The Red Scare and American Society in the 1940s and 50s

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An in-depth look into how the onset of spreading communism in the Eastern Bloc affected American society as well as FBI domestic policy.

Submitted: July 07, 2014

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Submitted: July 07, 2014

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The Red Scare and American Society in the 1940s and 50s

By: Matty Blocha

This historical investigation will refer to the Red Scare, which took place, roughly, from the year 1947 to 1957 in the United States of America. This historical analysis will answer the question: “How did the Red Scare of 1947-1957 influence J. Edgar Hoover’s policy within the FBI?”

The question will be thoroughly researched through various reputable resources. One source is Red Scare or Red Menace? American Anticommunism in the Cold War Era written by John E. Haynes. This source analyzes the American attitude towards communism in the East. A second source is Nightmare in Red: the McCarthy Era in Perspective by Richard M. Fried. A third source is Red Scare: the FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States by Regin Schmidt. This is a primary source as it directly connects the other two sources with this source in relation to the question presented.

Through the course of this investigation, and with use of previously mentioned sources, the question pertaining to the Red Scare and it will evaluate it’s influence on J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The first inkling of communism spreading westward was after the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union in 1917. Later, after the end of World War II in 1945, the United States had been immediately launched into the Cold War, which would last from 1945 until 1991. This time was a period of military and political tension between the United States of America in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. The Soviet Union, under rule of many leaders including Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, was a communist-run state. The idea of communism spreading into surrounding countries and eventually the U.S. was called “The Red Scare”. It was a goal largely initiated by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to combat the spread of communism, a policy known as “anti-communism”.

“By 1949, international tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were extremely tense, even more so after the Soviets exploded an Atomic bomb” (Haynes 164). At an early stage in it’s existence, the FBI was unorganized and when it came time for agent’s evaluations people tended to “look the other way”, to keep an established reputation. “The FBI was an investigative agency, and its agents were well trained to gather information while avoiding their evaluations” (Haynes 171). Within the FBI there were also problems dealing with credibility. “The FBI gave scant help; its spokesman said only that the number of ‘disloyal’ federal workers was ‘substantial’. Calls for more detail or for testimony by Hoover were turned aside” (Fried 67).

The FBI used a series of covert surveillance tactics to accumulate intelligence to advance knowledge on communists and other radicals in the east. On June 19th, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both members of the Communist Party of America, CPUSA, were executed on charges of conspiracy after supplying information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. In addition, the establishment of the Iron Curtain in Europe created a scare in what was to come in the future. Moreover, ultimately, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) showed that communism was already apart of our country. Hoover and the FBI tried at great lengths to incriminate and rid our country of the party.

In August of 1956, Hoover initiated the COINTELPRO. This act, (an acronym for counterintelligence program), was a series of secret surveillance maneuvers to survey and infiltrate domestic political organizations in hope of ceasing communism. Much controversy arose in terms of their methods of surveillance as they would harass, forge documents, and falsely accuse people all in an effort to “protect national security”. Many organizations including many civil rights groups, Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, the American Indian Movement and even Albert Einstein due to his work with the Atomic bomb, were subjected to surveillance by the FBI because of COINTELPRO. One former agent reported that Hoover instructed them to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" those they were spying on.

The FBI started their monitoring far earlier though and had refined their skills by now. Right after WWI, in 1920, the United Mine Workers start strikes in Virginia, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. “The Bureau was particularly interested in radical activities within the UMW; thus, in 1921 a convention held by the radical wing of the UMW as well as the regular UMW convention was investigated” (Schmidt 234).

Surveillance and spying was a major operation initiated by J. Edgar Hoover in an effort to stop Communism. While the intention was beneficial, his ways of achieving goals were not always so. His risqué methods and targets of his agenda were often unrelated and irrational.

The origin of the first source is Red Scare or Red Menace? American Anticommunism in the Cold War Era written by John E. Haynes. John Haynes is a specialist in 20th century political history and is well known for his books based on Anti-Communism and communism in America.  The purpose of this book is to analyze the affect that the Anti-Communism movement had on social and political aspects of America during the Red Scare. The value of this book is that it is written by an expert in his field is a reliable source in terms of studying the Anti-Communist movement. However, one limitation is that Haynes only graduated and received his degree in 1966, which is roughly twenty years after the studied events.

The origin of the second source is Nightmare in Red: the McCarthy Era in Perspective by Richard M. Fried. Fried specializes in 20th century history and has written many other books on the subject. He teaches history at University of Illinois at Chicago. The purpose of this book, likewise the first source, analyzes the role that the fear of communism spilling into the United States had on social and political life. After World War II and throughout the 40s and 50s, communism was present in Eastern Europe and this book analyzes to the extent that its significance in the United States was. The value of this book is high because an expert in the field wrote it. Although a reliable source, a limitation is that the book was written in 1991, right as the Cold War ended. The events analyzed occurred in the 40s and 50s and evidence was not yet released as the cold war just recently ended.

In Chapter 1 of Regin Schmidt’s Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States, the topic regarding FBI surveillance and espionage on American citizens is brought to light. “Thus, the Bureau’s political surveillance was a reaction to deeper public fears, ‘the Red Scare was a capitulation of public hysteria by the government,’ and the FBI’s fundamental function was to ‘calm the public by fighting crime in whatever symbolic form the popular mind might imagine it” (Schmidt, 14-15). As referenced above in Part B, Hoover and the FBI performed surveillance maneuvers on American citizens in attempt to combat the tide of communism. Schmidt provides various theories as to why the FBI would have carried out these acts. On the other hand, perhaps the FBI simply over-estimated the extent to which communism was really a threat to the United States.

According to Richard M. Fried, “Even independent of McCarthy, the years 1950-1954 marked the climax of anti-communism in American life” (Fried, 144). In chapter 6 of his book Nightmare in Red: the McCarthy Era in Perspective, (which is referenced above in part C) entitled “Bitter Days: The Heyday of Anti-Communism”, Fried presents the idea that the Korean War stimulated communistic fear in the American home. He believes that the stalemate in the war caused a debate in national politics regarding containment of communism in the East. This only caused more pressure on the FBI.

With regard to J. Edgar Hoover: the Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry, the case against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1950 made the Red Scare a reality. The Rosenbergs were guilty of supplying information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union and were subjected to capital punishment in June of 1953. The most significant measure taken by the FBI during this era of unrest was the establishment of COINTELPRO, or the Counter Intelligence Program. “The COINTELPROs were a huge step across the line separating investigations from covert action” (Gentry, 442). Their tactics were extremely unorthodox and often times illegal. Such tactics included the planting of false stories into the media. In one case, the FBI publicized that the Communist Party of America’s leader, Gus Hall, purchased a car with party funds as an attempt to accuse him of embezzlement. In addition, such practices such as anonymous letters and phone calls to start rumors led to extremes involving the person’s sexuality, adultery, and other personal details as well as the use of wiretapping. As previously referenced in Part B, such groups that were targeted were the NAACP, Communist Party of America, Socialist Workers’ Party, National Lawyers Guild, several women’s rights groups, the Ku Klux Klan and other individuals such as Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr.

Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union entered a period of tension and political conflict. A large standoff, which would last until 1991, occurred. One main reason of this was the fear of communism, also known as the Red Scare. The citizens of the United States saw the communist Soviet Union and feared the spread of communism throughout Europe and its possible spread to the United States.

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were large combatants of this movement and created programs to stop this spread. It is somewhat ironic in the sense that a major tactic of the FBI was espionage to discern Soviet espionage in the United States. Many American citizens were victims of wiretapping and stalking by the FBI, a program established by Hoover himself. Many high-ranking people such as Albert Einstein, due to his participation in the Manhattan Project, were subject to spying by the FBI. Many saw this as unconstitutional and strongly affected the reputation of the FBI. The Red Scare influenced controversial policies, such as wiretapping and the COINTELPROs, within Hoover’s FBI.

Works Cited

 

Carleton, Don E. McCarthyism Was More than Just McCarthy: Documenting the Red

Scare on the State and Local Level The Midwestern Archivist n.d.: n. pag.

JSTOR. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

 

Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.

 

Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton, 1991.Print.

 

Haynes, John Earl. Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and

Anticommunism in the Cold War Era. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996. Print.

 

Roberts, Sam. A Decade of Fear New York Times 15 Mar. 2010: n. pag. Scholastic.

Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

 

Schmidt, Regin. Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United

States. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2000.

 

 

 

 


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