The Cold War at Home

The Cold War shaped more than American foreign policy. As the perception of the Soviet Union changed from wartime ally to dangerous adversary, concern grew regarding Communist subversion within the United States. The existence of the Soviet‐controlled Eastern bloc in Europe, the “loss” of China to communism, and the fact that the USSR had exploded an atomic bomb (1949), long before anyone expected it to, fueled suspicions that some Americans were actively working to aid the Communist cause and hoping to overthrow the U.S. government. The period of anticommunist hysteria lasted from the late 1940s well into the 1950s.

Loyalty checks and internal security. Under Executive Order 9835 (March 1947), President Truman created the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. More than three million government workers were investigated and cleared, 2,000 resigned, and just over 200 were dismissed from their jobs. The small number of dismissals is surprising considering that an employee could be suspected of subversion merely by being perceived as “potentially disloyal” or considered a security risk. People viewed as security risks included homosexuals, alcoholics, and those who were in debt and needed money. States and municipalities followed the administration's example and required many of their workers to take a loyalty oath as a condition of employment. The oaths typically stated that a person was not and had never been a member of the Communist party or any organization that advocated the overthrow of the government of the United States. Teachers were often targets of suspicion. When the Supreme Court ruled in Tolman v. Underhill (1953) that professors at the University of California could not be singled out, the state required all of its employees to take loyalty oaths.

In 1950, Congress passed the Internal Security Act (known as the McCarran Act after its author, Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada) that required Communists and Communist‐front organizations to register with the attorney general. The act also authorized internment of individuals during periods of national emergency, and prohibited the employment of Communists in defense industries. The law went into effect over Truman's veto at a time when the threat of subversion seemed very real. In March 1950, for example, Klaus Fuchs, a German‐born scientist, was convicted in Great Britain of providing information to the Soviet Union about the atomic bomb. Evidence that came out at his trial led to the 1951 U.S. trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges and their execution two years later.

The House Committee on Un‐American Activities. Created in 1938, the House Committee on Un‐American Activities ( HUAC) was charged with examining internal subversion in the United States. In 1947, the committee turned its attention to the extent of communist influence in the motion picture industry. Although many witnesses called before HUAC identified individuals who had been Communists or supporters of left‐wing causes, a group of writers known as the Hollywood Ten refused to testify. They were found guilty of contempt of Congress and were sentenced to terms in federal prison. Out of the hearings came the infamous blacklist — anyone accused or even suspected of being a Communist or a Communist sympathizer was barred from working in Hollywood.

A more prominent matter before HUAC was the investigation of Alger Hiss, who had worked in the Department of Agriculture during the New Deal and had served as an assistant secretary of state. Whittaker Chambers, who left the Communist party in 1938 and became an editor at Time magazine, claimed in 1948 that Hiss had been a Communist in the 1930s. When Hiss sued him for libel, Chambers produced microfilm of classified documents that Hiss had allegedly given to him to turn over to the Soviet Union. Hiss was charged with lying to the committee about his relationship with Chambers and was eventually convicted of perjury, even though the evidence against him was shaky. Besides providing proof of subversion to those who believed that communist infiltration of the government was widespread, the Hiss case made the career of Richard Nixon. The young congressman from California was a high‐profile member of the committee during the investigation, which helped him get elected to the Senate in 1950 and to win the Republican vice‐presidential nomination in 1952.

Senator Joseph McCarthy. The politician whose name became synonymous with the anticommunist crusade of the early 1950s was Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. He seized upon communists in the government as the issue that would get him elected to a second term in 1952. In a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950, McCarthy claimed to have the names of 205 Communists working in the State Department. Despite the fact that he often changed the number of communists, never identified a single communist in the State Department, and had no evidence to back up the charges, his popularity grew. The start of the Korean War and the arrest and trial of the Rosenbergs played into McCarthy's hands. The fact that all of his targets were Democrats made him acceptable to the Republican leadership.

McCarthy became more powerful when the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1952. As chair of the Government Operations Committee, he used its Permanent Investigations Subcommittee as a base for his ongoing search for subversives. McCarthy, who had questioned the loyalty of Secretary of Defense George Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, overstepped his bounds when he took on the U.S. Army after his former assistant, G. David Shine was drafted. The Army‐McCarthy hearings were televised nationally between April and June 1954 and did more than anything else to erode his public support. The absurdity of the charge that the Army was “soft” on communism aside, McCarthy came across as a bully and a demagogue. He was censured by the Senate in December 1954 and died a broken man three years later.

The election of 1952. As the Korean War dragged on, Truman's popularity fell. After he lost the New Hampshire presidential primary to Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, he decided not to run for a second term in 1952. The president's decision opened up the race for the Democratic nomination, which was won on the third ballot by Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. To prevent a repeat of 1948 when several southern states had voted for the Dixiecrat party, Senator John Sparkman of Alabama was chosen as Stevenson's running mate. At the Republican convention, two potential candidates emerged — Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, who represented the party's conservative wing, and General Dwight Eisenhower, who had just relinquished his post as the Supreme Commander of NATO and was backed by the Republican moderates. Eisenhower was nominated on the first ballot with the delegates convinced that he was the only candidate who could guarantee victory in November. The Republicans balanced the ticket and placated the anticommunist party members by selecting Richard Nixon as Eisenhower's running mate.

During the campaign, the Republicans focused on three issues — Korea, corruption, and communism. With a stalemate at the Korean truce talks and American casualties continuing to mount, Eisenhower's pledge to go to Korea if elected was a powerful slogan; the public believed that he could bring the war to an end. Meanwhile, public support for the Democrats suffered as the Truman administration was plagued by charges of cronyism and political favoritism. In response to charges of inefficiency and corruption, Truman had proposed a major reorganization of the Bureau of Internal Revenue in early 1952 that replaced political appointees with district commissioners drawn from the ranks of the civil service. Despite the loyalty program, the Hiss and Rosenberg cases made the Democrats susceptible to charges that they were not vigilant enough against the Communist threat. The Republicans were not free from scandal, however. In the midst of the campaign, newspaper reports claimed that businessmen in California had provided Nixon with a slush fund for his personal expenses. Nixon went on television to defend himself against the charges and told the national audience that one of the gifts he received and would not return was a cocker spaniel puppy that his daughter had named Checkers. The “Checkers” speech ensured that Nixon would stay on the ticket.

The 1952 election was a smashing Republican success. Eisenhower easily defeated Stevenson by more than 6 million votes and won 442 electoral votes, including several key southern states — Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. In addition to breaking into the Solid South, Eisenhower did well among white ethnics and Catholics in cities that had traditionally been part of the New Deal coalition.