Investigating the Origins and Impacts of the Red Scare

drawing of a crowd frightened of a red blob main

In the 1950s, there was a widely-held belief in the United States that a domestic communist threat existed, prompting a Red Scare and leading to measures that threatened civil liberties. Communism was long seen as a threat to American values, including a previous red scare after WWI when the Soviet Union was first established. During the Cold War Era, the Red Scare was an expression of the nation’s underlying fear and anxiety about its security.

Scary Communism

A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Communism.

Karl Marx

Communism has always been a bit scary.  When Karl Marx wrote his “Communist Manifesto,” he spoke of the movement in terms that might arise in a Scooby Doo (“not afraid of those ghosts!”) cartoon.  Communism in the 19th Century was seen as a threat to capitalism and the social order. 

Communism would lead to a violent revolution, threatening all that is good in the world.

For those seeking to delve deeper into the topics of communism and socialism, you can find a discussion of each separately here. The important thing to remember here is that communism was long seen as a threat in Europe and the United States. 

There were never too many actual communists, but they often were very noisy and in a few cases used violence to promote their cause.  

The color red had long been the symbol of revolution.  Red is the color of blood and fighting. Red became the symbol of communism as seen in the flags of the Soviet Union and China.  The fear of communism became known as the “red scare.”  

First Red Scare (1918-20) 

The first major red scare in the U.S. took place after World War I, both a result of the Russian Revolution and some protests on the home front.  These protests included strikes (which over our history often became violent) and a series of bombings.  

The radicals involved had a range of beliefs but communism was a major target.  The resulting “Palmer Raids” led to thousands of arrests and hundreds of deportations.  

Communists Have Their Heyday (the 1930s) 

The fear died down, but there remained a lingering concern for anti-American communist ideas.  A saying eventually arose, sometimes ridiculed as extreme, to show just what was at stake:

It is high time in any case that the workers learned to live by faith, not work. As for those weaklings who may fall by the wayside and starve to death, let the country bury them under the epitaph: Better Dead than Red.

Communism had a bit of a comeback during the 1930s.  The Great Depression seemed to show that the American way of doing things was out of date.  Communism, with its talk of everyone being a comrade, also seemed a good alternative to the racism of Jim Crow

On the other hand, communism seemed a threat to the powers that be, including supporters of segregation.  

The 1930s was a high point for communism in the United States. Communism was still a relatively small force in American life. There were about one hundred thousand “card-carrying” communists and about a million people generally sympathetic to their cause.  

The population at the time, however, was over one hundred million.  Nonetheless, it along with the growing rise of fascism in Europe led to more fears about the subversion of American values. One sign of this was the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the U.S. Congress.  The committee lingered on until the 1970s. 

Red Scare Arises After WWII 

The popularity of communism decreased over time, especially as the Great Depression did not turn out to be the cusp of the communist revolution many felt it might be.  

When people pointed to evidence of actual communist activity in the United States, it usually took place in the 1930s or early 1940s.  But, communism was still a specter that haunted the United States.  And, it is the second red scare that we particularly remember.  

Communism Spreads Abroad  

The first Red Scare, after World War I, was greatly increased because communism had one of its biggest wins in Soviet Russia.  The Soviet Union now joined with the United States to be the two “superpowers” in world affairs.  This includes the dominance of Eastern Europe, which became a communist zone.  The Marshall Plan helped to stop this from happening in the West. 

Meanwhile, if this wasn’t enough China became communist as well.  This all seemed unbelievable to some people.  Didn’t freedom win at the end of WWII? How did communists gain control of China so fast?  There was talk of the U.S. State Department “losing China.”   

Fear of Communism In the U.S.  

The first Red Scare was aggravated by domestic unrest, including a limited amount of actual violence.  Communism as a domestic threat was much smaller by the end of World War II.  It was said at times that there were more informers than real communists at some meetings.  

There continued to be the fear of communist affiliations, encouraged by some actual evidence of spying and lingering sympathy for communist ideas. 

The stakes seemed so very high, with the “godless Soviet Union” now having nuclear technology, and spreading its power throughout Eastern Europe.  People who even were sympathizers could not be trusted!  

[1] Spies 

A few Americans admitted they were spies (such as Elizabeth Bentley) for the Soviet Union. Some people were convicted as spies. The Rosenbergs were executed for leaking nuclear secrets.  A well-known State Department official, Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjury.  

There was some limited amount of espionage, which is far from surprising since the Americans also did their own over the years.  The opposition to communism and somewhat sketchy efforts toward fighting for a world revolution also led to such things as communists using fake names.  

This also helped foster the idea that communism, even peaceful efforts, was inherently illegitimate.  

[2]  Hollywood  

HUAC held many hearings that increased the assumed threats. In 1947, it investigated Hollywood, accusing it of being filled with communists subverting our values via motion pictures.  Very few communists actually were there, especially if even sympathy with left-leaning ideas was enough.  The beloved Lucille Ball even was feared to be a “commie.”  

HUAC insisted people “name names” and expose others. A few (including “the Hollywood 10”) refused on First Amendment grounds to testify.  They were prosecuted anyway.  

Some refused to testify since it would be a form of self-incrimination barred by the Bill of Rights.  This was allowed, but they were blacklisted, and refused jobs in Hollywood.   

[3]  Conformity (the 1950s) 

The investigation of communism, often leading to suspicion and blacklists on limited evidence, spread nationwide.  For instance, states like New York started to require teachers to take loyalty oaths that they were never communists.  This was not only a violation of freedom of belief,  but again, “communist” can mean a range of liberal beliefs including anti-racism.  

The result in Hollywood and elsewhere was an increase in conformity. Discussing controversial topics such as racism, workers’ rights, and pacificism was frowned upon. Also, there was a major lavender scare, targeting homosexuals in government and in public places. 


Anticommunism became a major political cause after WWII.  Richard Nixon began his political career by tarring his opponent as “pink.”  Anticommunism was used by both political parties.  President Truman pushed back at first, but still accepted loyalty programs in government.  

The Red Scare is symbolized by the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) to accuse the State Department of being infiltrated by communists. 

In one speech, McCarthy declared that he was holding a piece of paper with a list of 205 names of communists that the secretary of state allowed continue to work there and shape policy.   

McCarthy made many sensational accusations, with changing details that were rarely if ever fully substantiated, which reminds us of Marx’s specter.  The target, the Truman (Democrat) State Department, also shows McCarthy’s efforts had a partisan political aspect.   

Any allegation that people were being treated unfairly was seen as crazy talk, if not insidious.  The resulting mixture of fear and threat to American values such as free speech and fair treatment in the promotion of “protecting America” became known as McCarthyism.  

McCarthyism threatened and ruined many careers and reputations.  The specter of communism was compared to hunting witches, leading to the term “witch hunt.”  If you study the play The Crucible, you might know the play is actually a symbolic response to McCarthyism.  

The Specter Continues To Haunt 

The rawness of the Red Scare lessened as the Cold War settled into a more extended period of near normalcy. There were still such things as “drills” (shades of those today with guns) to prepare schoolchildren for a nuclear attack.  

But, the fear of communism decreased enough that the Red Scare ended.  The death of Joe McCarthy in 1957 is one symbol of the end.  The Supreme Court also began to strike down various excesses.  Plays and films like Inherit the Wind flagged the dangers of paranoia and suppression of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and belief.  

But, fears lingered.  An unease continues that American values are not being protected. There are always some real threats and many imaginary ones to fuel these concerns.  

Fear and paranoia always remain as a specter that haunts us.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.