Has it been 6 months since my last episode? Sure. Does it cause me anxiety that I left my listeners on a cliffhanger of a communist threat for half a year? You betcha. But during my hiatus I was really productive dragging my way through the end of a terrible school year and building a terrifying TikTok following.
But I’m back! And today we’re talking about the Cold War! As always, if you want a more global view of the conflict, check out Season 1 because today we’re focusing on the US. More Rocky, less Drago.
Today’s episode is all about the Early Cold War or, “MacArthur, McCarthy, and Ike” I’m Emily Glankler; this is Anti-Social Studies; settle in and let’s go back in time.
Act 1: Beginnings
OK so let’s get this out of the way. Why do Americans hate Communists? Now, we can get into a whole philosophical discussion another day about how “Communist” governments aren’t actually “Communist,” they’re really just totalitarian state socialism but I’m exhausted. So let’s oversimplify for now. The US became fearful of communism for a few simple reasons:
- Idealistically, most governments that claim to be communist are anti-democratic. The Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, you get the idea. So it was easy for Americans to look at Stalin (a brutal dictator on par with Hitler) and see him, and the system he ruled, as the bad guy. Totally fair. There are a few other reasons we should be aware of, though, because as we will see, the US is going to support other anti-democratic governments that are opposed to left-leaning democratic movements. So what’s that all about?
- Marx advocated the violent overthrow of the capitalist system. Who’s the Capitalist System to end all other capitalist systems? USA! USA!
- Since the Gilded Age, organized labor has been seen as a threat to the growing economy. Remember Haymarket? It took labor unions decades to convince the public that all union organizers weren’t anarchists and then the Bolshevik Revolution happened in 1917 and they were like, “Back to the drawing board…”
- Communism has been equated with “foreigners” since the beginning – especially “New” Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe who were easy political scapegoats. And you might be saying right now, “But Communism was foreign.” True. But so was capitalism, right? Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, was Scottish. And if you’re saying to yourself, “Well that’s not the same…” be careful. Your on the verge of a really problematic thought about some nationalities being “more foreign” than others… fight it…
- And once the Cold War gets started, it is true that most of the people fighting American troops called themselves communist. Soviet spies; North Korea and Mao Zedong; Che Guevara speaking against us at the UN; Ho Chi Minh. So even without all the philosophical and historical background, it’s easy for Boomers especially to grow up being like, “Whoa. Communists are really violent and hate America.”
Alright, question number 2: When does the Cold War “begin?”
That’s a tricky one because the Cold War isn’t a war so it never officially “started.” The Cold War is just a term for the general atmosphere of tension and conflict between the US and the USSR (and their allies) from around 1945 to 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. The simple answer is just that as soon as Hitler was no longer a common enemy, the conflict between the US and the Soviets began.
Between 1944 and 1950, the world slowly divided into camps. The US led the way pushing free market capitalism – at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference held in New Hampshire, they helped create the World Bank and IMF to rebuild Europe and develop “Third World” nations in the image of the West. And Stalin repeatedly went back on promises made about Soviet troops leaving Eastern Europe after the war ended.
If the Cold War began anywhere, I would argue it started in Berlin. All of the Allied Powers recognized the strategic importance of Germany, and especially its capital of Berlin. Stalin wanted reparations – he basically wanted to use East Germany as a colony to extract resources to rebuild Russia. Remember, Russia just lost 27 million people during World War Two. The other allies: the US, Britain, and France wanted to reunite Germany and help them revive their economy; you know, not make the same mistakes as the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, not wanting to start another war, they just split Germany down the middle. The East was administered by the Soviets while the West was guided by the other Allies and eventually allowed to exercise its independence. But here’s the tricky part: Berlin was also split in half. The eastern half of the city became the capital of East Germany and the wetsern half of the city stayed with West Germany. This is really hard to imagine unless you’re looking at a map but Berlin is waaaaaay far east, like over 100 miles from the East-West border. So, West Berlin was a tiny democratic island surrounded on all sides by Soviet-controlled East Germany. And there wasn’t a Berlin wall yet – so as the years went on, many in East Berlin and East Germany started to realize that things weren’t going to be so great under Soviet control. They could walk over a hundred miles into West Germany or… just cross a few checkpoints into West Berlin. Easy.
By 1948, it was pretty clear that Germany was not going to be reunified anytime soon – especially under Soviet control (which is what Stalin wanted.) In that year, the US helped reorganize the West German economy and introduce a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. The next day, Stalin begin blockading West Berlin and just a few days later, he announced that East Germany would have their own currency too – and this would be the only currency allowed in any part of Berlin. Hoping to use the West Berliners as hostages so that the US would give up its control over the city, they blocked any supplies or travel in and out. Many believed this was the beginning of a Soviet invasion of West Berlin and although that never came, it got really bad. Electricity was cut off, food stopped coming in. This blockade lasted for 323 days – almost an entire year. And throughout that year, US and British forces flew over Berlin 250,000 times, dropping packages of food and fuel. At its peak, the so-called Berlin Airlift was delivering over 12,000 tons of supplies each day and a plane was arriving over West Berlin every 30 seconds. Like, the British and US planes combined traveled almost the entire distance from the Earth to the Sun in that one year. It was an amazing feat. And it worked! Well, it worked in that Stalin gave up control of West Berlin. But he also started building a wall to keep Easterners from using it as a loophole to escape Soviet territory.
This event is a microcosm of the entire Cold War. For 45 years, US and Soviet troops won’t directly fight each other. But millions of people will get caught between the two superpowers – with entire countries often being used as pawns in a global chess match. An elected leader in Guatemala starts advocating for redistributing foreign-owned land to its peasants? Sorry, Arbenz. We’re sending in the CIA. An elected leader in Iran advocates for nationalizing foreign-owned oil? Didn’t you just hear what happened in Guatemala, Mossadegh? No? It’s happening at literally the exact same time. Oh my bad. Well, we’re sending in the CIA to you too! Sometimes the US will use the CIA; other times they’ll flood a country with economic support in the hopes of preventing people from turning to communism; and in a few instances the US will send troops to war; different tactics but always with the goal of stopping the spread of communism, even if it’s at the expense of democracy.
Act 2: The Korean War
If, even after the Berlin Airlift, people weren’t sure if the Cold War was on, it was pretty clear in 1950. The Korean peninsula had been under the influence or direct control of one East Asian superpower or another for, I don’t know, like a thousand years? Since 1910 Korea was a colony of Japan and they were horribly mistreated. When Japan lost World War II, the Korean peninsula was liberated by… both the Soviets and the US. Oh no. You’re going to start to notice a pattern here… they couldn’t decide what to do with postwar Korea and so they just… yep… you guessed it… split it in half. The North was supported and administered by the Soviets, who installed Kim Il Sung as the new leader, and the South was supported and administered by the US, who installed Syngman Rhee. Quick note: Kim Il Sung hadn’t lived in Korea for 30 years – he fled to Manchuria when the Japanese invaded and had spent time in China and the Soviet Union fighting the Japanese occupation. He served as a major in the Soviet army during World War II. Similarly, Syngman Rhee hadn’t lived in Korea since 1904 – he also opposed the Japanese occupation so he fled to the US, attended Harvard, and served as an unofficial ambassador between the US and Korea for 40 years. So, like, both sides literally just handpicked someone who had spent more time in their respective countries than Korea – and then installed them as leaders. And both were brutal dictators. So… awesome.
In June of 1950, the North Korean army invaded the South, attempting to reunite the peninsula under Kim’s communist rule. The United Nations put together a coalition force, led by the US, to support the South Korean military. But, let’s be honest, the South Korean military fell apart almost immediately. Within two months, the North Koreans controlled almost all of South Korea, except for one small section in the southwest near Busan. But – dramatic military music – then General Douglas MacArthur entered the fight!
Truman picked MacArthur specifically because of his recent successes in the Pacific during World War II. But, he knew he was also getting an egotistical showman who wanted to make sure everyone knew his name. That’s going to come back to bite both of them.
MacArthur launched a bold counter-offensive D-Day style – it was an amphibious landing (meaning from the water onto the land) right in the middle of conquered territory at Inchon. The US quickly drove the North Koreans back to the original boundary line – the 38th parallel.
Truman could have stopped there – his policy was containment and he had done that. He had kept the communist regime in the North – and he immediately started negotiating a ceasefire in an attempt to stop the fighting. But MacArthur saw it differently – this was the first real test of our containment theory. Was our goal to just stop communism from spreading to new places? Truman thought so and he wanted to end the fighting with the 38th parallel still dividing the two Koreas. But MacArthur thought the US should do more than contain communism – they should eliminate it entirely. Even as Truman was negotiating a ceasefire, the general ordered his troops across the 38th parallel. Come on, MacArthur…
There was not much for Truman to do at that point – especially because the US took most of North Korea fairly quickly. But the border between North Korea and China is the Yalu River and Truman had made it clear that the US was not to get too close to Chinese territory – we could defeat the North Koreans, but not the Chinese military. But MacArthur just kept… inching closer. He had promised his troops they would be home by Christmas and damn it, MacArthur intended to keep that promise! (Remember how the US army had to suffer through brutal fighting in the Philippines just to keep one of MacArthur’s earlier promises?)
Eventually, MacArthur got too close and China joined the war. Tens of thousands of troops, battle-hardened from their decades-long civil war with the Nationalists, streamed across the Yalu River and pushed the US back to the 38th parallel. That spring, MacArthur began to publicly criticize the Truman administration, who was still trying to negotiate an end to the war – now with China as well. He even suggested bombing Chinese cities to retaliate. Like, MacArthur was totally down for a World War Three. So Truman fired MacArthur. This was a big deal – he was the most famous general from World War Two besides, maybe, Eisenhower (who was about to become president) and he was publicly humiliated. Rightly so, in my opinion, but still. I think this is one of the reasons why the Korean War was so easily “forgotten” by a lot of Americans – it was messy. And confusing. And it was starting to break apart the national unity that we had gained during World War Two – thankfully the war ended in just three years so most of the damage was contained. But it was there, under the surface, just waiting for another, longer war to bring it out again… (ominous Vietnam foreshadowing…)
By 1953, the two sides signed an armistice (Rhee, the South Korean dictator refused – he wanted to keep fighting – so he was kicked out of office) and the Korean peninsula has been split at the 38th parallel ever since. Technically, the Korean War hasn’t ended because there hasn’t been a formal peace agreement acknowledging the two separate countries.
One year later, MacArthur gave an interview where he elaborated on what he had wanted to do to end the Korean War. Let me just read you what he said:
“Of all the campaigns of my life, 20 major ones to be exact, [Korea was] the one I felt most sure of was the one I was deprived of waging. I could have won the war in Korea in a maximum of 10 days…. I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs on his air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria…. It was my plan as our amphibious forces moved south to spread behind us—from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea—a belt of radioactive cobalt. It could have been spread from wagons, carts, trucks and planes…. For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the north. The enemy could not have marched across that radiated belt.”
Cool cool cool. So just, 30-50 atomic bombs. No big deal. God I hate MacArthur.
Side note: MacArthur famously visited Congress to give a Farewell Address because of course he did. He was interrupted 50 times with standing ovations and delivered the famous line:
“old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
He went on:
“And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.
Oh my god you are so dramatic MacArthur. By the way, he went on to kind of run for the presidency in 1952 – he never formally announced but he went on a huge speaking tour and kind of hoped that everyone would ask him to run. But they didn’t. Because Eisenhower was running. Oh there’s got to be a story there – a brewing feud between the two military generals. I would watch the hell out of that HBO miniseries.
OK back to Korea:
It’s not like the actual fighting was much better though. The war completely devastated the peninsula. Like, it was literally flattened – by the end of the war, many Koreans were living permanently underground and US bomber pilots were struggling to even find a target to drop bombs on – everything had been destroyed. The US dropped more bombs on the tiny Korean peninsula in three years than they did in the entire Pacific Theater of World War Two.
So… why has this become the “Forgotten War?”
- It’s definitely not forgotten in Korea. These three years are the defining moment of modern Korean history. Around 25% of the Korean population was killed during the war – most of them civilians. In North Korea, children are taught of the US bombing as a Holocaust. You cannot understand modern Korea – or its relationships with the US – without understanding just how brutal the Korean War was.
- But the Korean War is often glossed over in the US because, at least since the War of 1812, it’s the first war that we didn’t clearly win. Sure, if you frame the goal as: we wanted to keep the communists in North Korea, then we did that. Woohoo! But no one who really studies the war sees it that way – and the 40,000 Americans who died in the war just for it to end with absolutely nothing changed probably wouldn’t have seen it that way either.
But Americans back home were “booming” – they were making babies, buying homes, going to college. They were still Good Feelings Era of the end of the War and the Depression – and most of them didn’t even know where Korea was. So it was easy to not get too caught up in what was going on over there.
But for understanding the Cold War, the Korean War is so important. Here are three reasons we should all know more about it:
- It was the first actual proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union. This was the first time the US sent its own troops to fight communists abroad. We didn’t fight Soviet soldiers but we fought their “proxies” – North Koreans and Chinese people. Side note: this is really the only war we’ve ever fought against China – and considering they’re growing to be our most powerful adversary in the 21st century it seems like this should be three years we all study pretty closely… but what do I know?
- On that note, the Korean War is the beginning of the “rise of China.” If you remember from Season 1, they had been weakened and struggling since the 1800s – Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, end of the Chinese dynasties, civil war between Nationalists and Communists. But Mao Zedong took control of mainland China in 1949 and just a year later, they were fighting – and winning – against the United States. They’re still super weak and are going to live in the shadow of the Soviet Union for another decade or so, but it’s sort of Mao and the Chinese army’s debut on the world stage.
- Finally, and most importantly for US history, the Korean War is the moment we established a permanent global military presence. After World War Two, the US military was reduced in size by 90%! We forget this – but it was not clear after World War Two that the US would remain a military power. We had been dragged into both world wars begrudgingly (the Lusitania and Zimmerman Telegram forced us into World War 1 and Pearl Harbor gave us no choice but to join World War Two, although I’m sure we would have joined at some point.) And in the few years after the war ended, it looked like the US was going to go back to focusing on its economic growth. But after the Korean War, the US did not reduce the size of its military. A conscious decision was made to maintain a large standing military, stationed around the world, to “contain” the threat of communism. World War Two established us as the most dominant military force (both in troops and in military industry) but it was the Korean War that set up that powerful military as a sort of “global police force.”
Ironically, the first person to warn the US of the dangers and complications that could come with a powerful standing military was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the military hero-turned-president.
Act 3: President Eisenhower
First off, Eisenhower is a president we should all study because if Obama was trying to be FDR and Trump was trying to be Andrew Jackson; Joe Biden is trying to be Eisenhower. By today’s standards, he would probably be considered a moderate democrat – Eisenhower increased federal spending for massive infrastructure projects like the federal highway system; he continued liberal New Deal and Fair Deal programs; he used federal troops to enforce desegregation at Little Rock High School; and he ordered the complete desegregation of the US military.
Back to the Korean War, Eisenhower was president when the fighting stopped but credit really still goes to Truman. But Eisenhower had a complicated relationship with the military – he had been the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, responsible for the D-Day invasion. Before running for president, he had been the firs tSupreme Commander of NATO – the new military alliance to counter the growing Soviet threat. And he was willing to use the military – or, ideally, the threat of a powerful US military – to deter Soviet advances.
Eisenhower wanted to negotiate with the Soviets – he even proposed that both militaries exchange blueprints of all of their military establishments to strengthen the Mutually Assured Destruction element of the Cold War. Basically, if we both have nuclear weapons then neither side will ever attack the other because it would cause both sides to fall. Eisenhower wanted to go further and literally give the Soviets access to aerial photography and exact locations of our military bases to deter future leaders from wanting to use the bomb (cough cough MacArthur…) That plan didn’t end up happening, but it shows that Eisenhower was willing to go to great lengths to prevent World War Three – and that makes sense, considering he saw the human toll of the war in Europe. But he understood that the only way that the Soviets would take the US seriously was if they knew the US was willing to follow through on its threats – this is the defining characteristic of the early Cold War: brinkmanship.
By trying to prove they weren’t “all talk,” both sides push the other to the brink of all-out war. We saw this in Korea; in Berlin; and eventually in Cuba. It’s literally a global game of chicken – with nuclear weapons. But even though Eisenhower was a ‘military guy” and he wanted to maintain a strong military to back up diplomatic negotiations with the Soviets, he also was uniquely positioned to see the potential downside of having such an enormous military.
In his Farewell Address, Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the growing “military industrial complex.” Before the Cold War, US industry – like the auto industry – could transition to military production during wartime, but then would transition back to making cars or refrigerators or whatever when the war was over. But now that we were in a semi-permanent state of war against communism, Eisenhower warned about the danger of a permanent defense industry threatening our democracy. What if defense contractors and the military began to wield more influence in our government? What if military spending became so costly that it took away resources to valuable democratic infrastructure like schools and healthcare? What if the economic motivations to go to war outweighed the interests of peace or diplomacy? You know, crazy stuff that totally didn’t happen.
As Eisenhower said,
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Act 4: The Red Scare
Speaking of a “disastrous rise of misplaced power,” let’s talk about Joseph McCarthy real quick. So the US policy of containing the growing communist threat was applied back at home, too. And no one epitomizes that more than McCarthy.
During basically the same years as the Korean War, 1950 to 1954, Senator McCarthy attempted to root out Communist threats within the government. Of course, he wasn’t the only one – the problem with naming a thing after one person – like McCarthyism – is that it’s then easy to discount it once that one person is gone. There were many people in Congress and in the general public who were genuinely concerned about communists – or communist sympathizers – in the federal government. I mean, the Soviets had literally just been our ally in World War Two – and there had been people within the various Allied governments who felt frustrated that during the war their governments wouldn’t work as closely with the Soviet allies out of fear of communism. If you’ve seen Imitation Game, there’s a spy who is passing secrets to the Soviets because he wants them to be able to help us end the war sooner. So the Soviets go from our tense “frenemies” to an outright threat really fast. And if you go back a little further to the 1930s, there was a growing socialist movement, emboldened by the New Deal, that wanted to go further toward democratic socialism like other European nations were doing. And remember, at this point, anything that even kind of sounds like communism – or like something that could grow to become communism one day – they’re all a threat in the eyes of the US government.
In 1948, there was a high profile investigation of a State Department official named Alger Hiss, who ended up admitting to being part of the Communist underground, spying for the Soviets, in the 1930s. His confession came about after intense scrutiny and pressure from a young 35-year-old representative from California named Richard Nixon.
Partly in response to Alger Hiss, in 1950 Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act that required all Communist organizations to register with the government and submit to government supervision. Furthermore, any individual who was suspected of promoting “totalitarianism” (both fascism and communism) could be investigated, barred from federal office, and even kicked out of the country. This continued the work of HUAC or the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had been investigating anyone connected with totalitarianism since the 1930s. Side note: McCarthy was a Senator so he had nothing to do with HUAC, although most people lump the two together. They were doing the same work – but in different houses of Congress.
So when Senator McCarthy comes along, waving a piece of paper saying he has a list of 205 names of people in the State Department who are Communist spies it’s a) not outside the realm of possibility and b) totally legal for him to start investigating those people. He went on to lead the Committee on Government Operations, allowing him to bring any government employee in front of the committee to testify. He never uncovered any federal employees who were spying for the Soviets, but over 2,000 lost their jobs because of the investigations anyway.
And, again, there were real spies out there. Famously, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg became the first American civilians ever executed for espionage in 1953. In hindsight, Julius Rosenberg was definitely a Soviet spy. He worked as a courier – delivering secret messages back to the Soviets – and a recruiter. He brought in Ethel’s brother who conveniently worked at Los Alamos, the secret lab in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was built. It’s a little less clear whether Ethel was a spy; or, at least, whether there was enough evidence to convict and execute her. Their two sons have claimed up to this day that their mother was innocent – at most she typed up some of Julius’s notes without fully knowing what she was doing. That’s hard for me to believe considering she and Julius met at a Young Communists Party and it was her brother who was part of the ring (and, also, he was the one to expose the couple. Oof.) There’s also a weird feminist reaction in me that hates the assumption that the wife had no idea or wasn’t an active participant in their partnership – even if that means she was a Soviet spy. I don’t know. But, the point of all of this is that there were Soviet spies, but McCarthy didn’t catch any of them.
But you know who he did catch? LGBTQ people. As usual, during any sort of culture war or societal “panic,” the people already living on the fringes of society were the ones who lost the most.
Let’s do a little bit of LGBTQ history before we get to the “Lavendar Scare.” After World War Two, as many young adults moved and stayed in large cities, they were increasingly able to build communities based on their identity. Like Harlem in the 1920s after the Great Migration, New York City and San Francisco, especially, became safe havens for LGBTQ people. At the same time, homosexuality was being discussed (although not accepted) more openly. In 1948 Dr. Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and asserted that homosexual activity was actually far more common that previously believed. Unfortunately, at this time homosexuality was still viewed as a mental illness – a sign of perversion or weakness that made many see gay people as a threat.
I want to be clear that this is all homophobic BS. But to many at the time, communists and homosexuals seemed eerily similar: both were believed to be immoral, psychologically disturbed. Communists didn’t believe in god and homosexuals were seen as violating God’s teachings. Propaganda convinced Americans that both were trying to undermine the American family and were out to recruit your children to join their “subculture.” Again, none of this is true (except that Communists are atheists – that’s true.) But this bleeds into federal investigations into communist threats. A federal committee literally published a report called Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government where they determined that there were at least 5,000 homosexuals working in the federal government and that, “One homosexual can pollute a government office.”
“Experts” in the government believed that homosexuals were more susceptible to Communist influences because both were “twisted mentally or physically in some way.” (That’s a direct quote from a top intelligence official, by the way.) Many officials believed that since homosexuals were mentally weak and unable to resist their “urges,” they would also be unable to resist manipulation by Soviet spies. There were also more rational arguments – like that homosexuals were more susceptible to blackmail by Soviet spies for fear of being exposed as gay – but that problem could have been easily “fixed” by just, you know, not arrest people for homosexual activity.
All of this laid the groundwork for Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order #10450, “Security Requirements for Government Employment,” which added sexuality onto the list of criteria for hiring federal employees. So while McCarthy and others were trying to root out communists in the government they instead exposed thousands of LGBTQ employees who had been going about their business, living in the closet (at least at work, although often in every aspect of their life). It’s estimated that as many as tens of thousands of LGBTQ people lost their jobs during the Lavender Scare – it’s impossible to know exactly because the vast majority of them just quietly quit their jobs to avoid being exposed.
Hollywood was another target of the Communist witch hunt. Remember that during the 1930s and the war, the brand new film industry had been an important industry to create government support. In the 30s, the film industry exploded as a way to help the general public escape the anxiety of the Great Depression. It always blows my mind that both Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, amidst the Depression and on the eve of World War. And during the war, the film industry was straight up coopted by the government to create propaganda: Dr. Seuss helped make military training videos (go on YouTube and look up “Private Snafu”) while Disney created short films like “Der Fuhrer’s Face” where Donald Duck literally has a nightmare that he’s a Nazi. So the idea that now Hollywood was becoming a haven for leftists, homosexuals, and straight-up communists was a big deal.
Famously, ten directors, producers, and screenwriters refused to answer questions when called to testify in front of HUAC. The “Hollywood 10” spent time in prison and then were blacklisted by all the major Hollywood studios for refusing to talk about their colleagues, and their own, possible communist affiliations. Go watch “Trumbo” starring Bryan Cranston.
Within Hollywood there were also “friendly witnesses” who willingly came before Congress to speak out about “Communist subversion” in Hollywood. Walt Disney himself testified about the growing communist threat in the industry. Totally random: his corporation had just been through a major labor strike but I’m sure that had nothing to do with anything. And most famously, the young handsome president of the Screen Actors Guild worked with Congress to identify “subversives” (many of whom also happened to be from competing labor unions). Ironically, the actor who gained prominence as the head of a labor union would go on to be arguably our most anti-union president: Ronald Reagan.
(Have we noticed that the Red Scare is the origin story for the two most prominent conservative presidents of the 20th century? Because I think that’s interesting… I feel like there’s something to learn from that but I just… can’t… put my finger on it…)
So what finally brought McCarthy down? Well, he got a little too big for his britches. Sure, you can attack Hollywood liberals and gay office workers. Fine. But you’re going to get into trouble when you start attacking the US military.
In 1954, McCarthy attempted to “expose” communist infiltration in the armed services. I’m sorry. You couldn’t find any evidence of communism in the federal government but you think the soldiers who just got done fighting the Korean War are now communists? McCarthy’s “Army Hearings” were broadcast on national television so the American people watched as McCarthy viciously interrogated witnesses, including high-ranking military officers. Famously, the Army’s chief counsel got fed up and yelled, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
I can answer that: No. No he did not.
McCarthy lost his credibility after those hearings; he was formally censured by the Senate and he died just three years later of Hepatitis, possibly made worse by alcoholism.
So, by the mid-1950s the Cold War was well underway. While white Americans were “booming” and the US government was “containing,” there was a growing coalition of people who were not included – or were actively harmed – by this new vision of Conformist America. Young people who didn’t have the same loyalty as those who lived through the FDR era; Black Americans still suffering under Jim Crow; LGBTQ people unable to live their lives; some women who had gotten a glimpse of economic freedom during the war but now were stuck in the suburbs…
But I’m sure they’ll all just accept their fate quietly.
To be continued.