The general understanding of those years was that a right wing extremist Senator named Joe McCarthy saw commies everywhere and began to attack everyone in sight. Others went along with his leadership and the Committee on UnAmerican Activities, led by McCarthy, destroyed lives and ruined liberty in America in its witch hunt to find the evil commie.
Communists, of course, were over in Russia and China, we are told, and what few were in America were harmless sorts who had no real power or access anywhere. Actors and others in creative fields were especially attacked, and Hollywood out of fear created a "blacklist" which banned people suspected or accused of being commies. These people couldn't find work anywhere, their careers destroyed.
But in his path stood Edward R Murrow, hero of the people and hard-working journalist who saw the evil of McCarthy and waged a one-man crusade to end his tyranny. Against all odds, this scrappy newsman defeated the hated McCarthy and showed the whole nation the truth behind his evil schemes.
The problem with all this is that there's some truth behind it, but most of it is distorted or highly confused.
Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) was a WW2 vet who won election to the Senate in 1947 and served until 1957. McCarthy was a lawyer who ran as a Democrat for District Attorney (unsuccessfully) and eventually became a 10th district court judge. He then switched to the Republican party and ran for office as "Tail Gunner Joe." McCarthy won over an anti-communist fellow Republican Robert LaFolette, gaining support from the red-tinged United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union.
McCarthy was a charismatic man who gave good speeches. He also was willing to criticize the army when he thought they'd done wrong. For example, while he wanted the death penalty for SS soldiers involved in a massacre of US Soldiers at Malmedy, he also criticized the army for torturing confessions out of the soldiers (although when pressed had no evidence of this taking place).
McCarthy's politics were hard to pin down. He ran as both Democrat and Republican. He started out being not so concerned about communism, and then picked it up as a hobby horse. He tutored Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson on public speaking (which he largely disregarded, uninterested in show and performance). The man seemed motivated not by policy and politics but by personal power and fame.
Joe McCarthy was already pretty well despised by the press corps, not any real cause for concern, when he became very famous and popular. He spoke at a Republican Women's Club in Wheeling West Virginia and claimed "The State Department is infested with communists. 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."
From there, the whole thing just snowballed. People were concerned about Communism, and the fall of China and Russia (huge parts of the Asian continent and a quarter of the world's population) had people very worried. Further, the press was just fascinated in this guy and what he was saying, they couldn't help themselves.
What you have to understand is that it was a very real, very disturbing fear in the hearts of Americans and around the world, that Russia and China were gearing up for another huge world-conquering effort. And the rhetoric coming out of those countries was no help. They called for the end of capitalism, the destruction of the US especially, and so on.
Further, as nations fell to Communist revolutions, people were worried. They knew, from personal experience in the war (watching how Russian soldiers and their prisoners were treated) and from reports out of China and the Soviet Union that brutality, murder, and tyranny followed. Nobody wanted that. And US intelligence knew that the Soviet Union was actively working to infiltrate and undermine the US.
The House started up a committee to look into Communist infiltration, and around the nation, a real concern built up. Movies and TV shows started to play up the red scare and general ignorance about Communism and fear resulted in terrible things.
My mother tells of when as a child she suffered the spite and mistreatment of her home town because her parents were considered possibly Communist. Her father was from Denmark and had a heavy accent, and her mother had very poor hearing, so they were a bit odd, and that was enough for some folks. An angry, vindictive neighbor spread tales about them and the small community turned against them for a while.
That wasn't the only example. Neighbors would use anti-communism as an excuse to cause trouble. People did lose jobs, did get ostracized, did get accused and "denounced" as Communists. Unlike in, say, the Soviet Union that didn't result in a show trial and exile to Siberia or death, but it was damaging to lives.
Here's the thing though. Joe McCarthy was the public face of anti-Communism, by his design. It was his claim to fame and reelection. But was Edward R Murrow a fearless warrior for freedom and justice? Was he opposed to the anti-communism? Its hard to say exactly how he felt about Communism. He willingly signed a declaration of non-communism submitted by the NBC to all of its collaborators under the threat of being fired.
By the time the See It New program came out about Senator McCarthy he was pretty well on the decline in popularity and power anyway. His inability to show any proof, his attacking popular figures like an Army guy who got promoted were hurting him in the public eye. After all, CBS would never have run the show to begin with if he was still really popular and powerful. Andrew Ferguson wrote in the Weekly Standard in 1996:
By the time the [March 9, 1954] show aired, a mutiny was underway on his own subcommittee to relieve McCarthy as chairman. Prominent Republicans had joined Democrats in publicly denouncing him, even, gingerly, his former comrade Vice President Richard Nixon. In the mainstream press, anti-McCarthy feeling was endemic. Among those routinely critical were Time magazine and Col. Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune. If Col. McCormick and Henry Luce were denouncing a right-wing icon, you could feel pretty safe in firing away.
One of Edward Murrow's "boys" Eric Sevareid, said in a January 1978 broadcast that the McCarthy program "came very late in the day,"
The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy, and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.
Other broadcasters had already condemned McCarthy's bombastic speeches and tactics without any proof or even evidence. Even Edward Murrow himself makes it clear he wasn't some lone hero like the sheriff in High Noon standing alone, steely-eyed against the Senator:
"My God, I didn't do anything. [Times columnist] Scotty Reston and lot of guys have been writing like this, saying the same things, for months, for years. We're bringing up the rear."
Clooney's film of course, presents the Murrow as hero image, building him up as some towering figure of journalism and hero of the people, the only one man enough to stand against a powerful and evil right winger. And of course, the entire film is a parable about the evils of the PATRIOT Act, which suddenly has become okay now that a Democrat is president.
What really did take down McCarthy? ABC showing the Army hearings in which McCarthy came across as ill-informed, anti-military, and a grandstanding putz. He ruined himself, and then the press piled on. CBS didn't run the hearings because they ran at the same time as lucrative Soap Operas.
As for Murrow, a few years after the hearings, Murrow worked on an anti-Communism special report for CBS. And far from being a glowing example of fine journalism, the See It Now segment was agitprop of the worst sort. They went through thousands of hours of McCarthy footage and picked the worst of his appearances, statements, mistakes, and ugliest looks. They deliberately picked the most absurd and cackling villain moments, carefully cut, then ended up with Murrow launching into a diatribe about how awful McCarthy himself was. Not exactly fine journalism.
Was the Blacklist in Hollywood real? Yes and no. There was no actual list printed up for the studios, any more than there is now of conservative Hollywood types to avoid work with. There was an unofficial group of people who the studios deemed damaging to their image and profits if allowed work, but how much of that was dogma and how much as just business is hard to say. Although the system was considerably more conservative then than now, it still was left leaning even back then.
There were lists published by several groups, such as the Red Channels list which gave names of supposed (and often actual) Communists and sympathizers, but the studios didn't have any official book or anything.
And if you made money, Hollywood was willing to put up with just about anything as long as they could keep it under wraps. At the height of the red scare, being a known Communist was just too hot to cover up, so it was bad business.
When 10 Hollywood types were called before HUAC to testify they refused to cooperate and were held in contempt and jailed. They appealed to the Supreme Court, who noted that congress certainly was within its legal rights to jail people for contempt of court. They had lawyers, due process, and so on. But this treatment enraged these actors and assorted movie types and they decided the whole world should hear about it.
At last some of these "Hollywood 10" were actually Communists who did work with the Soviets, according to later records. So they were likely following Soviet policy to use the press and entertainment community to damage anti-Communist efforts. Most of the ten had been part of the Federal Writers' Project, which was part of the WPA (Work Progress Admin.) during the Roosevelt administration.
John Huston later mentioned that these people were not exactly standing up for human rights in their refusal to testify:
It seems that some of them had already testified in California, and that
their testimony had been false. They had said they were not Communists
and now, to have admitted it to the press would have been to lay
themselves open to charges of perjury ... And so, when I believed them
to have engaged to defend the freedom of the individual, they were
really looking after their own skins. Had I so much as suspected such a
thing, you may be sure I would have washed my hands of them instantly.
But, as I said before, the revelation was a long time coming.
The truth is that by now, it has been revealed that most were sympathizers to Communism, and some absolutely were
Some actors, such as Humphrey Bogart, were very sympathetic to communism, and writers such as Dashiell Hamett were as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote music reviews for a Communist newspaper, likely out of a desire for work more than any ideological agreement.
The Hollywood Reporter published a list of names of alleged Commies such as Dalton Trumbo, Maurice Rapf, Lester Cole, Howard Koch, Harold Buchman, John Wexley, Ring Lardner Jr., Harold Salemson, Henry Meyers, Theodore Strauss, and John Howard Lawson. Later in 2012, the son of the publisher apologized, claiming his father just wanted revenge for being denied a studio, but how publishing names of actors from all over was going to accomplish this is unclear.
Some names were confused or mistaken, and careers were ruined as a result. Louis Pollock lost his screenwriting career because the American Legion confused him with Louis Pollack, a California clothier, who had refused to cooperate with HUAC. Some were damned by association, just a name mentioned as enough to lose work, even if you weren't specifically condemned.
And it became common for low-ranking Hollywood workers to get no work at all, such as Adrian Scott (director of movies such as Murder, My Sweet) who didn't get to direct another film until 1972 and Lilian Hellman (who absolutely was a hardcore Communist) who never got to write another screenplay until 1966. However, that didn't keep everyone on the blacklist from working.
Several actors, writers, and so on such as Walter Bernstein worked under psuedonyms or simply didn't have their names listed in the credits. They were still working, they just were doing it in secret. Some like Elmer Bernstein were able to keep working but on lower budget, small projects and minor films. Some effectively blacklisted themselves by fleeing the country and working elsewhere.
The blacklist basically started in 1947, and broke up in about 1957. Hitchcock hired a blacklisted actor named Norman Lloyd to work on his TV show, and from then on more and more blacklisted people were getting work. Kirk Douglas claimed to be the one
who had shattered the blacklist with Spartacus, but he was basically playing up himself for publicity.
Supposedly the film High Noon and the TV show On The Waterfront are anti-HUAC and anti-blacklist statements, but having seen both I'm highly skeptical of these claims. Certainly plenty of later movies have come out. Every few years another "look how evil fighting Communism is" film comes out bemoaning the plight of actors denied work for their ties.
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE SCENES
Congress did pull many people up to investigate them for former or active Communist ties. "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party" was asked of people. And many of them had been Communists. Back before WW2, Communism seemed okay. Few knew of the horrors of Communist Russia at the time and those who did tell of them were just scoffed at and dismissed. Communism was popular with academics in the 20s and 30s. It was seen as a big step forward in progressivism, bringing equality and spreading the wealth around more "fairly."
As the truth behind Communist regimes became more clear, a lot of these people left the party. Their leftist inclinations were still there, they just didn't care much for the Communist brand. And a lot of these people got into trouble during the red scare, for their previous allegiance.
Things got a bit crazy, and finally McCarthy attacked the Air Force, claiming it was riddled with Commies and people had pretty well had enough by that point. It was the final straw; the military was too well respected and the hype had gone too far. McCarthy was disgraced, and the entire anti-Communist fight had a black eye, it looked terrible.
Whether that list McCarthy actually existed or not, and whether there were that many in the State Department, no one really knows. What is known is that there were actually Communists and members of the Communist party in the State Department and around America.
We know this because once the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB released plenty of paperwork, and among that paperwork
was confirmation of nearly everything anti-communists said. The Soviet Union did in fact specifically work to infiltrate the US government, entertainment industry, education, and all other parts of the US. They knew there'd be no worker's revolution because people were happy and well paid, not exploited. So they undertook a long-term plan to undermine and nibble away at the foundations of the US and take over sectors that controlled education and popular opinion. The first place the term "McCarthyism" was found was in the The Daily Worker
, a Communist magazine produced by Soviet agents working in the US.
The Vernona Intercepts detail how unions were taken over by Communist sympathizers and workers in the US, how many writers and workers in education and media were coopted and even signed on willingly to work with the Soviets. It shows that yes, there were in fact Communists working within the State Department. My guess is that the CIA and FBI were aware of some of this and mentioned it casually to McCarthy and he went off on a tear.
This is no demented anti-communist paranoia, the people, plans, locations, and process were all quite well documented by the KGB. When HUAC pulled people into talk to them, many were folks that were part of this systematic attempt to overthrow the US and turn it Communist.
The Red Scare was true, they really were trying to destroy America. The problem is the United States is a free place where you are allowed to believe and think whatever you want, in theory. That was the core behind tolerance and free speech, that a man's conscience cannot be bound by law and we must be free people to believe what we want.
McCarthyism - or any movement which does the same - violated this very foundational principle of America by condemning a belief system as "unAmerican" and destroying their lives over it. Whether the belief system is Islam or Tea Party membership or Communism, or even something like racism, simply thinking and believing something, or even speaking about it, is not unAmerican. It is uniquely American, something no other nation in the world enjoys the equal of in freedom of expression. No other nation on earth holds freedom of speech and conscience as dearly as America.
Further, the freedom to assemble is in the 1st amendment, so membership in the Communist Party is absolutely protected, and not something you should ever have to testify about. Yes, its stupid and self-destructive in the case of academics and actors, but they're free to be stupid and self-destructive in America. And that's what made the whole exercise so hideous.
Yet every so often the society (or the ones who drive popular thought) will find some ideas so repellent they condemn the very belief of some ideas to the point of punishment and even criminalization. And that is unAmerican. Ultimately, it also works against the efforts of the people involved. Eventually folks get sick of the demonization and attacks for having an idea or saying something, and they start to move away from the effort.
And that's what happened with the anti-Communism movement. It got such a nasty feel, left such a terrible taste in the mouth of people that the entire concept of fighting communism was damaged. These days if you call someone a Communist, you're attacked as hard as you were back then for being one.
In the end, Joe McCarthy never caught a single Communist spy, although with Annie Moss he might have come close - she was an active member of the CPUSA at the time (according to the CPUSA its self).
The House Committee on UnAmerican Activities did manage to ruin a lot of people's careers and lives for having Communist ties, and some of those were very real Commmies, but none of them were spies.
In the end, this one ends up a mix: its not like Clooney and the rest of Hollywood tends to portray it, but what they claim isn't entirely false, either.
And the biggest casualty of them all was the truth that Communism is bad and was actually trying to infiltrate and destroy America. It was, and some would argue it succeeded. If only the Soviet Union had hung on a few more decades, imagine how they'd be doing today?