Informative Essay Sample on McCarthyism

Posted on October 9, 2009

What is more important national security or individual rights? This question has been posed many times throughout our nation’s history. One of the most memorable times when this became an issue was the McCarthy era. Did Communism threaten America’s internal security in the 1940’s and early 1950’s or did Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee create a Red Scare and abuse their powers? The answer to this question is yes to both parts. After World War II, it was obvious that the three world powers were the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Even before the War ended, Joseph Stalin was attempting both to become the most superior power and to possibly spread Communism through espionage. Soviet spies had infiltrated into the American government and established a liable threat to our national security. In reaction to this, Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC promoted a sense of political fear throughout the United States and threatened to destroy the balance between national security and individual freedom. Soviet espionage threatened national security and brought about the second Red Scare in which McCarthy not only destroyed the lives and careers of many Americans but also the innocent image of the country.


In the 1940s Communists spies penetrated the U. S. government and were supplying government secrets to foreign countries. The first revealed case of espionage is known as the Amerasia case. In this case, several State Department officials including John Stewart Service had given materials to Amerasia, a small magazine dealing with East Asian Affairs. The spies had stolen the documents in order to publish them. The Amerasia spies were arrested, but their case was dropped before there could be a trail. The materials that Service supplied to Amerasia did not actually endanger our national security, but it is claimed to be a major reason we “lost” China to Communism. However, they found no link between the Amerasia spies and the Soviet Union.

With the help of a former Soviet agent and the Venona Project, the U. S. government was able to expose numerous spies loyal to the Soviet Union. Several ex-Soviet agents warned the government about Communism and their underground espionage. Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley were two well-known former spies who began working with the government. Another huge resource of information about uncovering Soviet agent came along with the Venona Project. The Venona project was originally an attempt to decode messages between Soviet diplomats and the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. These messages turned out to be going between field agents and the directorate of the KGB.

“The deciphered Venona messages also showed that a disturbing number of high-ranking U. S. government officials consciously maintained a clandestine relationship with Soviet intelligence agencies and had passed extraordinarily sensitive information to the Soviet Union that had seriously damaged American interest.” (Haynes p. 51)

The Venona Project uncovered several hundred agents associated with the Soviets. However, the decoders were only able to decode a portion of the messages, meaning there could have been thousands of more traitors working with the Soviet Union.

One of the first espionage cases involving the Soviet Union was the Hiss case. The Hiss case established the credibility of the charges that Communists had infiltrated the New Deal. McCarthy and the HUAC had been accusing New Deal supporters as being Communists or Communists sympathizers. The charges against Alger Hiss ended his career in the State Department as Chambers was able to produce written documents from Hiss to the KGB. However, a bigger spy in the government was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White. White was the highest ranked official to be named as a traitor, yet he died of a heart attack before his trial. The Hiss case proved that the HUAC had a valid argument for seeking Soviet spies.

In 1949, the Soviet Union had built an atomic bomb, which led the HUAC into another spy hunt. Not long after, authorities found Klaus Fuchs, an ex-Communist in Great Britain who worked on the Manhattan Project. In search for an American contact, the FBI stumbled upon Harry Gold. Fuchs and Gold both confessed to passing secrets to the Soviet agents. Gold also gave up the name of another spy named David Greenglass, who in turn gave up his sister and brother-in-law Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. However, the confessions and giving-up of other spies ended there. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg denied that they were Communists, but later they were tried, found guilty, and executed. Several decades later with the release of the Venona Project, the American public was informed that the Rosenbergs were truly Soviet Spies. The Soviet Union was now able to develop an atomic bomb several years earlier than without the American secrets. Indeed, without such successful espionage, “the Soviet Union might not have developed the bomb until after Stalin’s death, and the early Cold War might have proceeded on a far less frightening path.” (Klehr p. 53)

Many other spies were present within the American government. A personal assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt, Lauchlin Currie, who warned the KGB that the FBI had started an investigation of one of their agents, Gregory Silvermaster. This allowed Silvermaster to escape and continue spying. Another, William Perl, gave the Soviet Union secret test and design experiments for American jet engines and jet aircraft. His actions led to the Soviets fighter jets being far more superior to American fighter jets in the Korean War. Maurice Halperin, who was America’s chief intelligence arm, transferred hundreds of pages of secret American Diplomatic cables to the KGB.

Of the 347 Soviet agents in America, only around half were ever discovered. It seems obvious that this was a huge national security crisis. The Soviet espionage was very successful in the United States. Although not every Communist was a spy, a large number were involved in KGB efforts to gather intelligence. Nevertheless, in the same manner, not every spy was a Communist.


Truman and his administration started to get attacked by many conservative Republicans for being to soft on the espionage and Communist threat within America. In reaction to these attacks, Truman established an anti-Communist loyalty-security program in March of 1947 and set up the Central Intelligence Agency in November. In 1948, the Truman administration followed up these actions by indicating the leaders of the CPUSA under the sedition sections of the 1940 Smith Act. The Smith Act states that

It shall be unlawful for any person:
1) to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government;
2) with the intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States, to print, publish, edit, issue, circulate, sell, distribute, or publicly display any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence;
3) to organize or help to organized any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrowing or destruction of any government in the United States by force or violence; or to become a member of, or affiliate with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof. (Fried, p. 15)

The Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy took this Act to the full effect. When he cried Communism, the world seemed to listen.

McCarthy installed fear in the U. S. citizens, but people feared tremendously the loss of their jobs. They feared that their political afflictions would reflect on their job status. McCarthy and his ways challenged the Bill of Rights. Peoples’ First and Fifth Amendment rights were suspended when on trail. By trying to keep America from becoming a Communist nation, McCarthy and his followers turned the country into an anti-Communist nation. Many Americans lives and careers were lost due to McCarthy and his accusations. Hollywood’s leaders resisted allowing politicians to regulate their hiring practices, but, following the HUAC hearings, the “blacklists” began in Hollywood. No one who was known to be a communist would be employed (Fried, 77-78). This mainly listed teachers, writers, and Hollywood stars. Producers started questioning their employees on many topics including politics and affiliations. Mist who were “caught” or accused of Communism confessed, and in order to be spared, gave the names of other “Communists.”

In 1950, McCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 members of the Communist Party of the US, who worked for the State Department. The HUAC summoned 2,375 men and women, which was enough to cost them their jobs. Accused individuals were at the true mercy of the government, “because congressional hearings were immune from the due process requirements that accompanied criminal prosecutions, the committees had more leeway to denounce and accuse” (Schrecker 54). Over 400 Americans went to jail, some without a fair trial. McCarthy bullied, threatened and abused witnesses while he accused them of Communist sympathies. Without a doubt, McCarthy created an era of fear and conformity.

Soviet Espionage threatened America’s national security, which led to the House of Un-American Activities suspending citizens’ rights and creating fear in the hearts of many Americans. Whenever national security is threatened, the government is forced to tighten security and infringe on many people’s rights. This is even seen today after September 11, 2001. So it appears during times of national strife, crisis or threat, national security comes before individual rights.

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