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Digital History ID 3421

 

In May 1950, at the very moment that Senator Joseph McCarthy was beginning his crusade against communist subversion, the U.S. Senate created a special committee to investigate another "enemy within": organized crime.

Crime statistics suggested that the nation was in the midst of an unprecedented wave of violence. Criminologists attributed a surge in burglary, murder, and prostitution to such factors as the wartime disruption of families, shortages of goods, and a continuing public demand for illicit gambling. But journalists and citizen crime commissions identified another villain, organized crime.

For 15 months, a committee headed by Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver held hearings in 14 major cities. Television made the committee's hearings among the most influential in American history. As many as 20 to 30 million Americans watched spellbound as crime bosses, bookies, pimps, and hit-men appeared on their television screens. Americans listened intently as the committee's chairman informed them that "there is a secret international government-within-a-government" that controlled gambling, vice, and narcotics trafficking, all of which were protected by corrupt police officers, judges, and politicians.

The Kefauver Committee failed to produce effective crime-fighting legislation. It did, however, lead the Special Rackets Squad of the FBI to launch 46,000 investigations and help defeat proposals to legalize gambling in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and Montana.

The investigations also helped popularize the myth that organized crime was an alien import, brought into the United States by Sicilian immigrants in the form of the Mafia, a highly centralized, secret organization that used violence and deceit to prey on the public's weaknesses. In fact, the committee's conclusion--that organized crime was rooted in a highly centralized ethnic conspiracy--was in error. Most organized crime in the United States is organized on a municipal or regional, rather than a national, basis. And despite the image portrayed in such novels as Mario Puzo's The Godfather, diverse ethnic groups have participated in gambling, loan sharking, narcotics trafficking, and labor racketeering.

In recent years, the power of the nation's traditional Mafia families has dwindled. The decline of the mob, however, has not meant the end of organized crime. Rival crime groups have stepped in and taken over such activities as illegal gambling and drug dealing.

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