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  • Imagine that one day, you're summoned before a government panel.

  • Even though you haven't committed any crime,

  • or been formally charged with one,

  • you are repeatedly questioned about your political views,

  • accused of disloyalty,

  • and asked to incriminate your friends and associates.

  • If you don't cooperate, you risk jail or losing your job.

  • This is exactly what happened in the United States in the 1950s

  • as part of a campaign to expose suspected communists.

  • Named after its most notorious practitioner,

  • the phenomenon known as McCarthyism destroyed thousands of lives and careers.

  • For over a decade, American political leaders trampled democratic freedoms

  • in the name of protecting them.

  • During the 1930s and 1940s,

  • there had been an active but small communist party in the United States.

  • Its record was mixed.

  • While it played crucial roles in wider progressive struggles

  • for labor and civil rights,

  • it also supported the Soviet Union.

  • From the start, the American Communist Party faced attacks

  • from conservatives and business leaders,

  • as well as from liberals who criticized its ties to the oppressive Soviet regime.

  • During World War II, when the USA and USSR were allied against Hitler,

  • some American communists actually spied for the Russians.

  • When the Cold War escalated and this espionage became known,

  • domestic communism came to be seen as a threat to national security.

  • But the attempt to eliminate that threat

  • soon turned into the longest lasting and most widespread episode

  • of political repression in American history.

  • Spurred on by a network of bureaucrats,

  • politicians,

  • journalists,

  • and businessmen,

  • the campaign wildly exaggerated the danger of communist subversion.

  • The people behind it harassed anyone

  • suspected of holding left-of-center political views

  • or associating with those who did.

  • If you hung modern art on your walls,

  • had a multiracial social circle,

  • or signed petitions against nuclear weapons,

  • you might just have been a communist.

  • Starting in the late 1940s,

  • FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover

  • used the resources of his agency to hunt down such supposed communists

  • and eliminate them from any position of influence

  • within American society.

  • And the narrow criteria that Hoover and his allies used

  • to screen federal employees

  • spread to the rest of the country.

  • Soon, Hollywood studios,

  • universities,

  • car manufacturers,

  • and thousands of other public and private employers

  • were imposing the same political tests on the men and women who worked for them.

  • Meanwhile, Congress conducted its own witchhunt

  • subpoenaing hundreds of people to testify before investigative bodies

  • like the House Un-American Activities Committee.

  • If they refused to cooperate, they could be jailed for contempt,

  • or more commonly, fired and blacklisted.

  • Ambitious politicians, like Richard Nixon

  • and Joseph McCarthy,

  • used such hearings as a partisan weapon

  • accusing democrats of being soft on communism

  • and deliberately losing China to the Communist Bloc.

  • McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin

  • became notorious by flaunting ever-changing lists of alleged communists

  • within the State Department.

  • Egged on by other politicians,

  • he continued to make outrageous accusations

  • while distorting or fabricating evidence.

  • Many citizens reviled McCarthy while others praised him.

  • And when the Korean War broke out, McCarthy seemed vindicated.

  • Once he became chair

  • of the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations in 1953,

  • McCarthy recklessness increased.

  • It was his investigation of the army that finally turned public opinion against him

  • and diminished his power.

  • McCarthy's colleagues in the Senate censured him

  • and he died less than three years later, probably from alcoholism.

  • McCarthyism ended as well.

  • It had ruined hundreds, if not thousands, of lives

  • and drastically narrowed the American political spectrum.

  • Its damage to democratic institutions would be long lasting.

  • In all likelihood, there were both Democrats and Republicans

  • who knew that the anti-communist purges were deeply unjust

  • but feared that directly opposing them would hurt their careers.

  • Even the Supreme Court failed to stop the witchhunt,

  • condoning serious violations of constitutional rights

  • in the name of national security.

  • Was domestic communism an actual threat to the American government?

  • Perhaps, though a small one.

  • But the reaction to it was so extreme that it caused far more damage

  • than the threat itself.

  • And if new demagogues appeared in uncertain times

  • to attack unpopular minorities in the name of patriotism,

  • could it all happen again?

Imagine that one day, you're summoned before a government panel.

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B2 US TED-Ed mccarthy communist american political communism

What is McCarthyism? And how did it happen? - Ellen Schrecker

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    Raven Lin posted on 2019/06/07
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