senate committee on government operations and the permanent subcommittee on investigations, mccarthy led investigations of communist party members and supporters employed in the united states. government or by government contractors. anti-Mccarthists would later refer to these congressional investigations as “witch hunts”.
during his 10 years in the senate, mccarthy and his team gained notoriety for making outlandish accusations that, while initially directed at government employees, would later include americans from all walks of life. Because he systematically engaged in the practice of public accusations of political disloyalty or subversion with little regard for evidence and the use of unfair investigative methods, Senator McCarthy himself would later be accused of victimizing those who appeared before his committee and of suppress basic civil rights and liberties.
The men and women accused in hearings by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Anti-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had little chance of exonerating themselves once their identities were revealed to the public. simply being accused of communist sympathies was enough to damage or end many careers, because the defendants could not otherwise argue their innocence. Widespread persecution of communists and communist sympathizers began to abate only after Senator McCarthy’s testimony at the so-called Army-Mccarthy hearings in 1954 produced a backlash.
the court put an end to McCarthyism
in 1957, the supreme court decision in yachts v. The United States ended Smith Act prosecutions by requiring the government to prove that a defendant actually took concrete steps to forcibly overthrow the government; simply defending it in theory would not be enough. Because McCarthyism relied heavily on smearing people’s reputations and careers rather than presenting factual evidence to support the allegations, the Yates decision effectively put an end to such practice.
mccarthy ruined innocent people’s lives
The criticism of McCarthyism, and of Senator McCarthy in particular, is threefold.
- First, he ruined the reputation and lives of many people by accusing them without credible evidence.
- second, he used accusations of communist sympathies to strike back at anyone who criticized his methods.
- and third, he argued against free speech because much of his rhetoric assumed that any discussion of the ideas underlying communism was dangerous and un-American.
victims of McCarthyism, that is, those who were summoned by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Committee on Anti-American Activities, were denied employment in the private sector, or failed to pass security checks at the government. In the film industry alone, more than three hundred actors, writers, and directors have been denied jobs in the industry through Hollywood’s informal blacklisting, leading some to go into exile abroad.
From the point of view of McCarthy supporters, it was essential at the time to identify foreign agents and suppress “radical organizations.” McCarthy and his followers believed that subversive elements posed a danger to the country’s national security and therefore justified such extreme measures, even if they included the denial of civil liberties.
current McCarthyism means denying due process and civil liberties
Today, McCarthyism is synonymous with any perceived government activity that suppresses unfavorable political or social views by limiting or undermining vital civil rights and liberties under the guise of maintaining national security. as understood, it is a means of government harassment including blacklisting with the intent of putting pressure on people to follow popular political beliefs. therefore anyone who makes insufficiently substantiated allegations or engages in unbalanced investigations against individuals in an attempt to silence or discredit them is said to be practicing McCarthyism. this practice in effect represents both a denial of due process and a fundamental violation of civil liberties, thus violating the first and fourteenth amendments to the constitution.
The United States Supreme Court has made reference to McCarthyism in several of its First Amendment decisions. For example, the court explained in the Library Filtering Decision, United States v. American Library Association (2003), that the American Library Association adopted its Library Bill of Rights in response to McCarthyism.
justice william o. Douglas was a consistent critic of McCarthyism. He specifically criticized the phenomenon in his concurring opinion in the free speech decision of Healy v. College Students. James (1972) and in his concurring opinion in the political transmission decision Columbia v. Transmission System. democratic national committee (1973).
This article was originally published in 2009. dr. marc g. pufong is a public law specialist and professor of politics, public law, and the courts at valdosta state university. dr. Pufong’s teaching and research interests are in constitutional law and judicial policy, international law and politics, and human rights and conflict. He is also the co-author of three books including Georgia State Politics: The Constitutional Foundations, 7th Edition (2016) with Lee M. Allen and Researching Constitutional Law, 4th Edition (2013) with Albert P. melon.