As the Cold War unfolded in the late 1940s, the US fell under the grip of a Red Scare: a hatred of communism, concern that America might be infiltrated or even invaded by communists, and a lingering fear of ‘Reds under the bed’. Evidence of this paranoia could be found in the small Wisconsin town of Mosinee, which on May 1st 1950 was ‘invaded’ by ‘Soviets (in reality, members of the American Legion, a returned servicemen’s group). The mock invaders, most wearing trench coats, signalled their arrival by arresting Mosinee’s mayor and chief of police. Both were marched to the town’s main intersection, renamed ‘Red Square’ for the occasion, and subjected to a mock trial. Local priests were also arrested and detained behind barbed-wire. ‘Communists’ took over the town library, confiscating most of its books; and they forced the local cinema to show Russian propaganda films. Even local restaurants were ordered to take hamburgers and steaks off the menu and replace them with coarse black bread and potato soup. The ‘invasion’ of Mosinee was witnessed by dozens of American and international press men – even a journalist from TASS, the official Soviet news agency. They were invited to report on this first-hand demonstration of what might happen if communists ever gained a foothold in the US. It ended with the liberation of Mosinee and the restoration of local government – though on a somewhat sour note, after the town’s mayor suffered a fatal stroke.
The Red Scare in America was not a new phenomenon. The country had been subject to a similar scare in 1918-20, after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia (1917). A five-man Senate committee, appointed to study foreign infiltration, reported Russian communists were already active within American borders. Socialist groups, left-wing politicians and militant unions felt the brunt of this first Red Scare. Politicians, aided and encouraged by business and the press, alleged that certain unions were under the control of Bolshevik infiltrators. In the years following World War I, many sectors of the American economy were beset with strikes. In 1919 Seattle shipyard workers, east coast steel mill workers, coal miners and Boston policemen all went on strike, causing significant disruption. These strikes were condemned as a revolutionary act rather than a legitimate expression of grievances. The government authorised raids to arrest political radicals. In 1920, five socialist politicians in the New York state assembly were expelled – despite having been elected by the people of New York. In 1921, 249 non-US citizens with left-wing affiliations were deported to Europe in the ship Buford, nicknamed the ‘Soviet ark’ by the press. The first Red Scare in America lasted around four years and had died out by late 1921.
War on American communists
Gallup Polls, 1972
The second Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s proved far more intense and socially pervasive. It was triggered, to a large degree, by the revelation that a network of Soviet spies was operating in the US, even before the outbreak of World War II. In 1948 an American-born Soviet spy, Elizabeth Bentley, named almost 150 people as operating in the US on behalf of the USSR. Other suspected spies named, arrested or tried included Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple who were executed for passing nuclear secrets to Moscow. These incidents rocked the nation and led to purges of socialists and left-wing sympathisers from public office, government jobs, the press and entertainment companies. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) found itself under constant attack. In 1954, Washington legislated to outlaw the CPUSA, making membership a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. By 1955 the CPUSA had only 5,000 members – a third of which were spies and informants working for the US government. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was expanded and given extensive powers to monitor and investigate suspected communists. Its director, J. Edgar Hoover, contributed to the Red Scare with portentous and paranoid public statements about “Reds under every bed”.
The best-known perpetuators of anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s were Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A committee of the US House of Representatives, HUAC was formed in 1938 to investigate possible Nazi involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. It remained in place as a permanent committee after World War II, though its focus switched to investigating possible communist activity or subversion in America. In 1947 HUAC began investigating allegations that Hollywood films contained communist ideas or overtones, or were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Dozens of artists, directors, screenwriters and studio executives were summoned to testify before HUAC hearings, including Walt Disney and future president Ronald Reagan, then a moderately successful actor. Many were found to be communists or communist sympathisers and were ‘blacklisted’ (banned) from future film projects in the US. The alleged successes of HUAC saw other congressional committees created or empowered for similar purposes. The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy after 1953, cross-examined more than 700 people in a two year period, including employees of government departments and the US military. Other committees investigated communist activity within American unions and labor associations.
The American ideal
Through the 1950s, the Red Scare’s anti-communist hysteria was matched by attempts to define, promote and fortify so-called ‘American values’. Americans were reminded of the great benefits of democracy and capitalism – and that communism jeopardised these benefits. Propaganda and pop culture reinforced the idea of the nuclear family: a working father, housewife mother and children at school, all living comfortably in middle-class suburbia. Television programs like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and Ossie and Harriet offered representations of what these families should be like. They placed great emphasis on paternalism, hierarchy, the importance of hard work, education, patriotism, obedience and good behaviour. But they also imposed gender stereotypes, keeping women firmly ‘in the kitchen’, and utterly disregarded African-Americans or families outside this idealistic middle-class suburban world.
The hysteria of the Red Scare began to fade by 1957. Anti-communist paranoia was diluted by several events, including the end of the Korean War, the death of Joseph Stalin, the discrediting of Joseph McCarthy and hope of amicable relations with Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Another important factor was the advent of U-2 spyplanes, which allowed Washington to discover that the Soviet arsenal of nuclear missiles was much smaller and less developed than previously thought. The actions of HUAC and the FBI had purged America of hundreds of suspected communists and communist sympathisers. Though the Soviet Union remained an external threat, its ideas and agents no longer raised the same level of domestic concern. Civilians had been conditioned to both fear and despise communism. Americans and their government remained watchful but not hysterical.
1. The Red Scare was a rising paranoia about communist activity in the US in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
2. It was the second Red Scare, the first erupting in 1918 after the takeover of Russia by communists.
3. The second Red Scare produced investigations of suspected spies and the American Communist Party.
4. The FBI investigated communist activity, while HUAC conducted interrogations of suspected communists.
5. The Red Scare abated in the mid-1950s, in part because of the death of Stalin, the discrediting of Joseph McCarthy and the rising belief that communism was more of an external threat than a domestic one.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Reds under the bed”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/reds-under-the-bed/.