By Ashley Colwell Edit

McCarthyism broadly refers to making accusations of treason or disloyalty, which are often unprovable, or based on insignificant, or irrelevant evidence. Often this term is used to refer to the political climate of the late 40s and early 50s in the United States. During the height of the Cold War, a fear of Communism led to a series of intense investigations and trials of Americans who were accused of being Communists or Communist-sympathizers. The term McCarthyism stems from the former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.[1] When discussing the anti-Communist rhetoric of the United States during this time, Joseph McCarthy is at the forefront of the conversation.

History Edit

The invention of McCarthyism can be traced back to the Second Red Scare[2] in the United States in the late 1940s through the 1950s. In a post-WWII era, what United States' politicians feared the most was communism and the supposed threats to American freedoms that it posed. Following WWII, events involving the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War and the increasing recognition of Communism as a legitimate economic form heightened the fear of communism among U.S. politicians. Even before the involvement of Joseph McCarthy, for whom the McCarthy era is named for, the fear of communism the permeated American society for much of the late 40s and 50s led to a period of isolation in the United States. As a result, politicians employed an anti-Communism rhetoric that perpetuated political repression and intolerance during this period.

Joseph mccarthy

Former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the American Communist party gained recognition and followers, in hopes to improve the economic perils that many Americans were facing. Before the McCarthy era reached its peak, the American Communist party (CPUSA) was still a legitimate and recognizable political party in the U.S. However, this anti-Communist fervor led to the persecution of many Americans who aligned themselves with the Communist party. Eventually, Joseph McCarthy, former U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, involved himself in the anti-Communist movement, and sought to eradicate Communism completely from the American lifestyle. The irony of the McCarthy era is that while it sought to eliminate threats to American democracy, the methods used by anti-Communist proponents undermined the very thing they wanted to protect.

Hollywood Blacklist Edit

As a result of this anti-Communist rhetoric in American politics, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed. HUAC was responsible for the investigations against U.S. citizens who were supposedly Communist. Though HUAC employed McCarthy type rhetoric and methods during their investigations, Joseph McCarthy was not directly involved with the committee. Specifically, this committee singled out some screenwriters, producers, and directors who were supposed Communists. HUAC tried to get these screenwriters, producers, and directors to name colleagues who ere known Communists or Communist sympathizers in order to avoid punishment. This group of people were referred to as the Hollywood Ten[3], and they included: Dalton Trumbo, Herbert Biberman, and Ring Lardner, Jr.

McCarthyism in Popular Culture Edit

During the McCarthy era, themes of anti-Communism perpetuated media and popular culture. Specifically, these themes were present in a lot of films of this era. A genre that obviously employed this anti-Communist rhetoric were Sword and Sandal films. During this era, Sword and Sandal films represented the United States as the virtuous and rugged underdog, who defeats the tyrannical Rome. The anti-Communist themes in Sword and Sandal films allowed the American viewers to view themselves as the noble underdogs fighting against some tyrannical force.

Quo Vadis (1951) Edit

In Quo Vadis[4], the irrational tyrant Emperor Nero and the Roman Empire represent the oppressive nature of

Poster - Quo Vadis (1951) 01

Communism. Specifically, Nero's intent is to oppress Christians because they pose the biggest threat to the evils of the Roman Empire. The hero of this story, Marcus Vinicius, represents the rough and rugged American, who plays the respected Roman General turned reform Christian. Vinicius' reformed Christianity allows him to represent the "ideal morals" of America, all the while, still using violence to defeat his enemies. This idea parallels Eisenhower's "peace through superior strength ideal." These themes of Romans representing the Communist seeking to destroy the underdog (the United States) is seen in many other Sword and Sandal films as well. It can also be argues that Quo Vadis is specifically representing anti-Nazism[5]. The oppressive Roman Empire, and Nero, are targeting a group based strictly on their religious beliefs. Also, in the parade scene, the Roman soldiers can be seen saluting Emperor Nero in a way that is disturbingly similar - if not a direct copy of - the Heil salute of Nazi Germany. Therefore, the Christians would most be like the oppressed people of Nazi Germany, and Marcus Vinicius - the reformed soldier - as the ultimately good America, who fights for freedom and to defend the oppressed.

However, the argument can also be made that the image of Rome is more complex then good versus evil. Some suggest that Rome is also suppose to emulate the United States censorship in filmmaking and ultimate infringement on civil liberties[5]. In that way, the Roman Empire represents the United States and the enforcement of the Hollywood Blacklist, and the Christians represent the artists, actors, filmmakers, and screenwriters whose civil liberties are being infringed on.

Ben-Hur (1959) Edit

The idea of "peace through strength," continues in the film Ben-Hur[6], where Americans are now directly represented by a group of actually oppressed people. In Ben-Hur, the main protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, is a

Ben hur 1959 poster

rich Jewish prince who is betrayed by a Roman "friend" and sent into slavery. After he regains his freedom, he goes to Rome to seek his revenge. Though the continuing themes of anti-Communism and Rome as our Communist enemy, in Ben-Hur, Judah is much more willing to kill to defeat the enemy. Though this would seem to go against his Christian ideologies, it is a necessary evil for defeating the actual evil of tyranny. Similarly to Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur also uses the Roman Empire in comparison to Nazi Germany. This is seen most evidently in the violent escalation between Judah and Messala. It has been said that Messala's character is a "quasi-symbol of the 'master race'," likened to the politics of Hitler's Germany. His fervent resentment of the Jewish people is undeniably influenced by the politics of Nazi Germany.

Furthermore, Ben-Hur can also be interpreted as being a commentary on the United States unfair censorship in filmmaking[7]. When Messala demands that Judah reveals names, it is eerily similar to the investigations headed by HUAC in which they tried to uncover members of the Communist Party in the film industry.

End of an Era Edit

At the tail end of the 1950s, and by the ending of the HUAC hearings, Joseph McCarthy had lost all of his allies and the Senate voted to condemn him for his conduct which was described as, "unbecoming of a Senator."[8] He kept his job until his death in 1957.

Even before Senator Jospeh McCarthy was condemned by the Senate, Sword and Sandal film was abandoning their anti-Communist rhetoric. In 1960, when Spartacus was released, not only were the themes definitely a commentary on the methods of the U.S. government, but blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was credited. This truly marked the end of the McCarthy era.

  5. 5.0 5.1 Cyrino, Monica Silveira. “Quo Vadis (1951)” Big Screen Rome, Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, 2005.
  7. Cyrino, Monica Silveira. “Ben-Hur (1959)” Big Screen Rome, Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, 2005.

Picture References:

McCarthy, Joseph. Image. Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 19 Sep. 2016. Accessed 28 Oct. 2016.