Second Red Scare

From Ohio History Central

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Portrait of Governor Frank J. Lausche (1895-1990). Lausche served as Governor from 1945-1947 and also from 1949-1957.

The Second Red Scare (1947-1957) was a fear-driven phenomenon brought on by the growing power of communist countries in the wake of the Second World War, particularly the Soviet Union. Many in the U.S. feared that the Soviet Union and its allies were planning to forcefully spread communism around the globe, overthrowing both democratic and capitalist institutions as it went. With the Soviet Union occupying much of Eastern and Central Europe, many in the U.S. perceived their fears of communist expansionism as confirmed. The U.S. also feared that communist agents had infiltrated the federal government. A massive witch hunt to root out communist sympathizers ensued.

The Red Scare phenomenon has occurred twice in U.S history. The First Red Scare (1919-1921) was fueled by Americans’ fears that the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia would spread to the United States. The Second Red Scare was perpetuated by a number of high-profile domestic and international events, including the Rosenburg trial, the victory of communist forces in the Chinese Civil War, the creation of the “Iron Curtain,” the advent of Soviet nuclear weapons capabilities, and the Korean War.

Government officials and citizens alike were afraid of a nuclear war with the Soviets, and the U.S. became nervous that Soviet espionage was employed within the government. Their fears were not unfounded, as numerous soviet agents and sympathizers had indeed infiltrated the U.S. government during World War II.

The federal government established multiple defenses against Soviet espionage. In 1947 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9835, also referred to as the Loyalty Order, which mandated that all federal employees had to be analyzed as to whether they were truly faithful to the government or not. Federal employees were also required to take an oath of loyalty to the U.S. government. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created within the House of Representatives to investigate suspected communist infiltrators. HUAC focused on locating communists within the government, sub-committees of the government, and Hollywood. The pressure to ostracize communists was so intense that film producers created a black list to prevent suspected communists from gaining employment and influence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was expanded to handle the increase in inquiries and trials of accused communist supporters.

J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, was an ardent anti-communist whose influence had perpetuated the first Red Scare. Hoover and his investigators used espionage tactics of their own to locate potential communists, including wiretaps, surveillance, and infiltrating leftist organizations. The efficiency of the FBI was critical in many high-profile cases. Their evidence aided the prosecution of twelve potent communist leaders in 1949; later, in the 1950s, evidence gathered by the FBI proved Julius and Ethel Rosenberg guilty.

Hysteria mounted as the government’s hunt for communist sympathizers expanded. Senator Joseph McCarthy fed the increasing panic, using unfounded rumors and intimidation to gain notoriety as a potent government figure; with this newfound fame and influence, McCarthy denounced numerous public figures as being communist supporters. His victims included government officials, celebrities, intellectuals—anyone opposed to his view point. Most people black listed by McCarthy were innocent, but many lost their reputation, and often their employment, regardless. McCarthy dominated the anti-communist sentiment until the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 all but ruined his credibility. McCarthy was censured that year and died, his own reputation in shambles, three years later. To this day, the term “McCarthyism” remains synonymous with the Second Red Scare, metaphorical witch hunts, and the persecution of the innocent.

The Korean War, which pitted communist aggressors against the U.S.-backed South Korean government, helped to convince many Americans that communist ideology was spreading quickly. The actions of Hoover and McCarthy only fueled the tension within the American populace. The United States became more socially conservative as a whole. Politicians of both parties began to portray themselves as staunchly anti-communist to seize elections. Leftist group attendances and activism dropped off out of members’ fears of being accused of being a communist. Civil liberties eroded away as the legislature and the judiciary decided that the circumstances were dire enough to permit invasions of privacy in order to combat domestic communist threats. Neighbors were accused by their peers as being communists as the hysteria grew. Those indicted were often shunned from familial relations, released from work, and persecuted by law enforcement. Generally, those seeking out communists preferred to accuse a mass amount of people, regardless of evidence (or lack thereof), as opposed to locating proof to issue an appropriate conviction.

This fear of communism did not just grip the federal government. In 1951, the Ohio General Assembly implemented the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee, a joint committee of state representatives and senators charged with determining the influence of communism in Ohio. The committee was based upon the federal government's House Un-American Activities Committee, and its members received sweeping powers to question Ohioans about their ties to communism. Between 1951 and 1954, the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee, headed by House member Samuel Devine, questioned forty Ohioans, asking each person, "Right now, are you an active member of the Communist Party?" Every person refused to answer, citing the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects Americans against self-incrimination. Most of the accused were college students or people who had advocated socialist or communist programs to end the Great Depression in the 1930s. Various grand juries eventually indicted the forty people, with fifteen of those accused being convicted for supporting communism. In 1952, the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee purported that 1,300 Ohioans were members of the Communist Party.

In 1953, the Ohio General Assembly, with Governor Frank Lausche's approval, extended the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee's existence. Lausche generally opposed the committee's actions, but he faced great pressure from fearful Ohio citizens to continue his investigations. The governor contended that the committee's actions might put into "grave danger . . . the reputations of innocent people against whom accusations can be made on the basis of rumor and frequently rooted in malice," but he also stated that "Communism is a menace to our country." Lausche did veto a bill that would assess jail terms and hefty monetary fines for anyone found guilty of communist leanings, but the Ohio General Assembly, at Samuel Devine's urging, passed the bill over the governor's veto. The Ohio Un-American Activities Committee continued its investigations for the next several years. As Lausche feared, the fervor of state and federal officials in rooting out communists led to major violations of civil liberties.

By the mid-1950s, violations against civil rights had begun to convince many Americans to condemn the actions of the state and the federal governments. This opposition brought the worst aspects of the Second Red Scare to an end by the late 1950s, although many Americans would continue to fear communism and its influence throughout the Cold War era and beyond.

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