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What Was the Red Scare?

communist rally
The United States experienced two periods of intense anti-communist sentiment in the 20th century.

Two Red Scares in American history occurred within 40 years of each other during the 20th century.

What is a Red Scare?

A Red Scare is a period of heightened anti-communist alarm during which paranoia and mass hysteria are prevalent.

In response to the supposed rise of communism, strict measures are put in place by the government that limits debate and promotes patriotism and xenophobia.

First Red Scare

The First Red Scare occurred between 1917 and 1920. The events of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia at the time initiated it.

Vladimir Lenin mural
The Bolshevik Revolution saw the Russian monarchy abolished. It had a significant part in the First Red Scare.

In addition, a series of anarchist attacks that included bombings hit various cities in the United States, accompanied by labor unrest and strikes.

Labor Unrest


Inspired by the Russian Revolution and enraged by low wages, dissatisfied workers across several unions in Seattle went on a labor strike for five days in February 1919.

A whopping 65,000 workers walked out, shutting down the city’s port and other industries.


The Boston Police Strike occurred in September of 1919 when 80% of the Boston police force went on strike in response to opposition to their attempt to organize a union.

With the police on strike, robberies, and other crimes, including riots, skyrocketed. Eventually, units of the Massachusetts militia were called in to quell the unrest. This resulted in two citizens’ deaths.

Anarchist Bombings

On June 2nd, bombs rocked seven cities across the United States. The bombs were planted by anarchists, many of whom were disciples of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist leader who advocated for violence as a means to change.

anarchist symbol
Anarchist bombings rocked America during the First Red Scare.

The anarchist bombings of 1919 lasted from April to June and caused two deaths, two injuries, and an untold number of buildings destroyed.

In 1920 a bomb exploded on Wall Street where anarchists had placed 100 pounds of dynamite in a horse carriage and detonated it killing 40.

Alien Act

Shortly after the United States entered World War I against Germany in June of 1917, the United States Government enacted and passed the Espionage Act.

The Espionage Act was enforced by then-United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer under President Woodrow Wilson.

The law made it a crime for anyone in the United States to interfere or interject themselves against the war effort or to help or promote the interests of the country’s enemies.

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson was in office during the initial Red Scare.

Those guilty of breaking the law were subject to up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Sedition Act

The Sedition Act of 1918 reinforced the Espionage Act. It made “abuse” of the United States government or practically anything representative of the United States, including symbols like the flag, the military, or the constitution, illegal.

Both the Sedition and Espionage Acts were used by influential figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Palmer to persecute supposed left-wing radicals, Communists, and others that had made enemies of the government or influential individuals connected to the government in a brutally repressive way.

Second Red Scare

The fear of the communist threat rose again out of the ashes in America’s immediate end of World War II as the Cold War, and the Soviet Union ratcheted up.

Soviet flag
The Second Red Scare occurred as Cold War tensions intensified.

The primary enemy of the United States became the Soviet Union. The dreaded ugly beast of communism reared its head from within the United States, at least according to some powerful politicians.

One of those politicians was Joseph McCarthy, a staunch right-wing Republican senator who became the face of the Second Red Scare. He was a man who promulgated mass hysteria and was the man behind McCarthyism.

Rise of McCarthy

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was a relatively unknown young Senator from Wisconsin. In February of 1950, McCarthy boldly claimed that he was privy to a list of 205 card-carrying members of the Communist party that the State Department employed.

United States Congress
Senator McCarthy held Congressional Hearings in his campaign against communism.

That was the opening salvo in his relentless crusade against communism in the early 1950s, essentially ushering in the Second Red Scare.

McCarthy’s position as chairman of the Senate Permanent Investigation Subcommittee gave him tremendous power and the ability to bring his campaign against communism to the forefront.

House Un-American Activities Committee

Founded in 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) frequently worked on finding and exposing real or supposed communist agents and other subversive elements active in the United States.

HUAC targeted the federal government and Hollywood film studios.

The pressure from HUAC and the associated negative publicity directed toward the movie studios led to large-scale blacklists that excluded suspected radicals from employment. This led to unemployment for many talented individuals.

Hoover And The FBI

Hoover, known to be a fervent anti-communist, took part in both Red Scares.

As director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the Second Red Scare, Hoover had much more power to unleash his ill feelings into action against left-wingers and suspected communists.

FBI plaque
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a fervent anti-communist.

Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI performed wiretaps and surveillance and went undercover to infiltrate leftist groups suspected of being communist agents.

The FBI’s Results

Hoover and the FBI’s surveillance tactics led to the 1949 conviction of 12 members of the African Communist Party and the arrest and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

They were found guilty of espionage and passing information to the Soviet Union as spies.

McCarthy’s Peak

From 1952 to 1954, McCarthy was constantly in the spotlight and on the front page of papers across the country for investigating and interrogating various government departments and their members.

McCarthy called to the stand countless witnesses in the 1950s though he failed to deliver a plausible case against any of his targets.

His firm conviction and clever presentations led to many suspects losing their jobs and receiving widespread condemnation and shame for disloyalty.

McCarthy Hearings

The peak of McCarthy’s powers culminated in the “McCarthy Hearings” of 1954. This was 36 days of televised hearings that enthralled the American public and featured McCarthy prominently.

Hollywood sign
Numerous high-profile Hollywood figures found themselves in Senator McCarthy’s crosshairs for being suspected communists.

McCarthy’s Demise

McCarthy was eventually discredited by suspected army doctor Joseph Welch who famously uttered,

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

to McCarthy during his trial.

The work of highly regarded journalist Edward R. Murrow, who systematically and skillfully criticized McCarthy, blew further holes into the Senator and his unfounded paranoia and attempted witch-hunt.

McCarthy would eventually be censured by the Senate for his libel and die shortly after in 1957.

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