It would be hard to overestimate the impact of McCarthyism. From the witch-hunting of communists, socialists and other radicals from the union movement, to the hysteria over the “communist menace,” McCarthyism succeeded in severing left-wing ideas–and their long history in the U.S. working-class movement–from American society.
Though Joseph McCarthy–the Wisconsin senator who, along with the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), made his career leading the witch-hunt against communists–was a Republican, it’s important to remember that the attacks happened under the watchful eye of the Democratic Party.
The Smith Act, or the Alien Registration Act of 1940–which criminalized membership in, or support for, any organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government–was signed into law by New Deal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. It was the first statute since the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts to make advocating particular ideas a federal crime. The Smith Act was aimed mainly at the Communist Party (CP), but it was used first on the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in 1941–tragically, with the support of the CP against other socialists it disagreed with.
Democratic President Harry Truman put in place the Loyalty Act in 1947, which forced 8 million government workers to sign anti-communist loyalty oaths to keep their jobs and allowed the FBI to investigate more than 2 million federal workers. Under the McCarran Act, or the Internal Security Act, signed by Truman in 1950, offenders were eligible for deportation.
Meanwhile, thousands of people were called up to be grilled at HUAC hearings about their communist connection.
Many went to prison, where they faced harsh conditions and abuse. Black CP leader Henry Winston lost his eyesight as a result of lack of medical care in a segregated Indiana prison. Philip Frankfeld, who had been expelled by the party when he was thrown in prison under the Smith Act in 1953, was so badly beaten by inmates in the Atlanta Penitentiary that he was almost blind when he came out.
The other constant threat held over the heads of communists was deportation. In 1967, New York Post editor James Wechsler called the Immigration and Naturalization Service “an agency that seems to specialize in the muddled application of quiet, prolonged mental torture.” He was absolutely right.
Passed in 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act, or Walter-McCarran Act, allowed “aliens” to be arrested without a warrant, held without bail and deported. They could kept in jail for 10 years. Upon its passage, and with the Korean War going badly for the U.S. military, the Immigration Service immediately rounded up Chinese immigrants on the East and West Coasts.
While the number of people deported was nowhere near as high, the number detained was astounding. According to David Caute’s The Great Fear, in California alone, 190 “subversive aliens” were arrested for deportation between 1948 and 1956. Only three were actually deported, but 46 of the others didn’t have their charges dropped until 1964.
For almost 20 years, the federal government tried to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the San Francisco longshore strike of 1934. U.S. officials used every trick in the book, including offering ILWU members bribes to name him as a Communist. They never succeeded. Other union leaders whose names were not so well known were also persecuted, and thousands of union activists lost their jobs as a result of the witch-hunt.
Workers who were refused to testify before HUAC–asserting their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves–were fired. When HUAC came to Baltimore in 1957, 15 of 22 workers who took the Fifth lost their jobs, including seven Bethlehem Steel workers with seniority ranging from 10 to 20 years. Their union, the anticommunist United Steelworkers, refused to intervene.
The HUAC hearings also created a hysterical atmosphere in some workplaces, leading to incidents in which anti-communist workers attacked and ran left-wingers out of the plants.
In the end, the U.S. ruling class benefited greatly from the Red Scare, successfully driving communists and socialists, who had been leaders of the great shop-floor struggles of the 1930s, out of the labor movement.
Union leaders played their part by purging the unions of communists. In 1949, the CIO expelled 11 “red” unions. By 1954, 59 out of 100 unions had changed their constitution to bar communists from holding union office–a provision that was only recently dropped–and 40 unions barred communists from being rank-and-file members.
In the face of this attack, liberal organizations turned their backs on radicals–and in many cases joined in. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), instead of defending communists, conducted its own witch-hunt to oust radicals from its ranks–such as ACLU founding member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. It was later discovered that throughout the McCarthy years, the ACLU dutifully reported the names of communists to the FBI.
There are, of course, examples of defiance, like the angry words of Seattle unionist Tony Starkovitch, who told HUAC, “I do have contempt for this committee…a phony question from a phony congressman…I think you guys should be investigated by psychiatrists.”
And over time, the arrogance and overreach of HUAC and McCarthy–who eventually accused the State Department and Pentagon of harboring communists–was their downfall. When HUAC came to San Francisco in 1960, thousands of people came out to protest–forcing the committee to pack up and leave.
That marked the end of an era–and showed one of the great lessons of the McCarthy period: that you must stand up.
The Feds’ war on the left
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program initiated by J. Edgar Hoover against the Communist Party, was officially begun in 1956. But its creation merely codified attacks that the federal government had been carrying out for many years.
FBI informers were sent into the ranks of the party to spread rumors and create divisions among party members. “Snitch jackets”–or falsified documents to create suspicion that someone might be an FBI informer–were planted on party members.
Even when the CP had dwindled to a small organization with little influence, COINTELPRO continued unabated. “[B]etween 1957 and 1959, what was left of the CP was virtually destroyed by factional infighting,” writes Robert Justin Goldstein. “Even as the CP collapsed into a tiny sect of a few thousand members, FBI COINTELPRO activities increased and expanded.”
COINTELPRO continued, and flourished, through the new Democratic Kennedy administration. By the 1960s, it targeted hundreds of organizations, including civil rights and antiwar activists. Its methods included not just wiretapping, but infiltration and blackmail, forgeries and lies, imprisonment and assassination.
When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967, the FBI stepped up its existing campaign against him, increasing surveillance of his personal life and attempting to blackmail him.
In the case of the Black Panther Party, the FBI infiltrated and disrupted the organization by promoting dissension. The Feds forged documents and letters to generate distrust among Panther party leaders and had undercover agents engaged in illegal activities that would implicate other members. They didn’t stop short of murder, either. Fred Hampton, a Panther leader, was assassinated by Chicago cops in December 1969 as he lay in his bed.
COINTELPRO penned letters between the independence movement in Puerto Rico and potential supporters to spread distrust.
Although COINTELPRO was a success in crippling groups like the Panthers, it also exposed to a new generation of radicals the U.S. government’s bloodthirsty nature and willingness to use repression to silence dissent. Ultimately, the Feds were forced to retreat from COINTELPRO by the strength of the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Repression couldn’t eliminate the antiwar and Black Power struggles. The U.S. government’s defeat in Vietnam–and then the Watergate revelations of Richard Nixon’s own White House COINTELPRO program–set the stage for COINTELPRO to officially come to an end.
ELIZABETH SCHULTE writes for the Socialist Worker.