The McCarthy Era is a term describing a period in United States history that lasted from roughly the late 1940s to the late 1950s, specifically with reference to the consequences of the intense anti-communist suspicion prevalent during this early period of the Cold War.
One of the victims of McCarthyism was Prof. Nicholas Girard—the contemporary alias of Nicholas de Brabant, better known to viewers of Forever Knight as Det. Nick Knight. He was at the time an Associate Professor in the Archaeology Department at the University of Chicago.
As described in the episode "Spin Doctor", Prof. Girard is called to testify at committee hearings into the presumed encroachment of Communist Party members and communist sympathizers into the university—something that is considered particularly pernicious, given the influence that educators have on the minds of the young. Unwilling to betray others, Girard refuses to testify, citing his right under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not to incriminate himself. It is assumed by the committee and the press that he must be a communist himself; and he loses his job.
Background to the McCarthy EraEdit
The factors that contributed to the rise of McCarthyism go right back to the inception of Communism as a political force. Thanks in part to its success in organizing labor unions and its early opposition to fascism, the Communist Party of the United States increased its membership through the 1930s, reaching a peak of about 75,000 members in 1940–41. While the United States was engaged in World War II, it was allied with the Soviet Union; but, with the end of World War II, the Soviet Union installed repressive Communist puppet régimes across Central and Eastern Europe. Thus began the Cold War.
Through declassified documents from Soviet archives and Venona project decryptions of coded Soviet messages, it has since become known that the Soviet Union engaged in substantial espionage activities in the United States during the 1940s. It is also known that the Communist Party of the United States was substantially funded and its policies controlled by the Soviet Union. Its members were often recruited as spies.
Rise of McCarthyismEdit
Sen. Joseph McCarthy's involvement with the anti-Communist purge that would bear his name began with a speech he made on Lincoln Day, 9 February 1950, to the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. He produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department. McCarthy is usually quoted as saying: "I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." This speech resulted in a flood of press attention to McCarthy and established the path that made him one of the most recognized politicians in the United States.
Over the next decade, many thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. There were many of these anti-Communist committees, panels, and "loyalty review boards" in federal, state, and local governments, as well as many private agencies that carried out investigations for small and large companies concerned about possible Communists in their work force. In 1958 it was estimated that roughly one out of every five employees in the United States was required to pass some sort of loyalty review.
The most famous examples of McCarthyism include the speeches, investigations, and hearings of Senator McCarthy himself; the Hollywood blacklist, associated with hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities; and the various anti-communist activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under Director J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthyism was a widespread social and cultural phenomenon that affected all levels of society and was the source of a great deal of debate and conflict in the United States.
Claiming Fifth Amendment RightsEdit
Among the first film industry witnesses subpoenaed by the Committee were ten who decided not to cooperate. These men, who became known as the "Hollywood Ten", cited the guarantee of free speech and free assembly in the First Amendment to the U.S. Consititution, which they believed legally protected them from being required to answer the Committee's questions. This tactic failed, and the ten were sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress.
After that, any witnesses who was determined not to cooperate with the Committee would instead claim Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. While this usually protected them from a contempt of Congress citation, it was considered grounds for dismissal by many government and private industry employers.
The legal requirements for Fifth Amendment protection were such that a person could not testify about his own association with the Communist Party (even to deny being a member) and then refuse to "name names" of colleagues with Communist affiliations. Thus many faced a choice between being an informer or becoming known as a "Fifth Amendment Communist"—an epithet often used by Senator McCarthy.
Victims of McCarthyismEdit
The primary targets of suspicion were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators, and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence; and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and even imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts that later were overturned, laws that would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.
It is difficult to estimate the number of victims of McCarthyism. The number imprisoned is in the hundreds, and some ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs. In many cases, simply being subpoenaed by one of the investigative committees was sufficient cause to be fired.
- Adapted from the Wikipedia article on McCarthyism..