An Animated Introduction to McCarthyism: What Is It? And How Did It Happen?

Dur­ing the 1970s, a young Don­ald Trump was men­tored by Roy Cohn, a brash, take-no-pris­on­ers lawyer, who first came to promi­nence dur­ing the 1950s, when he served as the con­sigliere to Joseph McCarthy and his cam­paign to expose sus­pect­ed com­mu­nists in the Unit­ed States. In what’s known as the Sec­ond Red Scare, McCarthy led increas­ing­ly broad and para­noid inves­ti­ga­tions, try­ing to find Com­mu­nists, sym­pa­thiz­ers and spies, both inside and out­side the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Most­ly on the basis of rumor, not fact, “thou­sands of indi­vid­u­als were aggres­sive­ly inves­ti­gat­ed and ques­tioned before gov­ern­ment pan­els.” Black­lists were cre­at­ed. Some were jailed. Careers and liveli­hoods were destroyed.

Year lat­er, play­wright Arthur Miller recalled, “Suf­fice it to say, it was a time of great–no doubt unprecedented–fear.” “The air of ter­ror was heavy.” “I was sure the whole thing would soon go away.” Even­tu­al­ly a sense of futil­i­ty gave way to anger, and Miller respond­ed by writ­ing The Cru­cible, a com­men­tary on McCarthy­ism wrapped in a dra­ma about the Salem witch tri­als of 1692/93.

Above, you can watch above a six minute primer on McCarthy­ism, pre­pared by Ellen Schreck­er, pro­fes­sor emeri­ta of Amer­i­can his­to­ry at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. An expert on the his­to­ry of McCarthy­ism, she has been called “the dean of the anti-anti-Com­mu­nist his­to­ri­ans.” Her books on the sub­ject include: Many Are the Crimes: McCarthy­ism in Amer­i­ca and Age of McCarthy­ism: A Brief His­to­ry with Doc­u­ments.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es

Bertolt Brecht Tes­ti­fies Before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (1947)

Ayn Rand Helped the FBI Iden­ti­fy It’s A Won­der­ful Life as Com­mu­nist Pro­pa­gan­da

Watch “Don’t Be a Suck­er!,” the 1947 US Gov­ern­ment Anti-Hatred Film That’s Rel­e­vant Again in 2017

How to Spot a Com­mu­nist Using Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism: A 1955 Man­u­al from the U.S. Mil­i­tary


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  • Bill W. says:

    To be fair, declas­si­fied FBI doc­u­ments showed that many of those accused (includ­ing Alger Hiss) real­ly WERE Com­mu­nist spies and agents…but then again, a bro­ken clock is also cor­rect twice a day…

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