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The Cold War, Cold War at Home

loyalty review board, McCarran Internal Security Act, McCarran act, Federal Employee Loyalty Program, Julius Rosenberg

As the Cold War intensified, it affected domestic affairs. Many Americans feared not only Communism around the world but also disloyalty at home. Suspicion about Communist infiltration of the government forced Truman to act. In 1947 he sought to root out subversion through the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. The program included a loyalty review board to investigate government workers and fire those found to be disloyal. The government dismissed hundreds of employees, and thousands more felt compelled to resign. By the end of Truman’s term, 39 states had enacted antisubversion laws and loyalty programs. In 1949 the Justice Department prosecuted 11 leaders of the Communist Party, who were convicted and jailed under the Smith Act of 1940. The law prohibited groups from conspiring to advocate the violent overthrow of the government.

The Communist Party had reached the peak of its strength in the United States during World War II, when it claimed 80,000 members. Some of these had indeed worked for the government, handled classified material, or been part of spy networks. Although Communist party membership had fallen to under 30,000 by the 1950s, suspicion about disloyalty had grown. Concerned about the Sino-Soviet alliance and the USSR’s possession of atomic weapons, many Americans feared Communist spies and Soviet penetration of federal agencies.

Attention focused on two divisive trials. In August 1948 Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist, accused former State Department official Alger Hiss of being a member of the Communist Party and, subsequently, of espionage. Hiss sued Chambers for slander, but Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 and jailed. In 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage for stealing atomic secrets. They were executed two years later. Both of these trials and convictions provoked decades of controversy. Half a century later, the most recent evidence seems to support the convictions of Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg.

Meanwhile, Congress began to investigate suspicions of disloyalty. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sought to expose Communist influence in American life. Beginning in the late 1940s, the committee called witnesses and investigated the entertainment industry. Prominent film directors and screenwriters who refused to cooperate were imprisoned on contempt charges. As a result of the HUAC investigations, the entertainment industry blacklisted, or refused to hire, artists and writers suspected of being Communists.

One of the most important figures of this period was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who gained power by accusing others of subversion. In February 1950, a few months after the USSR detonated its first atomic device, McCarthy claimed to have a list of Communists who worked in the State Department. Although his accusations remained unsupported and a Senate committee labeled them “a fraud and a hoax,” McCarthy won a national following. Branding the Democrats as a party of treason, he denounced his political foes as “soft on Communism” and called Truman’s loyal secretary of state, Dean Acheson, the “Red Dean.” McCarthyism came to mean false charges of disloyalty.

In September 1950, goaded by McCarthy, Congress passed, over Truman’s veto, the McCarran Internal Security Act, which established a Subversive Activities Control Board to monitor Communist influence in the United States. A second McCarran act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also became law over Truman’s veto. It kept the quota system based on national origin, although it ended a ban on Asian immigration, and required elaborate security checks for foreigners visiting the United States.

The Cold War played a role in the presidential contest of 1952 between Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Many voters feared Soviet expansionism, Soviet atomic explosions, and more conflicts like Korea. Eisenhower’s running mate, former HUAC member Richard M. Nixon, charged that a Democratic victory would bring “more Alger Hisses, more atomic spies.” Eisenhower’s soaring popularity led to two terms as president.

McCarthy’s influence continued until the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, when the Senate investigated McCarthy’s enquiry into the army. The Senate censured him on December 2, 1954, for abusing his colleagues, and his career collapsed. But fears of subversion continued. Communities banned books; teachers, academics, civil servants, and entertainers lost jobs; and unwarranted attacks ruined lives. Communists again dwindled in number after 1956, when Stalin was revealed to have committed extensive crimes. Meanwhile, by the end of the decade, new right-wing organizations such as the John Birch Society condemned “creeping socialism” under Truman and Eisenhower. McCarthyism left permanent scars.

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