One of the pioneering efforts to investigate communist activities took place in the U.S. House of Representatives, where the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed in 1938. HUAC’s investigations frequently focused on exposing Communists working inside the federal government or subversive elements working in the Hollywood film industry, and the committee gained new momentum following World War II, as the Cold War began. Under pressure from the negative publicity aimed at their studios, movie executives created blacklists that barred suspected radicals from employment; similar lists were also established in other industries.
Another congressional investigator, U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-57) of Wisconsin, became the person most closely associated with the anticommunist crusade–and with its excesses. McCarthy used hearsay and intimidation to establish himself as a powerful and feared figure in American politics. He leveled charges of disloyalty at celebrities, intellectuals and anyone who disagreed with his political views, costing many of his victims their reputations and jobs. McCarthy’s reign of terror continued until his colleagues formally denounced his tactics in 1954.
The FBI and its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), aided many of the legislative investigations of communist activities. An ardent anticommunist, Hoover had been a key player in an earlier, though less pervasive, Red Scare in the years following World War I (1914-18). With the dawning of the new anticommunist crusade in the late 1940s, Hoover’s agency compiled extensive files on suspected subversives through the use of wiretaps, surveillance and the infiltration of leftist groups.
The information obtained by the FBI proved essential in high-profile legal cases, including the 1949 conviction of 12 prominent leaders of the American Communist Party on charges that they had advocated the overthrow of the government. Moreover, Hoover’s agents helped build the case against Julius Rosenberg (1918-53) and his wife, Ethel Rosenberg (1915-53), who were convicted of espionage in 1951 and executed two years later.