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On January 21, 1950, a federal grand jury indicted Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, on perjury charges related to his spy work for the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Also in 1950, Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the American atomic bomb, confessed to being a Soviet spy while doing so, and implicated others, revealing a Soviet espionage network that had acquired significant classified information about America’s atomic bomb program. His confession ultimately led to the arrest, trial, and conviction of several other people, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953.
Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), a first-term senator, was not a well-known figure when he spoke at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Wheeling, West Virginia, shortly after the Hiss indictment. Taking this news as his theme, he claimed that 205 State Department employees were members of the Communist Party of the United States of America and that Secretary of State Dean Acheson was protecting them. In subsequent speeches, McCarthy cited different numbers – eighty-one, then fifty-seven – without providing much corroboration. (After the Cold War, newly accessible Soviet files revealed that over 500 Americans, including journalists and other ranking government officials besides Hiss, had spied or worked for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. See John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009]. McCarthy knew nothing of this.)
Problems with McCarthy’s evidence did not diminish the massive attention he and his charges received. (Nor did the existence of a federal employee loyalty program that President Harry Truman had implemented in 1947.) The Hiss case, the communist victory in China (1949), the Soviet development of atomic weapons (1949), and the outbreak and early stages of the Korean War (1950) fed the impression that the United States was losing the Cold War. According to McCarthy, subversives within the U.S. government were responsible.
McCarthy’s charges, the espionage trials, and growing Cold War tension led Congress to pass the Internal Security Act on September 20, 1950. President Truman vetoed the act on September 23. His veto was overridden by both houses of Congress on the same day. Various provisions of the law were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court or repealed by Act of Congress. As for McCarthy, some Senators opposed him early on (most prominently Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine), but he continued to command attention for several years, summoning people to Senate hearings and publicly accusing them of disloyalty and treason. He was eventually censured by the Senate for his conduct (December 2, 1954). After that, he ceased to be an influential public figure. He died in 1957.
McCarthy spoke from a prepared text, but he apparently deviated from it at points and a tape recording was erased. This version comes from a copy provided to a Senate committee that investigated McCarthy’s charges later that year. See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Roger Bruns, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792–1974, vol. 5 (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1975), 3757-63.
Ladies and gentlemen, tonight as we celebrate the one hundred forty-first birthday of one of the greatest men [Abraham Lincoln] in American history, I would like to be able to talk about what a glorious day today is in the history of the world. As we celebrate the birth of this man who with his whole heart and soul hated war, I would like to be able to speak of peace in our time – of war being outlawed – and of world-wide disarmament. These would be truly appropriate things to be able to mention as we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.
Five years after a world war has been won, men’s hearts should anticipate a long peace – and men’s minds should be free from the heavy weight that comes with war. But this is not such a period – for this is not a period of peace. This is a time of the cold war. This is a time when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile, armed camps – a time of a great armament race. . . .
. . . There is still a hope for peace if we finally decide that no longer can we safely blind our eyes and close our ears to those facts which are shaping up more and more clearly – and that is that we are now engaged in a show-down fight – not the usual war between nations for land areas or other material gains, but a war between two diametrically opposed ideologies.
The great difference between our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral. . . .
The real, basic difference, however, lies in the religion of immoralism – invented by Marx, preached feverishly by Lenin, and carried to unimaginable extremes by Stalin. This religion of immoralism, if the Red half of the world triumphs – and well it may, gentlemen – this religion of immoralism will more deeply wound and damage mankind than any conceivable economic or political system. . . .
Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. . . .
The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores – but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this Nation – but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer – the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.
This is glaringly true in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been most traitorous. . . .
. . . I have here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.
. . .
As you know, very recently the Secretary of State [Dean Acheson] proclaimed his loyalty to a man guilty1 of what has always been considered as the most abominable of all crimes – being a traitor to the people who gave him a position of great trust – high treason. . . .
He has lighted the spark which is resulting in a moral uprising and will end only when the whole sorry mess of twisted, warped thinkers are swept from the national scene so that we may have a new birth of honesty and decency in government.
- 1. Alger Hiss (see introductory note)