Several notable domestic events heightened the American distrust of Communists (see timeline slideshow, below). In one high-profile case, Julius Rosenberg, an engineer from New York City, was accused of passing sketches of an atomic bomb’s design to the Soviet Union. He and his wife, Ethel, were convicted of spying, and in 1953 were executed in an electric chair, though doubts still remain about Ethel’s involvement.
Then into this maelstrom of fear and paranoia stepped Joseph McCarthy, a little-known Republican senator who made startling and often false and distorted accusations.
McCarthy gave the era its name, and critics coined the enduring term McCarthyism for the smearing of opponents with innuendos or falsehoods.
McCarthyism became “a synonym for reckless accusation, guilt by association, fear-mongering, and political double-dealing,” says Larry Tye, author of Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. “It’s not often that a man’s name becomes an ism.”
McCarthy launched his anti-Communist crusade in 1950 with a vitriolic speech in West Virginia that turned him into a riveting national figure. He claimed that he had in his hand a list of 205 State Department employees who were Communists and spies. McCarthy had no such list but was distorting clippings about a State Department internal investigation of its own employees, with most of the 205 already having long been cleared.
There were certainly Americans spying for the Soviet Union, but McCarthy had no knowledge of who they were, and he never sent a subversive to jail. But because he enjoyed broad popular support, critics feared speaking out lest they too be labeled Communist sympathizers.