Fighting Communism at Home
While Truman and Eisenhower both sought to
contain communism in Europe and Asia, their administrations also
presided over efforts to rid the U.S. itself of communist elements.
The American Communist Party had peaked in strength during
World War II and had been linked to covert operations designed to
aid the Soviet Union. Such espionage was known to have involved
individuals within the federal government. In March 1947, Truman
issued an executive order establishing the Federal Employee Loyalty
Program, which became so powerful that it often abridged the rights
of officials in its search for disloyalty. Employees who criticized
American policy were subject to humiliating investigations. By 1956,
this program had led to more than 2,500 dismissals and 12,000 resignations
from official posts.
As Cold War fears grew, much of the nation became convinced
that communists within the country were working on a large scale
to subvert the American government. Thirty-nine states passed antisubversion
laws and loyalty programs. Any criticism of the government was likely
to meet with investigation and denouncement. In 1947, the House
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led a series of highly
publicized hearings, in which witnesses were forced into confessions,
or, if they refused to confess, faced restrictions of their rights.
HUAC attacked a number of prominent screenwriters and directors,
prompting Hollywood to establish an unofficial blacklist that prevented
any questionable individuals from getting work. During the presidential
campaign of 1948, Truman sought to demonstrate his stance against
communism by prosecuting eleven leaders of the Communist Party under
the 1940 Smith Act, which prohibited any conspiracy
from overthrowing the government. Unions shrank from public action
lest they be labeled communist. The Communist Party itself began
to fade in strength, with membership falling to about 25,000. But
some government officials nevertheless asserted that the communist
threat was everywhere.
The Hiss and Rosenberg Cases
In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor at Time magazine
and a former Soviet spy, named Alger Hiss as an underground
member of the Communist Party. Hiss, a graduate of Harvard Law School
who had worked within the federal government for years, denied Chambers’s
claims in court. In January 1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury
and sentenced to five years imprisonment, emboldening conservatives
and raising questions about the past activities of many Democrats
In February 1950, Klaus Fuchs, a scientist involved in
the Manhattan Project, was arrested for passing information on nuclear
weapons development to the Soviets during World War II. This arrest
led to the implication of Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and most
notably, the Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius. The Rosenbergs
claimed they were the victims of anti-Semitism and were targeted
for their leftist beliefs. In March 1951 they were convicted and
sentenced to death. They were executed in June 1953.
Anticommunism reached its peak in the U.S. with the rise
of McCarthyism. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed
to have a list of 205 people known to be members of the Communist
Party who were still working in the State Department. McCarthy continued
to make such speeches, though he reduced the number of names on
his list and modified the allegations to merely “bad risks.” Although
a Senate committee called these accusations a hoax, McCarthy continued
his rhetoric. Republicans in the Senate soon came to support McCarthy,
if only for the political benefits to be gained from attacks on
liberals. McCarthy’s appeal grew steadily throughout the nation,
until the Democrats feared that to oppose him would mean certain
humiliation and charges of disloyalty. In 1950, in the spirit of
McCarthyism, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act,
which stated that organizations the attorney general deemed communist
had to register with the Department of Justice and provide member
lists and financial statements. The act also barred communists from
working in defense plants, and allowed the government to deport
any alien suspected of subversion.
The anticommunism of the late 1940s and early
1950s took its most radical form in McCarthyism. Joseph McCarthy
led an anticommunist witch-hunt designed to root out subversive
elements in American government and society.
In 1954, at the height of his powers, McCarthy
accused the military of being a haven for spies. The army countered
by accusing McCarthy of using his power to secure preferential treatment for
a member of his staff who had been drafted. In televised congressional
hearings on these matters, McCarthy behaved poorly—he appeared aggressive
and bullying—and thereby turned public opinion against him. The
Senate voted to censure McCarthy in December 1954, with support
from Eisenhower. The fall of McCarthy lessened the fervor of anticommunism, though
it did not wipe out fears of subversion.
Domestic Policies of Truman and Eisenhower
Inflation plagued America’s postwar economy, as food prices
rose over 15 percent in 1946. At the same time, American workers
were demanding higher pay and strikes were rampant across the country.
The railroad system shut down completely in the spring of 1946.
Truman intervened in the strikes and, in so doing, alienated many
working-class interest groups. As a result, Democrats fared badly
in the midterm election of 1946, and Republicans gained control
of Congress for the first time since 1928.
Truman struggled to push his liberal initiatives through
a Republican-controlled Congress. In his aims to extend FDR’s New
Deal, Truman did gain passage of the Employment Act of 1946, which
committed the government to stimulating economic growth, but only through
significant compromise: Congress stripped the bill of many of its
more important elements, such as the stated goal of providing full
employment. This opposition set the tone for many of Truman’s efforts
to create a social safety net for Americans. Congress blocked Truman’s
attempts to provide for public housing, the expansion of Social
Security, and a higher minimum wage, among other elements derived
from the New Deal.
Truman’s domestic policy attempted to
extend FDR’s New Deal. After Republicans gained control of Congress
in 1946, Truman’s policies were largely rejected.
The Election of 1948 and the Fair Deal
The Republican Congress passed tax cuts for the rich and
kept the minimum wage down in attempts to dismantle the New Deal.
Union activities were restricted, most prominently by the Taft-Hartley
Act of 1947, which banned certain practices and allowed the
president to call for an eighty-day cooling off period to delay
strikes thought to pose risks to national safety. Truman vetoed
the measure, and though his veto was overridden, his actions roused the
support of organized labor, a group crucial to his election bid
in 1948. In efforts to maintain the support of this and other groups
central to FDR’s New Deal coalition, Truman proposed many liberal
reforms aimed at winning the labor, Catholic, Jewish, black, farm,
and immigrant vote. He was moderately successful in this endeavor,
and though many pundits assumed he would lose the election to Republican
candidate Thomas Dewey, he pulled through with a narrow victory.
Truman saw this victory as a mandate for liberalism and
unveiled a new program, which he called the Fair Deal,
in 1949. Congress now proved more cooperative and passed bills to increase
the minimum wage, expand Social Security, and construct low-income
housing. But as America entered a period of postwar prosperity and
became increasingly interested in international affairs, the Fair
Deal lost steam.
The Election of 1952 and Eisenhower
Truman decided not to run again for president in 1952,
so the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson to run against Republican
candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower. A moderate and a World
War II hero, Eisenhower chose as his running mate Richard
Nixon, a more conservative Republican and a fervent anticommunist.
Eisenhower’s choice captured the period’s spirit of the ultra-conservative
anticommunism and helped push him to a decisive Republican victory
in the election of 1952.
Eisenhower called his philosophy of government “dynamic
conservatism.” He set a moderate, corporate-oriented course
for his administration, staffing his cabinet largely with business
executives. He was determined to work with the Democratic Party
rather than against it and at times opposed proposals made by more
conservative members of his own party. Ike, as Eisenhower was known,
advocated a strong effort by the government to stimulate the economy.
Faced with economic depressions in 1953 and 1957, he went against
the tendency of his party by increasing spending rather than trying
to maintain a balanced budget. He cooperated with the Democratic
Congress in expanding Social Security benefits and raising the minimum
wage. In 1956, Eisenhower supported the Interstate Highway Act,
the most expensive public works program in American history. His
success in boosting prosperity and pleasing many different factions
while keeping the U.S. out of war resulted in his landslide victory
in the election of 1956.