Fear as a Political Weapon and the Death of Joseph McCarthy

On this day, May 2, 1957, Joseph McCarthy, the controversial U.S. Senator, dies at the age of 48 due to alcohol-related illnesses (probably cirrhosis of the liver). Mccarthy was notorious for his anti-communist rhetoric and for making deceitful, biased and insubstantial accusations towards his political opponents, charging them with subversion and philo-communism. This practice would eventually take his name and would widely be known as McCarthyism.

The era of McCarthyism would not have ever been if within the American society there wasn’t a thirty-year escalating deep fear of communism which Joseph McCarthy cunningly exploited. The roots of this prominent anti-communist period in America are found in the theories that ignited the October Russian Revolution of 1917 in Russia when the Bolsheviks came to power. The Bolsheviks, founded by Vladimir Lenin, were armed with a new radical ideology, communism.


The First Red Scare

After the end of World War I, the United States faced the negative effects of the war. Inflation rates were on the rise, workers were confronted with the reduction of their wages, unemployment, and poverty. The labor unions resisted and in the years during the Russian Revolution, in 1916 and 1917, the workers organized labor strikes, demanding higher wages to accommodate the rising postwar prices. The Red Scare was a massive anti-left hysteria fueled by patriotic post WWI paranoia of an imminent Bolshevik type revolution in America. The first large-scale strike that was viewed as pro-communist and anti-american occurred in a Seattle shipyard in 1919 where 60,000 workers participated. In almost every strike, the press would attack the unions by claiming that the strikes were organized by foreign agents provocateurs, anarchists or communists. Legitimate labor strikes would be characterized as plots to abolish capitalism and establish a communist society. The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, signed the Sedition Act of 1918, giving the federal government the power to target immigrants and foreign individuals and deport them, solely for the reason of expressing undesirable political beliefs. During this period the ever increasing unemployment and poverty would create racial tensions that would lead to the race riots of 1919.


The Second Red Scare

As had happened with the First Red Scare, the Second Red Scare emerged after the end of a world war, this time WW2. After the destruction of Europe, the world was left with two superpowers, the United States of America in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. The struggle between the two superpowers was also a struggle between two ideologies for world dominance. Despite the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union during WW2, the collective remembrance of the communist threat within the American society during The First Scare was still strong. When the Soviet Union developed its own atomic bomb in 1949, the arms race started, provoking the cold war and thus the danger of an imminent nuclear holocaust was upon the American people. Yet again, the fear awoke from within them and brought the era of the Second Red Scare.

The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, a well-known anti-communist who played a role in the First Red Scare, initially was friendly towards McCarthy, however, even he became critical of the Senator’s methods.

In 1947, then President of the United States, Harry Truman set the grounds for Joseph McCarthy’s communist witchhunt by signing the “Loyalty Order”, an executive order designed to root out the communist threat from the U.S. federal government. McCarthy decided to invest in the resurgence of communist fear and in 1950 presented a list of members of the Communist Party working in the State Department. His investment paid off as he suddenly rose to national fame. McCarthy concentrated, from that point and onward, on producing a climate of fear and repression throughout his investigations with the help of the FBI. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, a well-known anti-communist who played a role in the First Red Scare, initially was friendly towards McCarthy, however, even he became critical of the Senator’s methods.

The Downward Spiral

In the following years, Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities accused hundreds of Americans of being communist agents, imprisoned many of them and blacklisted innocent people. Careers and reputations were destroyed while people lost their livelihood. In 1954, McCarthy accused the U.S. Army of being soft on communists. In a series of televised hearings on the matter, McCarthy seriously discredited himself by exposing his reckless behavior for all to see. The hearings sent his political career on its downward spiral and put an end to the era of the Second Red Fear.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was a man who realized that if he exploited decades of communist fear and transformed it into a political weapon, he himself could become FEAR. And FEAR he became and to power he rose, but men ultimately overcame their fear and left him powerless.

Let this story haunt any man who desires FEAR to become…

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