McCarthy's America: Domestic Anti-Communism in the USA, 1830-1990

Module code: HS3649 

Module co-ordinator: Dr George Lewis

There are very few individuals who can boast having either entire historical eras or discrete historical phenomena named after them. US Senator Joseph “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy has both. For the particular period of the 1950s that became known as the McCarthy era, he was a brooding, erratic and powerful presence at the heart of American domestic politics. His national, and indeed international, profile was built upon a single political issue: anti-communism. Using obscure senatorial committees, party political platforms, and as much press coverage as he could garner by fair means or foul, McCarthy made himself synonymous with the United States’ domestic Cold War concerns, and is often cited as a major factor in the rise and development of the paranoid and oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s. Indeed, McCarthy became such an imposing presence that a cartoonist at the Washington Post branded the style of aggressive, confrontational witch-hunting that he personified as “McCarthyism.”

Questions remain, however, about how effective McCarthy’s tactics were, how popular a politician he was, and just how new the “McCarthyism” that he practised was in both style and content. A number of historians now place his activities within a longer tradition of US anti-radicalism, and find continuities that run from the Haymarket Bombings of the late nineteenth century, through the First Red Scare of 1919-1920, the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, and on into the anti-communist rhetoric of Presidents Nixon and Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s. Others argue that McCarthy was simply lucky, riding on the coat-tails of existing anti-communist organizations and groups, not least the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], and that he was, therefore, a reflection of his times rather than the creator of an atmosphere in which he came to flourish.

Topics covered

The module seeks to place McCarthy into a broader, and longer, context, by analysing the history of US anti-radicalism from the very end of the nineteenth century to the dawning of the twenty-first. It seeks to look at a range of different chronological periods, and across a number of different themes and disciplines, to see how that anti-radicalism developed in political, social and cultural terms. Thus, for example, it examines: the First Red Scare of 1919-20; the development of “patriotic networks” and individuals in the 1930s; the surveillance practices of the FBI and investigative congressional “red hunting” committees such as HUAC in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s; the presidential politics that lay behind President Truman’s “Loyalty Commission” in the late 1940s; the way in which film and popular culture represented and reflected anti-communist campaigns in the Cold War; the effect that a domestic anti-communist consensus had on the home front and women’s political movements in the 1950s and 1960s; the way in which such Cold War concerns affected race relations during the civil rights era; and, of course, the rise and fall of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy himself.


This course is taught via one lecture and one seminar per week. All students will attend the lectures together, whilst the seminars see students split into two smaller groups. Seminars are designed to revolve around the most pressing historical debates for each week’s topic, and include both student presentations and group discussion.


Assessment is a combination of coursework and exams weighted 50:50. The coursework includes a portfolio (which is made up of an oral presentation that is delivered to your fellow students, and a brief written critique of the sources that you have encountered for that presentation), an essay which is selected freely from a list reflecting all of the module’s topics, and an exam.


M. J. Heale: American Anti-Communism: Combating the Enemy Within, 1830-1970.

Ellen Schrecker: Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.

Richard Gid Powers: Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism.

Joel Kovel: Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anti-Communism and the Making of America.

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr: Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America.

Albert Fried, McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare: A Documentary History.

George Lewis: The White South and the Red Menace: Segregationists, Anti-Communism and Massive Resistance, 1945-1965.