The Red Scare (1947-57) was a decade-long period of intense anti-communist paranoia in the United States. During this period, millions of ordinary Americans were paralysed by an irrational fear of ‘Reds under the bed’ – the belief that thousands of communist agents and sympathisers were secretly living amongst them, plotting or waiting to overthrow the government.
Dress rehearsal in Mosinee
Evidence of this paranoia could be found in an exercise carried out in the small Wisconsin town of Mosinee. On May 1st 1950, Mosinee was invaded by trenchcoat-wearing ‘Soviets’ (the invaders were really members of the American Legion, a returned servicemen’s group). The mock Reds heralded their arrival by arresting Mosinee’s mayor and chief of police.
These ‘arrested’ local officials were marched to the town’s main intersection, renamed ‘Red Square’, 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. They forced the local cinema to show Russian propaganda films. 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 watched by dozens of American and international pressmen – even a journalist from TASS, the official Soviet news agency. They witnessed a first-hand demonstration of what might happen if communists ever gained a foothold in the US. Mosinee was eventually ‘liberated’ and returned to local rule, though the town’s mayor suffered a fatal stroke during this ceremony.
The First Red Scare
This was not the United States’ first period in the grip of anti-communist hysteria. In 1918-21, the country fretted over the prospect of communist infiltration and aggression, in the wake the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917.
During this first Red Scare, a five-man Senate committee, appointed to study foreign infiltration, reported that Russian communists were already active within American borders. Socialist groups, left-wing politicians and militant unions fell under suspicion.
American politicians, encouraged by business and the press, alleged that some unions were controlled by Bolshevik infiltrators. After 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 painted as revolutionary actions rather than legitimate expressions of labour grievances.
The US 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 died out by 1921.
The Second Red Scare
Unfolding in the late 1940s, the second Red Scare proved far more intense and pervasive. It was triggered by revelations that a network of Soviet spies and clandestine ‘Reds’ had been operating in the US, even before the outbreak of World War II.
In 1948 an American-born Soviet spy, Elizabeth Bentley, named almost 150 agents operating in America on behalf of the Soviet government. Other suspected spies identified, arrested or tried during the late 1940s or early 1950s included Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple executed for passing nuclear secrets to Moscow.
These incidents rocked the nation and led to purges of socialists and left-wing sympathisers from public offices, 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 of the party a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. By 1955, the CPUSA had only 5,000 members – a third of whom 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 public warnings about “Reds under every bed”.
HUAC and Joe McCarthy
The best-known instigators of anti-Reds hysteria in the 1950s were Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A committee of the US Congress, HUAC was formed in 1938 to investigate suspected 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 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 Hollywood actor. Several artists were deemed to be closet ‘Reds’ or communist sympathisers and blacklisted (banned) from future film projects in the US.
The outcomes of HUAC saw other congressional committees created or empowered for similar purposes. The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, headed by 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 labour associations.
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 constantly reminded of the great benefits of democracy and capitalism – and that communism or communist values jeopardised these benefits.
Propaganda and pop culture reinforced the idea of the nuclear family: a working father, a housewife mother and schoolchildren 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.
These programs also emphasised and reinforced conservative social values, such as paternalism, respect for order and hierarchy, the importance of hard work, education, patriotism, obedience and good behaviour. They also maintained stereotypes of gender and race, keeping women firmly ‘in the kitchen’ while utterly disregarding African-Americans or families outside this idealistic conception of middle-class suburbia.
Decline of anti-Red paranoia
The hysteria of the Red Scare began to fade in the mid-1950s. It was diluted and dissipated by several events, including the end of the Korean War, the death of Joseph Stalin, the discrediting of Joseph McCarthy and the promise of better relations with Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev.
Another important factor was the advent of U-2 spyplanes, through which Washington discovered that the Soviet Union’s arsenal of nuclear missiles was much smaller and less developed than previously thought.
The Red Scare, supported by the actions of McCarthy, HUAC and the FBI, purged American public life of hundreds of suspected communists and communist sympathisers. After the late 1950s, the Soviet Union remained an external threat but 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.
A historian’s view:
“According to a Gallup Poll conducted in August 1950, 57 per cent [of Americans] felt World War III was underway. In an earlier Gallup Poll conducted in January 1950, 70 per cent believed the Soviet Union was ‘out to take over the world’. By November 1950 – five months after the start of the Korean War – 81 per cent polled thought the Soviets were seeking world domination.”
Gallup Polls, 1972
1. The Red Scare was a period of anti-communist hysteria in the United States between 1947 and 1957. During this time Americans became intensely paranoid about communist infiltration.
2. It was the second Red Scare in the US. The first (1918-21) was triggered by the Russian Revolution and saw the purging of suspected socialists from government, unions and public life.
3. The second Red Scare was triggered by disclosure of an extensive Soviet spy network in the US, preceding World War II. Suspected spies like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were targetted.
4. The main instigators of anti-communist hysteria were Senator Joseph McCarthy, HUAC and its interrogative questioning of suspected communists, and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
5. The Red Scare abated in the mid-1950s, in part because of the death of Stalin, the discrediting of McCarthy and the growing belief that communism was more of an external threat than a domestic one.
‘How to Spot a Communist’, an article from American magazine LOOK (March 1947)
Executive Order 9835 requires loyalty of government employees (March 1947)
Ronald Reagan testifies before HUAC (October 1947)
Walt Disney testifies before HUAC (October 1947)
Joseph McCarthy’s ‘Enemies within’ speech (February 1950)
The McCarran Act, or Internal Security Act (September 1950)
Executive Order 10450 on security standards for government employees (April 1953)
Zero Mostel testifies before HUAC (October 1955)
J. Edgar Hoover: Masters of Deceit (1958)
“This Godless Communism” comic (March 1961)
David A. Noebel: Communism, Hypnotism and The Beatles (1965)
Title: “‘Reds under the bed'”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 22, 2020
Date accessed: February 14, 2023