Immunology and Culture

The Roots of McCarthyism

by Bryan Peery and John S. Emrich
November/December 2013, pages 16

This article originally appeared as an inset article in “A Legacy of Advocacy Is Born as AAI Confronts McCarthyism.”

Since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, anti-radicalism and fear of internal subversion have been recurring themes in American politics. It is therefore no surprise that when the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was founded in 1919, the party’s revolutionary rhetoric, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of its members were recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, immediately aroused suspicion. Following a series of highly publicized bombings by subversive political elements, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, with the backing of Congress and widespread public support, launched a series of raids in cities across the country in December 1919 and January 1920 that rounded up thousands of individuals suspected of being communists. Hundreds of aliens were deported during what became known as the Red Scare, and the CPUSA was driven underground—its membership falling below 10,000.

During the turbulent times of the Great Depression, the CPUSA enjoyed a period of relative success in American politics. Communists worked with progressive groups in the 1930s and attracted new party members by playing a leading role in the social struggles of the day. By the mid-1930s, Americans who championed labor rights, organized the unemployed, fought evictions of farmers and the working poor, promoted civil rights, or called for the U.S. government to take a stand against growing European fascism by intervening in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) necessarily found themselves working alongside CPUSA members, whether they officially joined the party or were simply “fellow travelers.” For their part, the communists, who once condemned both major American political parties, openly supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s trade unionization efforts and publicly acknowledged the Democrats as the lesser of two evils by the 1936 presidential election.

Following the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939, the CPUSA quickly lost much of the goodwill it had engendered during the Great Depression. The change in policy confirmed suspicions that the party was under direct control of the Soviet government, and, thereafter, the reputation of the CPUSA was tied to that of the Soviet Union.

When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, the Roosevelt administration and its supporters, who were, by then, committed to aiding the Allies, actively worked to improve Americans’ impressions of the Soviet Union. This U.S.-Soviet cooperation flourished briefly after the United States entered the Second World War, but the relationship quickly soured with the war’s end, as both the U.S. and Soviet governments sought to control the post-war world order.

While many liberals, however reluctantly, learned to work with communists during the Great Depression and the Second World War, conservatives (most, but not all of them, were Republicans) never ceased their criticism of communism as un-American. Many critics of President Roosevelt’s policies charged that the president was a socialist, and a vocal minority even suggested that his administration was infiltrated with communists who were loyal to the Soviet Union. These charges failed to stick during the 1930s or early 1940s, but Republicans had far more success in portraying the Democratic Party as “soft” on communism by the end of the decade, as they blamed Roosevelt and his successor, President Harry S. Truman, for the “fall” of Eastern Europe and China to communism.

President Truman attempted to seize the domestic communism issue from the Republicans by signing Executive Order 9835 and instituting the federal loyalty program in March 1947, but the Republican-controlled House Un-American Activities Committee conducted high-profile investigations into communist subversion and further stirred anti-communist sentiment. By the end of the 1940s, the foundation for the systematic persecution of those whose loyalty was called into question had been put into place. Once the federal government implemented the Truman loyalty program and legitimized the practice of screening employees based on their political beliefs and affiliations, similar policies were rapidly adopted by state and local governments as well as private organizations, including universities.

No sector of society was safe from accusations of disloyalty. Leaders of all fields, including science, soon recognized that even their past political affiliations, if only slightly outside of the mainstream, could cost them their careers.



  • Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Schrecker, Ellen. No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.

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