Fighting Communism at Home
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.
Investigating Loyalty
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 government.
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.
McCarthyism
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.
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