Senator Joseph McCarthy did not create the national obsession with communist subversion. It had arisen in the late 1930s, years before McCarthy had come to public notice. Angry that they had been barred from the corridors of power for 20 years, conservative Republicans used everything they could to discredit the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Opponents of the New Deal were not always scrupulously careful to distinguish between liberals and Communists and used anti-communism as a way to attack labor unions and liberal social programs.
In fact, most liberals did not deny the threat of domestic and global communism. Most adopted a staunchly anti-communist stance from the middle 1940s onward. Labor leader Walter Reuther employed stern measures to purge Communists from the CIO in the 1940s. And even the perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, supported efforts to ban Communists from teaching positions on grounds that they had surrendered their right to academic freedom through subservience to Moscow.
The Hatch Act of 1938 made membership into the Communist Party grounds for refusal of federal employment. That same year, the House of Representatives established the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate communist and fascist subversion. Two years later, the Smith Act made it a federal offence to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. In 1949, under the Smith Act, eleven top U.S. Communists were sent to prison for up to five years.
Investigations by executive agencies into the loyalty of federal employees began as early as 1941. In 1947, the first general loyalty program was established by executive order. Executive Order 9835, signed in 1947 by President Truman, called for a loyalty investigation of all federal employees. Truman hoped that these investigations would help to rally public opinion behind his Cold War policies, while quieting those on the right who thought that the Democrats were soft on Communism. Of the three million government employees who were investigated, 308 were fired as security risks.
If the president had thought that his investigation would end the call to rid government of subversive influences, he was wrong. Accusations that a former high state department official named Alger Hiss had passed classified documents to Soviet agents fueled fears of subversion.
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