The ‘Red Scare’ of the Nineteen Fifties is one of the most resonant parts of American history. From the Crucible to Good Night and Good Luck it’s something that’s recurs in its culture.
The hunt for largely imagined communists is strongly associated with one institution and one man. The House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) was notorious for dragging Hollywood figures before it and demanding they either implicate others or be blacklisted. The man is Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose claim to have a list of communists working in the State Department kicked the panic into overdrive and who gave the movement its other name “McCarthyism”.
I’d not realised until I heard a podcast on the Red Scare by Stuff You Missed in History Class that HUAC and McCarthy were largely separate. HUAC and McCarthy were both working in Congress but in different parts of it. HUAC was a committee of the House of Representatives while McCarthy was (of course) a Senator. Therefore, he would have been ineligible to sit on it.
He was instead chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Government Operations. This was generally a bland institution for investigating government waste and fraud. However, its mandate was broad enough that McCarthy could bend it to include hunting for communists. This he did. His campaign cost many people their jobs and reputations, and pushed some to suicide. However, he overreached when he began insinuating that their were traitors in Eisenhower’s White House. He also came up against opposition from two indefatigable campaigners: journalist Edward Murrow and the US Army’s head counsel Joseph N. Welch who famously demanded of McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” As a result, public opinion turned on McCarthy and in 1954 he was eventually censured by his Senate colleagues.
This is where the distinction between McCarthy and HUAC becomes important. The House committee did not stop when McCarthy fell. It’s prestige did take a big hit but HUAC carried on to subpoena potential subversives throughout the 1960s.
Update: In a comment on FB, my friend James King pointed out by way of addition that “HUAC’s predecessor, the Dies Committee, was active pre-war. This contradicts the comforting idea that McCarthyism was entirely a moment of madness after the fall of China, rather than reflecting something rather more fundamental.”