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Senator Joseph McCarthy became popular in the 1950s after alleging that numerous Communists and Soviet spies had infiltrated the United States federal government, universities, and the film industry. McCarthy led a campaign to investigate espionage and communist influence in American institutions, a movement that became known as McCarthyism.What are some examples of McCarthyism in US history? In what context did McCarthyism emerge, what was the impact of the movement, and what ultimately led to McCarthy's downfall?


The use of spies, often to obtain political or military information.

McCarthyism definition

First off, what is the definition of McCarthyism?


The 1950–54 campaign, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, against alleged communists in various institutions, including the US government.

Paranoia about communism, the so-called Red Scare, marked this period of US history, which we will discuss in more detail in the next section. McCarthyism ended only when Senator McCarthy fell from grace due to unfounded accusations of communist infiltration.

McCarthyism Senator Joseph McCarthy StudySmarter

Joseph McCarthy, Wikimedia Commons

In modern times, the term McCarthyism is used to make unfounded accusations or defame a person’s character (damage their reputation).

McCarthyism facts and information

The context of Post-WWII America played a significant role in the rise of McCarthyism. Immediately after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a military arms race and a series of economic and political conflicts that became known as the Cold War. The rise of McCarthyism can be largely attributed to this rivalry, as much of the United States was concerned about communism, threats to national security, war, and Soviet espionage.

Arms race

Competition between nations to develop and build an arsenal of weapons.

McCarthyism and the Red Scare summary

In the years following World War II, fear characterised American society. Many citizens were highly concerned about the possible domination of communism and the Soviet Union.Historians refer to this era as the Red Scare, which generally refers to a widespread fear of communism. The late 1940s and 1950s were a particularly hysterical example of this.

Historians like William Chafe believe that there is a tradition of intolerance in the United States that occasionally erupts. Chafe expresses this as follows:

Like a season allergy, anticommunism has recurred at regular intervals throughout twentieth-century history.1

Indeed, there had already been a Red Scare in Russia in 1917-20 after the Communist Bolshevik Revolution. Therefore, the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s is sometimes referred to as the Second Red Scare.

So what events led to this Red Scare?

  • After World War II, the Soviet Union created a buffer zone of communist nations and spread communism throughout Eastern Europe.

  • In 1949, the communist Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb. Previously, only the United States had possessed nuclear weapons.

  • Also, in 1949, China ‘fell’ to communism. The communists under Mao Zedong won the civil war against the nationalists and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

  • In 1950, the Korean War began between communist North Korea and non-communist South Korea. The United States intervened on the side of South Korea.

The United States began to fear communism, rapidly spreading across the globe. This fear was justified when it was proven that spies had indeed infiltrated the US nuclear programme and passed information about America’s atomic plan to the Soviet Union.Thus, McCarthy could capitalise on the fears of average Americans and the anxieties within the American political landscape. McCarthy’s campaign only exacerbated Americans’ fear and paranoia of communism, which the Red Scare triggered.

McCarthyism Anti-communist Propaganda StudySmarter

Anti-communist Portrayal, Wikimedia Commons

Truman’s Executive Order 9835

Fear of the Soviet threat was heightened in 1947 when President Truman signed an executive order requiring background checks for government employees.

McCarthyism Truman Executive Order 9835 StudySmarterTruman Executive Order 9835, Wikimedia Commons

As a result of this order, Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official, was convicted of espionage. Alger Hiss was a senior US government official who played a vital role in creating the United Nations. He was charged with Soviet espionage in 1948 and convicted of perjury, although most of the evidence and testimony was unsubstantiated. Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison.


Lying under oath.

The trial and conviction of Alger Hiss heightened public fear of communism. McCarthy capitalised on this national paranoia and appointed himself a figurehead against the perceived rise of communism.

The Rosenberg trial

In 1951 Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were charged and convicted of Soviet espionage. They were accused of passing top-secret information about the United States nuclear plans to the Soviet Union. In 1953, the pair were found guilty and executed by the government. Events such as the Rosenberg trials made McCarthy’s rise to national prominence and political relevance possible.

Duck and cover drills

In the early 1950s, due to increasing fears of Soviet aggression, schools began conducting drills that prepared American children in the event of a nuclear attack.

McCarthyism Duck and Cover Drills StudySmarterDuck and cover drills, Wikimedia Commons

The drills were known as ‘duck and cover drills’ because the children were instructed to dive under their desks and cover their heads. Once such measures were incorporated into American schooling, the fear of a Soviet takeover no longer seemed so unreasonable, at least not to the American public.

This was another factor contributing to the atmosphere of paranoia and fear that helped McCarthy rise to prominence.

McCarthy’s role

Now that we understand the atmosphere in the US at this time let us consider McCarthy’s specific role.

  • McCarthy was elected to the US Senate in 1946.

  • In 1950, he gave a speech in which he claimed to know the names of communists in the US government and launch an investigation.

  • In 1952, he was re-elected to chair the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

  • In 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. His allegations during the investigations eventually led to his downfall.

McCarthy’s speech

Senator Joseph Mcarthy’s speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, on 9 February 1950, fueled fears of communist infiltration of the American government. McCarthy claimed to have a list of over 205 Soviet spies and communists working for the State Department.

This was a claim of epic proportions, and within a day, McCarthy rose to unprecedented prominence in American politics. The next day, McCarthy became nationally known and took on rooting out communism wherever it was found in American government and institutions.

House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

HUAC was founded in 1938 to investigate communist/fascist subversion. In 1947, it began a series of hearings in which individuals were subpoenaed to ask them, ‘Are you currently a member of the Communist Party or were you once a member of the Communist Party?’


Undermining the authority of a particular institution.

Notable investigations included:

  • The Hollywood Ten: HUAC interrogated a group of ten screenwriters, producers and directors were in 1947. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 6 months to a year. The film industry blacklisted them, meaning they were considered undesirable and should be shunned.

  • Alger Hiss: HUAC was responsible for the investigation mentioned above of Alger Hiss.

  • Arthur Miller: Arthur Miller was a famous American playwright. In 1956, HUAC questioned him about meetings of communist writers he had attended ten years earlier. When he refused to reveal the names of others who had participated in the meetings, he was held in contempt of court, but he won an appeal against it.

Arthur Miller’s arrest inspired him to write The Crucible, a play about the Salem witch hunts of 1692, and The Crucible is an allegory for McCarthyism. Miller used the time of the 1692 witch hunt as a metaphor for McCarthyism and its witch-hunt-like trials.


A story or other form of media interpreted to show hidden meaning.

Much of the committee’s work involved a judicial process that was corrupt and charged and convicted people based on little to no evidence. The defendants were bankrupted, whether the accusations were true or not.McCarthy himself was not directly involved with HUAC, but it is often associated with him because he used very similar tactics as Chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. HUAC’s activities are part of the general atmosphere of McCarthyism.

Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was given investigative powers over the conduct of government business and national security.McCarthy became Chairman of the Subcommittee in 1953 after the Republican Party gained a majority in the Senate. McCarthy began a highly publicised series of investigations into communism upon assuming this position. Remarkably, these investigations could not pleade the fifth, meaning that there was no normal legal process. This allowed McCarthy to ruin people’s reputations simply because they refused to answer.

Pleading the fifth

Pleading the fifth refers to the Fifth Amendment of the US constitution, which protects citizens from self-incrimination. To plead the fifth means refusing to answer a question so as not to incriminate oneself.


Exposing oneself as guilty.

This was the high point of McCarthy’s political career, but it did not last long.

The fall of McCarthy

Within days, McCarthy’s popularity across the country changed dramatically. By 1954, disgraced by his party, McCarthy’s Senate colleagues rebuked him and the media tarnished his reputation.


When a senator is censured, a formal statement of disapproval is published about them. Although this is not expulsion from a political party, it has damaging consequences. Usually, a senator loses credibility and power as a result.

The Army-McCarthy hearings

In 1953, McCarthy began attacking the US Army, accusing it of inadequately protecting a top-secret facility. His subsequent investigation into suspected espionage turned up nothing, but he stood by his allegations.As the conflict continued, the Army responded that McCarthy had abused his position to secure preferential treatment for one of his subcommittee members who had been drafted into the Army.As a result of the tensions that arose, McCarthy resigned as Chairman of the subcommittee. Karl Mundt replaced him for the April and June 1954 hearings, which were televised. While the original purpose of the hearings was to investigate allegations against McCarthy, McCarthy boldly claimed that the US Army was full of Communists and was under Communist influence.The Army hired attorney Joseph Welch to defend them to refute these claims. McCarthy’s public opinion deteriorated during this nationally televised hearing when McCarthy made an unfounded accusation against one of Joseph Welch’s attorneys. McCarthy alleged that this attorney had ties to communist organisations during the hearing.In response to this televised accusation, Joseph Welch famously said to McCarthy:

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency? 2

At that moment, the tide began to turn against McCarthy. McCarthy lost all credibility, and his popularity dwindled overnight.

Edward Murrow

The journalist Edward R. Morrow also contributed to the downfall of McCarthy and thus of McCarthyism. In 1954, Murrow attacked McCarthy on his news programme ‘See It Now’. This attack further contributed to undermining McCarthy’s credibility, and all of these events led to McCarthy’s censure.

McCarthyism Edward Murrow StudySmarter

Edward Murrow, Wikimedia Commons

President Eisenhower and McCarthyism

President Eisenhower did not publicly criticise McCarthy, although he disliked him privately. Eisenhower was criticised for allowing the hysteria to continue. He did, however, work indirectly to reduce McCarthy’s influence.

What were the effects of McCarthyism?

McCarthyism represented a period in American history when fear was used to divert the democratic process of law and order. It had a significant impact on America. Let us examine the effects of McCarthyism in the following table.



American paranoia

McCarthyism exacerbated Americans’ already great fear and paranoia about communism.


McCarthy posed a threat to the freedom of the American people, as many were not only afraid of communism, but also of being accused of being a communist. This affected freedom of speech, as people were afraid to speak out, especially freedom of association.

The American left-wing

The McCarthyism of the American left led to the decline of the American left as many feared being accused of communism.

Liberal politicians

Because of the fear and mania McCarthyism caused, it became increasingly difficult to hold liberal views. For this reason, many liberal politicians avoided speaking out against him, fearing their views would be misinterpreted and they would be accused of being Soviet sympathisers.

Those accused

The campaigns McCarthy charged against suspected communists ruined many lives. People who had no ties to communist groups or communism were charged, disgraced, and ostracised based on fabricated evidence and trials.

Thousands of civil servants lost their jobs, as did many teachers and employees of the film industry.

McCarthyism and the First Amendment

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, assembly, press, or the right to make complaints against the government.Several laws introduced during the McCarthy era violated the First Amendment. These included:

  • The Smith Act of 1940 made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the government or to belong to a group that did so.
  • The McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 created the Subversive Activities Control Board, which could force communist organisations to register with the Justice Department. It authorised the President to arrest individuals he believed were engaging in espionage in emergency situations.

  • The Communist Control Act of 1954 was an amendment to the McCarran Act that banned the Communist Party.

These laws made it easier for McCarthy to convict people and ruin their reputations. The laws of this time affected their freedom of assembly and expression.

McCarthyism - Key takeaways

  • McCarthyism, named after US Senator Joseph McCarthy, refers to a period in the 1950s when an aggressive campaign was waged in the United States against alleged communists.
  • In the 1950s, there was an atmosphere of fear in American society. Most Americans were extremely concerned about the possible domination of communism and even more so of the Soviet Union. This favoured the rise of McCarthyism.
  • In 1947, Americans’ fears were heightened by President Truman, who signed an executive order institutionalising the screening of all persons in government service for communist infiltration.
  • HUAC served as a blueprint for McCarthy in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
  • On 9 February 1950, Senator Joseph Mcarthy declared he had a list of over 205 known Soviet spies and communists working in the United States State Department, leading to his immediate rise to national and political prominence.
  • After McCarthy reached the pinnacle of his career as Chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee, it was not long before he made unfounded accusations against the US Army.
  • The Army-McCarthy hearings of AprilJune 1954 investigated the US Army’s allegations against McCarthy, but during the hearings, McCarthy brazenly claimed that the US Army was full of communists.
  • As a result of McCarthy’s behaviour during the hearings, public opinion of him dropped precipitously as attorney Joseph Welch famously asked him, ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir?’
  • By 1954, disgraced by his party, McCarthy’s Senate colleagues rebuked him, and the press dragged his reputation through the mud.

¹William Henry Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, 2003.

²Robert D. Marcus and Anthony Marcus, The Army-McCarthy Hearings, 1954, On Trail: American History Through Court Proceedings and Hearings, vol. II, 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about McCarthyism

Senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthyism had a considerable impact on America. McCarthy’s campaign further heightened Americans’ fear and paranoia about communism the Red Scare caused.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is an allegory for McCarthyism. Miller used the 1692 witchhunt era as to metaphor for McCarthyism and his witchhunt-like trials. 

This era had a broader significance than just the impact of the Red Scare. It also represented a period in which America allowed politicians to flaunt the constitution to advance their political agendas.

American law was not stable in this period, and many processes were bypassed, ignored, or prohibited to secure convictions.

McCarthyism, a term coined after US Senator Joseph McCarthy, refers to a period in the 1950s when McCarthy carried out an aggressive campaign against alleged communists in the United States government and other institutions.

In contemporary times, the term McCarthyism is used to describe making unfounded allegations or defaming someone’s character. 

Final McCarthyism Quiz


What is McCarthyism?

Show answer


McCarthyism, a term coined after US Senator Joseph McCarthy, refers to a period in the 1950s when McCarthy carried out an aggressive campaign against alleged communists in the United States government and other institutions. In contemporary times, the term McCarthyism describes making unfounded allegations or defaming someone’s character.

Show question


Who was McCarthyism named after?

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Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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In 1947 Truman signed the ______?

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Truman Executive order 9835.

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What was the HUAC?

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The HUAC was a committee of US house representatives that was tasked with investigating communist/fascist subversion. 

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What does HUAC stand for?

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House of Un-American Activities Comittee. 

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What was the name of the McCarthy televised series of hearings the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held between April–June 1954?

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Army-McCarthy hearings.

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What led to the public turning against McCarthy?

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McCarthy soured public opinion during this nationally televised hearing by making an unfounded accusation against one of Joseph Welch’s lawyers. McCarthy accused this lawyer of having ties to a communist organisation.

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Who was the lawyer appointed by the army and responsible for McCarthy’s fall? 

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Joseph Welch.

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What is the name of Edward R. Murrow’s exposé about McCarthy?

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‘See It Now’.

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What did McCarthy allege on 9 February 1950?

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On 9 February 1950, Senator Joseph Mcarthy declared he had a list of over 205 known Soviet spies and communists working in the United States State Department.

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