I was a Communist for the FBI

McCarthyism is part of the HL: Americas option – Topic 10: Cold War and the Americas, 1945-1981 and can also be included under 20th century Topic 5: The Cold War.

Over the most recent winter holiday, the 1951 film, I was a Communist for the FBI, resurfaced numerous times on television.  This film has approached cult-like status among those either entranced by the style or incredulous about the subject matter: that the United States – and especially organized labor in the US – was being infiltrated by pro-Soviet communists determined to overthrow the government.  This film came out at the height of McCarthyism – a social and political anti-Communist wave of near-hysteria in the US that came with the onset of the Cold War

In a quick search, it is easy to find diverse perspectives on McCarthyism.  The conservative Ann Coulter defended Senator McCarthy, arguing that he has been maligned by liberal politicians and the liberal media[1].  On the other side of the political spectrum, the late historian Howard Zinn reminds us that “It was not McCarthy and the Republicans, but the liberal Democratic Trurman administration … that intensified the nation’s anti-communist mood.’[2]

It seems, then, that it an overview of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) is in order:

  • The Communist Party in the United States was never very strong; it was founded in 1919 and even during the Depression its numbers never really grew; during World War II membership hit an all-time high of approximately 85,000.  However, the onset of the Cold War led to a general fear of communism.
  • HUAC preceded the Cold War; it was created in 1938 during the Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by the US Congress to provide a way of investigating individuals and organizations that had potential anti-American agendas.  Under the direction of Representative Martin Dies (Texas), it targeted members of the Roosevelt administration but had little support from an American public that was supportive of the presidency of FDR.
  • After Yalta and Potsdam (1945), the focus of HUAC was to try and discover ties that American citizens may have had with the Soviet Union.  Senatory McCarthy was never part of HUAC or two of the most notorious cases: Alger Hiss and the Hollywood Ten – a 1947 investigation of the entertainment industry that led to the black-listing of some entertainers.
  • Executive Order 9835 was a program to find disloyal employees in the US government; between March 1947 and December 1952 6.6 million people were investigated; 500 dismissals resulted.  This led to the idea that the US government, especially the US State Department, was full of Soviet spies.  It also made a number of organizations illegal as they were seen as trying to ‘alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means.’
  • After the Soviets successfull detonated their own atom bomb in 1949 it was reported that Soviet spies had infiltrated the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico (USA), giving them nuclear technology years before the US anticipated.  The US turned its attention to a number of its own citizens.  In this capacity, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of treason – for selling secrets to the Soviets.  They were arrested in 1951 and executed in 1953.  Although evidence from now-released Soviet documents corroborates the involvement of Julius Rosenberg, Ethel’s role remains unclear.
  • Joseph McCarthy was elected to the Senate from the State of Wisconsin in 1947 but it wasn’t until February 9, 1950 that he came to prominence as a chief spokesperson against Communists in the US.  On that date, when speaking to the Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia he produced a piece of paper on which he alleged that he had a list of 205 employees of the State Department with ties to the Communist Party.  Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  He later modified the number down to 57 – and then up to 81 – but at that point he had the attention of the American public.
  • McCarthy later appeared in the Senate, reading from dossiers on US State Department employees of disloyal actions.  What people did not realize at the time was that these dossiers were 3 years old and may of the employees he cited had already been dismissed by the government.  He held the position of Chair of the Permanent Investigations Sub-Committee.  He looked at the content of VOA and State Department overseas library, leading to the removal of books from their collections, and in some cases, book burnings.
  • In 1954, emboldened by the support he received, he turned his attention to the US army, attacking the general staff for not being sufficiently vigilant with suspected Communists.  At this point even members of his own party turned on him and in December 1954 the US Senate voted to censure McCarthy for conduct unbecoming a member of the US Senate.  At this point, his popularity declined steeply and he lost the gravitas he previously had.

Anti-Communism became part of American popular culture.  Novels, radio dramas and films of the era featured anti-Communist plots, and Hollywood produced over 40 anti-Communist films, perhaps in an attempt to distance itself from the 1947 scandal of the Hollywood 10. (Listen to an episode from I was a Communist for the FBI: http://www.archive.org/details/IWCFBI).  On the other side of things, the 1954 filmSalt of the Earth is worth a look as it its professional staff were blacklisted (only 5 cast members were professional actors) and after its opening night, the film was removed from circulation as only 12 theaters in the United States were willing to screen it.  The film was blacklisted for having pro-Communist sympathies, telling the story of New Mexico miners – and their wives – who successfully strike against the fictional Empire Mining.  Without the specter of McCarthyism Salt of the Earth seems more of a feminist film than pro-Communist.

Question for discussion: How significant was popular culture and public opinion to fostering the fear of communism in the USA?

For further study: The Communist Party of the USA is still a small fringe party; it has a website where more information can be obtained about its history and politcal program.  A source evaluation of this site (www.cpusa.org) could be very useful for students and teachers alike.


[1] Ann Coulter, McCarthyism: The Rosetta Stone of Liberal Lies. http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=23316, November 7, 2007, accessed March 17, 2010.

[2] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.  NY: Harper Collins First Perennial, 2003. p.432.

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