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The term "Red Scare" has been applied to two distinct periods of intense anti-Communism in United States history: first from 1917 to 1920, and second from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. Both periods were characterized by widespread fears of Communist influence on U.S. society and Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. These fears spurred aggressive investigation and (particularly during the first period) jailing of persons associated with communist and socialist ideology or political movements.
The term generally refers to the political atmosphere surrounding domestic political persecutions and violations of civil liberties, as well as the Cold War fears of imminent attack on the United States or its allies by the Soviet Union or China. With the exception of North Korea (which tried to frighten its people into relinquishing freedoms), governments of communist states generally did not promote similar fears of possible attacks by the U.S. or other countries because they wanted to show that they were not afraid of the Western world's intervention in their affairs with a mantra of nigh invincibility.
The first Red Scare
The first major red Scare in American history occurred directly after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Russian Constituent Assembly election, 1917 when the Bolsheviks did not win the majority. To many Americans, this was a time of uncertainty and fear over the status of labor in the United States. Events in 1919, such as the Seattle general strike and the Boston police force strike, demonstrated the rise of labor unions in the country during the era, which strongly supported socialism and communism.
A series of anarchist bombings in June of 1919 were the spark that started the fire. The mayor of Seattle received a homemade bomb in the mail on April 28, which was defused. Senator Thomas R. Hardwick received a bomb the next day, which blew off the hands of his servant who had discovered it, severely burning him and his wife. The following morning, a New York City postal worker discovered sixteen similar packages addressed to well-known people of the time, including oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. On June 2, a bomb partially destroyed the front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's house.
In the Wall Street bombing on September 16, 1920, 100 pounds (45 kg) of dynamite with 500 pounds (230 kg) of fragmented steel exploded in front of the offices of the J.P. Morgan Company, killing 40 people and injuring 300 others. Anarchists have long been suspected as initiating the attack, which followed a number of letter bombs that targeted Morgan himself.
In response to the bombings, the public flared up in a surge of patriotism, often involving violent hatred of communists, radicals, and foreigners. Senator Kenneth D. McKellar proposed sending radicals to a penal colony in Guam; General Leonard Wood called to place them on "ships of stone with sails of lead"; evangelist Billy Sunday clamored to "stand [radicals] up before a firing squad and save space on our ships." In Centralia, Washington, a radical was dragged from a town jail and hanged in a murder reminiscent of the lynching of German-Americans during the First World War.
The largest government action of the Red Scare was the Palmer Raids against anarchist, socialist, and communist groups. Left-wing activists such as Eugene V. Debs were jailed by government officials using the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Section Four of the Sedition act empowered Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson to slow or confiscate all Socialist material in the mail, a task that he took on readily. In a spectacle that exposed the paranoia, xenophobia, and fear of anarchism which much of the United States was experiencing, Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists, were executed for murder in a trial seen as unfair and protested around the world.
The second Red Scare
During the late 1920s through the 1930s, anti-communism in the U.S. died down, especially after the Soviet Union became an ally with the U.S. during World War II. As soon as the war ended, however, another Red Scare began in the McCarthy era from 1948 to the mid-1950s.
During the late 1940s, several news events caught the public attention, including the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason (which resulted in their heavily publicized executions); the acquisition of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, which spelled the end of the United States' monopoly on nuclear weapons technology; and the beginnings of the Korean War. Events such as these had a noticeable effect on the opinions of Americans in general regarding their own security, and gave rise to a subtle feeling of paranoia that centered upon a supposedly inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Widespread belief that communist spies and sympathisers were constantly working to bring the downfall of the United States added to the paranoia of the era.
In support of their cause, anti-communists used actions by the Soviet Union and China as evidence of the evil of communism, namely the many millions killed in the Soviet gulags, the Stalin era purges, the deportation of over one million Polish to Soviet labor camps in Siberia, and the killing of hundreds of thousands in China. This was in addition to the fact that the Soviet Union had rapidly and forcefully spread its influence into Eastern Europe following the Second World War.
The Red Scare manifested itself in several ways, notably through the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the acceleration of the arms race. Propaganda films like Red Nightmare were commissioned to further incite fears of communism and the Soviet Union.
There were also effects on America's way of life as a result of the Red Scare, which contributed to the popularization of fallout shelters in home construction and regular duck and cover drills at schools. The Red Scare is also cited as one factor that contributed to the rise and popularity of science fiction films during the 1950s and beyond. Many thrillers and science fiction movies of the period used a theme of a sinister, inhuman enemy that was planning to infiltrate society and destroy the American way of life (an example of which being Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
To test the strength of the influence of the Red Scare, the Capital-Times in Madison, Wisconsin (on July 4, 1951) drafted a petition made up entirely of quotes from the United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. A reporter was sent out to collect signatures. 111 out of 112 people on the street refused to sign the petition. Other papers around the U.S. (such as the New Orleans Item) tried the same experiment and encountered similar results. Many people went as far as urging that the FBI be called in to investigate the subversive petition. Most people did not want to get involved in any controversial statements. Most people thought that the phrases must have been written by Communists.
Other uses of the term
Today, the term Red Scare is sometimes used to refer to any anti-communist program, and is viewed by many leftists as pejorative. For details, see Contemporary reactions to McCarthyism.