Anticommunism in Postwar America, 1945–1954: Witch Hunt or Red Menace?

Cover to the propaganda comic book "Is This Tomorrow" - 1947
Photo caption

Cover to the propaganda comic book "Is This Tomorrow" - 1947.

Americans emerged from World War II with a renewed sense of confidence. They had, after all, been part of a global alliance that destroyed the military power of Germany and Japan. Moreover, as the only major combatant to avoid having its homeland ravaged by war, the U.S. economy was clearly the strongest in the world. And, of course, the United States was the only country in the world to possess that awesome new weapon, the atomic bomb. Surely, they believed, they were witnessing the dawn of a new golden age.

It was not long before these glorious expectations were dashed. Over the next five years relations between the United States and the Soviet Union went from alliance to Cold War. To make matters worse it seemed like the Soviets might be winning. In 1948 a communist government seized power in China, the world's most populous country. The following year Moscow successfully tested an atomic device of its own, and in 1950 troops from the Soviet satellite state of North Korea launched a war of aggression against South Korea. To many, it seemed as though a new and infinitely more destructive world war was on the horizon—and this time the United States might actually lose.

How could these setbacks be explained? The arrest and prosecution of a number of Soviet spies in the United States seemed to provide at least a partial answer. Perhaps it was the activity of disloyal Americans—in the Federal Government, in Hollywood, in the schools, etc.—that allowed China to "go communist," that handed Russia the bomb, and invited Stalin's puppets in North Korea to attack their neighbors to the South. But what constituted disloyalty? Was it only to be defined as outright spying or sabotage? Might someone who belonged to the Communist Party be considered disloyal, whether or not he had committed any overt act against the United States? And what about a screenwriter who interjected pro-Soviet themes into a Hollywood movie, or a songwriter who criticized some aspect of American society in one of his songs?

These were the sorts of questions that were on the minds of plenty of Americans in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an age in which Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and of course Joseph McCarthy become household words. In this curriculum unit students will study this turbulent period of American history, examining the various events and ideas that defined it, and considering how much of the anticommunist sentiment of the era was justified, and how much was an overreaction.

Guiding Questions

Why was Soviet espionage such an important issue in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

What constitutes an "un-American" activity? How did the House Un-American Activities Committee go about defining and investigating such activities?

What impact did Joseph McCarthy have on American anticommunism?

Learning Objectives

Identify the primary subjects of FBI investigation on espionage charges.

Explain the Venona project, including how it worked and what purpose it served.

Articulate the reasons why the Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage.

Identify HUAC, and explain its goals and methods

Explain why HUAC targeted Hollywood, and offer an opinion regarding whether this investigation was justifiable.

Articulate the issues involved in the Alger Hiss case.

Evaluate whether HUAC lived up to its stated purposes.

Enumerate the charges that McCarthy made against the Truman administration, and explain why they had such an impact.

Articulate the views of McCarthy's critics, namely Truman and Margaret Chase Smith, and assess their validity.

Explain Eisenhower's attitude toward McCarthy, and give an informed opinion as to whether Eisenhower should have done more to stop him.

Articulate the reasons for McCarthy's downfall in 1954.