Thursday, 6 November 2014


McCarthyism is the practice of making unfair allegations and accusations of, for example, disloyalty and treason without proper evidence and using unfair investigation techniques. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy
The term has its origins in the US during Second Red Scare, (1950 to 1956), which was characterised by heightened political repression against communists, as well as a campaign spreading fear of their influence on American institutions. The term was originally coined to criticize the anti-communist actions of Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. However "McCarthyism" soon took on a broader meaning to describe reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks (when a political leader in a democracy appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives). McCarthy is often seen as a demagogue: they usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis, accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of being weak. Demagogues exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population.

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Accusations were often made despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional and dismissals that were later declared illegal.

The most famous examples of McCarthyism include the speeches, investigations, and hearings of Senator McCarthy himself and the FBI. McCarthyism was a widespread social and cultural phenomenon that affected all levels of society and was the source of a great deal of debate and conflict in the United States.

However the historical period that came to be known as the McCarthy era began well before Joseph McCarthy's own involvement in it. Many factors contributed to McCarthyism, some of them extending back to the years of the First Red Scare (1917–20), when Communism emerged as a recognised political force. Thanks in part to its success in organizing labour unions and its early opposition to fascism, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) increased its membership through the 1930s, reaching a peak of about 75,000 members in 1940–41. While the United States was engaged in World War II and allied with the Soviet Union, the issue of anti-communism was largely muted. With the end of World War II, the Cold War began almost immediately, as the Soviet Union installed Communist puppet rĂ©gimes across Central and Eastern Europe, while the United States backed anti-communist forces in Greece and China.

Events in 1949 and 1950 sharply increased the sense of threat from Communism in the United States. The Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, earlier than many analysts had expected. That same year, Mao Zedong's Communist army gained control of mainland China despite heavy American financial support of the opposing Kuomintang. In 1950, the Korean War began, pitting U.S., U.N., and South Korean forces against Communists from North Korea and China.

There were also more subtle forces encouraging the rise of McCarthyism. For example, conservative politicians in the US often referred to progressive reforms such as child labour laws and women's suffrage as "Communist" or "Red plots." This increased in the 1930s in reaction to the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many conservatives equated the New Deal with socialism or Communism, and saw its policies as evidence that the government had been heavily influenced by Communist policy-makers in the Roosevelt administration.

Joseph McCarthy's involvement with the ongoing cultural phenomenon that would bear his name began with a speech he made on Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950, to a Republican Women's Club. He produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department, saying "I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." This speech resulted in a flood of press attention to McCarthy and established the path that made him one of the most recognised politicians in the US.

The first recorded use of the term McCarthyism was in a political cartoon by Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, published on March 29, 1950. The cartoon depicted four leading Republicans trying to push an elephant (the traditional symbol of the Republican Party) to stand on a teetering stack of ten tar buckets, the topmost of which was labeled "McCarthyism". Block later wrote that there was "nothing particularly ingenious about the term, which is simply used to represent a national affliction that can hardly be described in any other way. If anyone has a prior claim on it, he's welcome to the word and to the junior senator from Wisconsin along with it. I will also throw in a set of free dishes and a case of soap.”

Since the time of McCarthy, the word McCarthyism has entered American speech as a general term for a variety of practices: aggressively questioning a person's patriotism, making poorly supported accusations, using accusations of disloyalty to pressure a person to adhere to conformist politics or to discredit an opponent, subverting civil rights in the name of national security, and the use of demagoguery are all often referred to as McCarthyism. McCarthyism can also be synonymous with the term witch-hunt, both referring to mass hysteria and moral panic.

The 1952 Arthur Miller play The Crucible used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for McCarthyism, suggesting that the process of McCarthyism-style persecution can occur at any time or place. The play focused on the fact that once accused, a person had little chance of exoneration, given the irrational and circular reasoning of both the courts and the public. Miller later wrote: "The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties."