By: Akhil Kapur
If you were to ask people what the greatest evil in the world is today, most would reply with the problem of Islamic terrorism. After all, images of terrorism saturate our news cycles, occupy the bulk of our politicians' rhetoric and pervade in conversations in both our real and virtual lives.
Yet not long ago, American youth might have a different answer. In the 1950s, the evil was Communism. “The second Red Scare” was a post-World War II phenomenon, popularly known as "McCarthyism" after its most famous supporter, Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was a blanket term used to refer to Americans’ fear that communism was taking over the globe and would eventually destroy their democratic society.
McCarthy first gained infamy in February 1950 as a U.S. senator when he stated that “hundreds” of “known communists” worked in the U.S. State Department. He propagated the Cold war-era Soviet paranoia, fueling the existing insecurities of the American people. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, including the U.S. Army, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists; despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, McCarthy pushed for their prosecution.
On June 9, 1954, however, the illusion of a Communist-infiltrated American society shattered. McCarthy’s fear-mongering and wild accusations had already led people to be critical of his decisions. When he made the mistake of asserting that certain members of the U.S. army had Communist ties, the American people were furious.
As chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, McCarthy opened hearings into the Army. Joseph N. Welch, a polite and well-mannered lawyer, represented the Army. Over the course of the hearings, Welch countered each of McCarthy’s accusations with factual evidence. In response, the senator became belligerent, shouting “Point of order, point of order!” and generally intimidating witnesses. In typical McCarthyist fashion, he accused one highly-decorated general of being a “disgrace” to his uniform.
The final straw came when McCarthy charged Frederick G. Fisher, a young associate in Welch’s law firm, with being a long-time member of an organization that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.”
Shocked, Welch looked at McCarthy and famously declared, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” It was McCarthy’s turn to be stunned when Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” The audience burst into wild applause.
Just a week later, the Army hearings came to a close. Welch’s response to McCarthy echoed sentiments that many Americans had been feeling. The hearings appeared to bring McCarthy's demagoguery to light and expose the bully that he was. Over the next two years, McCarthy spiraled into alcoholism. He died in 1957 while still in office.
Many people do not realize that today’s problems are the direct ramifications of the Cold War-era fear that communism was going to take over and infiltrate the lives of the American people. From the funding of Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen to battle the Soviets, which eventually lead to the creation of the Afghani Taliban, to the support of dictatorial regimes in Latin American countries like Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic. Moreover, many would argue that many contemporary political problems have been caused by proxy wars throughout the Third World between surrogates and clients of the United States and the Soviet Union, the two Cold War superpowers.
These hearings, which took place 62 years ago, are vital to keep in our memory. This was a day that logic prevailed and a once-powerful U.S. senator was exposed as nothing more than a fear-mongering liar. Now, McCarthyism is defined as “the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.”
Unfortunately, politics today seems to continue his practice.
This is why it is of utmost importance that we remember our history—it always runs the risk of repeating itself.
Akhil Kapur is a communications intern for the EastWest Institute. He is a rising senior at New York University majoring in media, culture and communications and concentrating in global and transcultural communications.