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While the United States was fighting the Cold War to preserve its freedoms, the fears and anti-Communism the Cold War helped cause at home undermined some of those freedoms. One of the most notorious examples of this is Senator Joseph McCarthy. In his search for Communists in the U.S. government he infringed upon civil rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech, provided to all Americans by Constitution. His actions caused a lot of innocent people, mostly government employees, to loose their jobs and reputation. In addition, in the case of Hollywood Ten, the freedom of speech – the most vital freedom in democratic society, was violated because the speech and views of Hollywood Ten where different, or were thought to be different, from those of House Un-American Activities Committee. In another case, the Rosenbergs Trial, the basic rules of criminal procedure and burden of proof were buried under the anti-Communist hysteria and two possible innocent people were electrocuted.
McCarthy was little known before gaining national attention with a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 12, 1950. In that address, McCarthy argued that the United States was denied the fruits of victory from World War II by treasonous subversives in the U.S. State Department. He especially blamed the 1949 Chinese communist takeover on treachery within the U.S. State Department. In that speech, McCarthy stated fifty-seven Communists were working in the State Department (Matusow 48).
Even when Senator McCarthy was giving his very first accusing speech in Wheeling he had not any factual information whatever to support his accusations. The truth is that in making his speech in Wheeling, Senator McCarthy was talking of a subject and circumstances about which he knew nothing. After the specially-appointed Tydings Committee reviewed McCarthy’s work, they concluded that in no instance was any one of State Department employees found to be a card-carrying Communist, a member of the Communist Party, or loyal to the Communist Party (Matusow 67).
McCarthy’s extreme and irresponsible statements called for emergency measures. As Senator Wherry told Emmanuel S. Larsen in January 1951, “Oh, Mac [McCarthy] has gone out on a limb and kind of made a fool of himself and we have to back him up now.” Starting with nothing, Senator McCarthy and his supporters plunged headlong forward, desperately seeking to develop some information which, colored with distortion and fanned by a blaze of bias, would forestall a day of reckoning (Matusow 54).
As a result of McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts, the character of private citizens and of Government employees was virtually destroyed by public condemnation on the basis of deliberate untruths. For example, McCarthy was responsible for stripping Robert Openheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, of his security clearance. Because Openheimer had publicly questioned the ethical implications of the atomic bomb for years, he was a suspect of subversion. McCarthy was unstoppable; politicians dared not criticize him for fear of being accused of Communism themselves (Matusow 85).
By the mere fact of their associations with a few persons of alleged questionable proclivities, an effort had been made to harm people whose only asset was their character and devotion to duty and country. This had been done without the slightest vestige of respect for even the most elementary rules of evidence or fair play or, indeed, common decency. Indeed, it was an effort not merely to establish guilt by association but guilt by accusation alone. This was something one would expect in a totalitarian nation where the rights of the individual are crushed beneath the juggernaut of oppression: it had no place in America where government exists to serve our people, not to destroy them (Kort 82).
In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), created by the House of Representatives to hunt out Communists, began conducting closed-door hearings to investigate allegations of communism in the movie industry. One of HUAC’s complaints was that Hollywood had produced pro-Russian films such as Mission to Moscow, North Star, and Song of Russia. HUAC ignored the fact that the films had been made at the urging of the Office of War Information after the World War II, to make Americans sympathize with their new ally. The committee interviewed actors like Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan, and Gary Cooper and studio owners such as Walt Disney. Some witnesses testified to alleged subversive activities and named names of alleged communists. But ten witnesses, known as Hollywood Ten, all screenwriters, refused to answer questions, including whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party (Feis 109).
The experiences of the Hollywood Ten were emblematic. Though their cases did not set legal precedents, these screenwriters and directors became the most notorious group of HUAC witnesses to rely on the First Amendment. They had all been in the Communist Party and, when subpoenaed to appear before the committee in October 1947, they took a confrontational stand. Like many of HUAC’s other unfriendly witnesses of the period, they and their attorneys assumed that the Supreme Court would probably vindicate them; also, they used their public hearings as a forum to expound their own political views. Witnesses and committee members yelled at each other, and several of the Ten were literally pulled away from the witness stand by federal marshals. A month later the full House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to cite them for contempt. They were tried and convicted in the spring of 1948. Two years later, the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear their case upheld the lower court decisions and confirmed their convictions (Feis 112).
In 1947, when the Ten appeared before HUAC, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the First Amendment rights of unfriendly witnesses and HUAC was still considered slightly disreputable. Because the justices at first refused to hear these cases, it was not clear how they would handle the substantive constitutional issues that the committee’s activities presented. But as the official campaign against American communism intensified and public sympathy for the uncooperative witnesses began to erode, it became increasingly unlikely that the majority of the justices would take an unpopular position on any case that involved the politically sensitive issue of communism. Unlike in other cases, there was no question of national security involved, so the Court based its reluctance to challenge what it perceived to be the will of the people–or at least of Congress–on the doctrine of judicial restraint. That meant that the Court would not overrule the clearly expressed policies of other branches of government. Most of the justices disapproved of HUAC’s heavy-handed tactics, but, as Justice Robert Jackson explained in 1949, they felt “it would be an unwarranted act of judicial usurpation to strip Congress of its investigatory power or to assume for the courts the function of supervising congressional committees.” In short, HUAC had a free hand (Feis 117).
Thus, in the case of Hollywood Ten, Supreme Court failed to change the injustice that was done to these people and the clear violation of First Amendment. Cited for contempt of Congress, the Hollywood Ten as they were called, all served one year in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. The ten were blacklisted after their release. This meant their names were put on lists of workers studios would not hire (Dudley 168)).
On August 6, 1945 an American bomber dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing approximately 100,000 people. With this event the United States showed the world that they now solely possessed the world’s most powerful weapon. The United States tried to make sure they were the only ones in the world who knew how to make it. On September 23, 1949 the Russians exploded their own atomic bomb. Had United States’ secrets not been protected? At the time, it seemed highly unlikely that the Russians could have developed this bomb on their own. It seemed that Russian spies living in the U.S. had somehow obtained the information to help construct the bomb. At first, no one had a clue to who these spies could be however, soon the FBI conducted an investigation and several arrests were made. Eventually they found two people who seemed to be the ringleaders of the spies who stole the secrets Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death mainly because of the testimony of Ethel’s brother David Greenglass (Freeland 144).
To secure Julius’s confession and execution, FBI used very questionable methods. The arrest of Julius’s wife, Ethel, more than a month after her husband’s was a cold-blooded effort to pressure Julius into confessing and informing. The FBI and the prosecutors felt that Julius was totally devoted to Ethel and that he would do anything not to bring harm to her. They also knew that should Ethel be convicted with Julius, their young sons, Michael, born in 1943 and Robert, in 1947, would be left alone. The government felt that the threat of abandonment of the two boys would also secure Julius’s confession (Freeland 202).
In fact, Ethel had little if anything to do with the Communist spy ring. The most she did was type some materials and was present at her husband’s side during a few crucial meetings. Since the FBI and prosecutors had virtually no case against Ethel Rosenberg, it is rumored that the Greenglasses may have been persuaded to embellish Ethel’s role in her husbands alleged spying. Despite the lack of a case against Ethel, she still took the stand and faced cross-examination strongly with the same story as her husband (Freeland 211).
Prosecution did not prove that Julius, or even more so Ethel, ever spied and gave the atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. The whole case was based on the word of Greenglass against the word of Rosenbergs. The jury ignored the fact that the burden of proof was on the prosecution and found the Rosenbergs guilty. This decision shows that the anti-Communist hysteria reached even those people who are supposed to be the most unbiased – jury. The Americans needed a scapegoat, someone to put the blame on. They found the scapegoats in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were sentenced to death by the electric chair and in 1953 they were executed in Sing Sing prison.
After McCarthy was discredited, the anti-Communist hysteria slowly subsided. But many innocent Americans already had seen their careers and lives damaged because of McCarthy’s hunts for people who he suspected to be sympathetic to Communists. Many more United States citizens found it wise to keep their views to themselves rather than risk being labeled a Communist or pro-Communist. Also, the lives of the Hollywood screenwriters and directors, who had to serve a year in prison and who were then blacklisted, were shattered. Not to mention Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the only people ever executed for espionage in the peacetime. Their guilt remains questionable to this day. Reading about politicians like McCarthy and cases like these, one comes to appreciate even more our Bill of Rights, a free press, and the heritage of freedom that has made the United States what it is.
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