The Second Red Scare
The McCarthy era, which generally spanned from 1947 to 1957, brought to the forefront of American politics the question of civil rights. At issue were controversies about both First Amendment rights to assembly and free speech and Fifth Amendment rights to due process and freedom from self-incrimination. Anti-Communist actions often involved restrictions on these rights, and heading the anti-Communist movement was the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). This committee, which consisted of government officials from Congress, was formed to investigate the threat of Communism in America. In doing so, the committee brought in witnesses, usually individuals thought to have, or to have had, Communist affiliations. The overzealous tendencies of HUAC, however, resulted in the use of bullying and smear tactics in its quest to expose a supposed Communist conspiracy. Coming to the defense of individuals under attack by anti-Communists was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU’s aim was to champion civil rights, regardless of the ideologies of the groups it defended. Its activities have ranged, for example, from defending the rights of Nazis to protest during the seventies to espousing the abolition of segregated schools in the South during the fifties. In the McCarthy era, the ACLU had its hands full dealing with threats to civil rights that stemmed from anti-Communism. The ACLU, however, was not without its own anti-Communistic sentiments. Indeed, within the ACLU was a cadre of anti-Communist members that made it difficult at times for the ACLU to take a strong stance for the civil liberties of suspected Communists.
This side of the ACLU often gets overlooked, as do the original intentions of HUAC. Both, in theory, held similar principles in regard to civil rights and Communism. HUAC aimed to protect American ideals of democracy. It violated, however, the civil rights necessary for democracy. While the ACLU proposed to protect civil rights no matter the cause, it refused at times to extend those civil rights to Communists or Communist sympathizers on the grounds that Communists sought to suppress civil rights. Thus, although the ACLU and HUAC are generally perceived as diametrically opposed groups, the ambivalence of both groups makes it difficult to paint the former as the archetypal protector of civil rights and the latter as the archetypal suppressor of civil rights.
While HUAC’s actions were not laudable, it paradoxically had the best interests of the American public in mind, including protecting American civil rights. Insofar as Communism seemed to threaten the American way of life, HUAC’s attempts to root out Communists reflected a concern for American civil rights. The authoritarian nature of the Communist Party, as described by some, seems to support the idea of a Communist threat to American ideals. As a friendly witness before HUAC, for example, former Communist Party member Elia Kazan...