Way back in the 1950’s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy had his own little version of the Spanish Inquisition, an hysterical attempt to root out the communism that he thought he saw climbing the walls all around him. No one was safe from his probing, beady little eyes. Government workers, college professors, playwrights and Hollywood screenwriters, actors, artists, musicians, fags, Jews and anyone with a goatee was suspect. . . . Many people’s careers were destroyed by just knowing the wrong person.
The most intensive focus of the Red Hunters was on Hollywood, perceived as the shaper of public thought. Many writers and performers moved to Mexico or Europe to avoid being put in prison. There was great pressure to avoid controversial subject matter in films or on TV, and the result was the Ozzie and Harriet myth, Doris Day and Annette Funicello, Beach Blanket Bingo: silly, vapid entertainment.
The ice began to melt in 1960, with breakthrough films like “The Brave One” (written by Dalton Trumbo under a fake name because he was blacklisted) and “Spartacus,” both highly acclaimed and both addressing the plight of the downtrodden, repressive government, human rights, etc.
Americans were afraid of the communists for good reason, in light of the atrocities committed by Josef Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Through American spies, the Commies had gotten the recipe for the Atom Bomb, a truly terrifying prospect. To be suspected of being a communist was worse than being a murderer or rapist. Just being suspected meant one was a traitor, cutting the throats of American babies. Anyone who refused to take the pledge was blacklisted and found it impossible to get work, and was harassed constantly by ‘agents’ for names of other ‘sympathizers’.
Many refused to take the pledge on principle; after all, it is a free country. People like Dalton Trumbo, Ruth Gordon, Zero Mostel, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Jose Ferrer and Orson Welles were blacklisted.
McCarthy did not create the communist problem, but he exploited it shamelessly for political ends, accusing the Democrats in general with baseless, sweeping, shotgun allegations. He was a master of the soundbite, and played the press like a harp.
The reign of stupidity called McCarthyism was big news for most of the 50’s, and shaped future national mood swings. It brought ‘denial’ to new heights, and showed once again how easily fascism can take root.
His efforts helped the Republicans win in the Congress and Senate, and also helped to put Republican Dwight Eisenhower in the White House. But instead of quitting while he was ahead, McCarthy kept up his attacks, accusing respected Government officials and Army personnel of being Communist sympathizers. No McCarthy charge against a government official was ever proven.
The new media of television captured McCarthy’s final moments, where in dazzling black and white he showed the world what an anal-retentive idiot he really was.
At the end, during hearings when he took on the US Army, the Army’s well respected attorney Joseph Welch asked him “Have you no shame?”, and said that McCarthy was a lout deserving no further attention, again on the shimmering eye of television. The tide of public opinion turned against him, after seeing him in all his revolting, alcoholic glory. He died shortly after that, like a poisonous mushroom spreading his spores and then shriveling into nothing.