More on the Red Scare

The beginning of the "Cold War" is often dated to a speech given by former British prime minister Winston Churchill in Fulton , Missouri on March 5, 1946.  Referring to the growing dominance of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe, he declared that "an iron curtain" had descended across the continent.  Fear of the "communist threat" intensified when Mao Tse-Tung proclaimed a communist People's Republic of China in 1949, and the Soviet Union successfully tested an atom bomb in the same year. 

After President Truman in 1947 ordered background checks into federal employees, the loyalty of millions of people was under scrutiny.  In that same year, the National Security Act set up the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to gather and evaluate intelligence, and conduct foreign espionage and covert operations against communists abroad.   By the late 1950s, it was also carrying out surveillance on Americans at home, although that was supposed to be left to the FBI.  Under its director, J. Edgar Hoover, who had earlier in the century helped carry out the Palmer Raids, the FBI monitored individuals and domestic groups and opened tens of thousands of full-scale field investigations into their beliefs and activities.

In addition to known radicals, two groups of people came under especially close scrutiny: scientists and Hollywood script writers.   

The government worried about the loyalty of scientists who had access to information that the US wanted to keep out of the hands of its Cold War enemies.  Some 50,000 scientists were not allowed to work until they had been "cleared."  Many prominent scientists were under surveillance, and were not allowed to travel abroad, while foreign scientists were denied visas to enter the county.   In 1951, two people – Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – were convicted of giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and executed two years later, even though there were many questions raised about where they were in fact guilty. 

People who had power to influence the public mind were also under suspicion. Alleging that screen writers were inserting subversive propaganda into films, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) compiled a list of 324 "suspects" in Hollywood.  Just being on the list was enough to ensure that people lost their jobs and might never work again.  Screen writers known as the "Hollywood Ten" were fined and given a year in prison when they refused to cooperate with HUAC. 

To find out more about the Hollywood Ten and the "Blacklist:

To find out more about both twentieth century Red Scares:

Listen to the McCarthy hearings":