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The Cold War fixated much of humanity for nearly half a century. After World War II, Russian communism took control of Eastern Europe, and Asian communists seized China, North Korea and North Vietnam. Western capitalism was alarmed. Constant conflict grew between capitalist democracies and totalitarian communism.
Fear of leftists became an American obsession. Washington backed cruel military dictators throughout Central and South America who employed "death squads" and other repression to thwart socialist uprisings. Thousands of Hispanic labor leaders, university students and other liberals became the "disappeared," covertly abducted and murdered.
After socialist-minded Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala in 1951, he confiscated idle land of America's United Fruit Company and gave it to peasants. In Washington, top officials of the Republican Eisenhower administration were Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, both large United Fruit shareholders. Eisenhower secretly sent the CIA to arm a rebel army and overthrow Arbenz, installing a military dictator in his place. Arbenz fled into exile and ruin. His daughter committed suicide.
Meanwhile, in the United States, fear of leftist "subversives" flared in the 1950s in the hysterical phenomenon called McCarthyism. It became a witch-hunt aimed mostly at intellectuals, labor leaders, writers, professors, movie performers, musicians and other left-leaning figures -- many of whom had attended communist rallies or leftist book clubs during agonies of the Great Depression. As America suffered in the 1930s, many in the intelligentsia had considered communism as a possible cure, and membership in the American Communist Party rose to 50,000 in 1939.
Joseph McCarthy was a tough-talking, hard-drinking, GOP senator from Wisconsin. He drew little attention until 1950 when he came to my state of West Virginia, addressed the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, pulled out a sheet of paper and declared that it contained names of 205 secret communists working for the State Department. Later he said his list had fifty-seven names.
The allegation that the government was infiltrated by many unpatriotic "subversives" flared across America. Congress launched more than 100 investigations altogether. Right-wing patriotic committees and state-level "loyalty review boards" sought to ferret out hidden reds. During the 1952 Republican convention, McCarthy said it was crucial to "dislodge the traitors" undermining America. Governments began requiring employees to sign loyalty oaths.
Congressional hearings into subversion became an American inquisition. Before television cameras, McCarthy accused and berated hundreds of witnesses, helped by a surly assistant, Roy Cohn. McCarthy forced the State Department to remove leftist books from overseas libraries, and some of the books were burned. The House Un-American Activities Committee did likewise. Scores of Hollywood figures were called before the committee and denounced. Ten producers, writers and actors refused to answer questions. The "Hollywood Ten" cited the First Amendment's right of speech and assembly as protection against testifying -- but it didn't work, and all ten were sent to prison for contempt. A Hollywood blacklist developed to block suspected reds from working in movies.
Later, many congressional witnesses invoked the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination, and escaped jailing. However, "taking the Fifth" before a loyalty committee wrecked many careers.
Privately, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover led a huge purge of government employees suspected of alleged communist sympathies. Thousands were dismissed. Often, neither victims nor their attorneys (if they could find any lawyers willing to defend them) were told the evidence against them, or the names of persons accusing them. Careers were destroyed. The left-leaning National Lawyers Guild was among few groups that would help the accused federal workers. Hoover secretly sent FBI agents fourteen times to burgle the National Lawyers Guild office.
Amid the hysteria over "subversion", security clearance was revoked for J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and great numbers of others suffered ugly consequences. One report says: "The number imprisoned is in the hundreds, and some ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs... In the film industry, more than three hundred actors, authors and directors were denied work in the United States through the unofficial Hollywood blacklist."
The Reverend Billy James Hargis led a national anti-communist religious movement, also attacking racial integration, sex education, the United Nations and other liberal targets. He claimed that he wrote a speech for Sen. McCarthy. Hargis's career later crashed after it was revealed that he seduced both male and female students at his born-again college in Tulsa.
Gradually, a backlash grew against McCarthy's crusade. Congressman George H. Bender said: "McCarthyism has become a synonym for witch-hunting, Star Chamber methods." Senator Margaret Chase Smith gave a floor speech denouncing "character assassination" and attacks on "the right to hold unpopular beliefs". She decried "cancerous tentacles of know-nothing-suspect-everything attitudes". Other senators joined her. Commentator Elmer Davis said the anti-communist inquisition was a "general attack" on all people who think and write... In short, on the freedom of the mind."
McCarthy's downfall occurred in 1954 during hearings in which he claimed that secret reds were undermining the Army. He attacked the Army's attorney, Joseph Welch, by saying a young man in Welch's Boston office had belonged to the National Lawyers Guild. On national television, Welch replied:
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