McCarthyism and the Persecution of Inner Enemies in the Cold War

Throughout the Cold War, the two antagonistic blocks had to ensure their hegemony. Dissidents on both sides became the enemy within.
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| 28/01/2020 | Last update:


The Cold War came about as a result of the need to ensure social hegemony within each of the two blocs that emerged after the end of the Second World War: the capitalist bloc and the communist bloc.

In this scheme of the bipolar world, dissidents became internal enemies. Anyone who deviated from the established norms became an enemy. It was a frantic struggle against the inner enemy. If there was a special victim of this process, it was the hope that existed after World War II to establish a more just social system.

Anti-fascist resistance groups during WWII had spread the idea that after the war a more socially just world would be established. Frank Thompson speaking about this period wrote that there was a new spirit, the will to build a new world. Once the war was over, it was possible to build a new, different model of society, a more advanced democracy. It was a time when the communist parties were strengthened by the prestige they had gained after winning the war.

In the first elections held after the Second World War, the communist parties obtained more than 20% of the votes in France or Czechoslovakia.

Joseph McCarthy
Photograph of the US Senator Joseph McCarthy

We know that with the end of World War II, it was not Stalin’s purpose to sovietize Europe. In 1945, Stalin had told the Marshal Titus that socialism was even possible in England without making revolution. It was naïve. A whole series of political leaders believed in Stalin’s idea that it was possible to integrate socialism into liberal-type democracy (through the formation of democratic governments). These were the years of the happy post-war period (1945-1946) that seemed to predict a totally new scenario.

But there came a time when Stalin’s ideas could no longer be tolerated among Western leaders. It was then that this illusion that socialism with freedom was possible was shattered. In theory, Stalin only wanted to control the foreign policy of his satellite countries. Would Stalin have tolerated spaces of freedom in the countries occupied by Soviet troops? This illusion of freedom was aborted after 1947.

In the United States, the panic of communism predated World War II. It was an enormous stupidity. But the fear reappeared in 1945. The Communist Party of the United States was tiny. It was the businessmen who used the anti-communist discourse rather than the Communists. One of the ways to cut the workers’ demands was to buy the unions (depoliticize them), and the other method was to attack the communist unions. The hunt for the communist began. All the suspected leftists fell.

The reality is that there was never any subversive threat from American or European communists. The whole setup that was made later, trying to explain that there was a campaign to wipe out the internal enemy, was made with the Cold War already underway to justify its brutality and intensity.

What was really being spied on? Above all, it was a question of getting the maximum information out of the enemy in the military sphere, through espionage and counter-espionage. Who was affected by all this climate of fear and persecution towards the suspect of illegal activities? It affected civil society, especially the labour movement. In the intellectual sphere, it caused a detour towards neutral things, for example in history.

From 1949, with the triumph of Mao’s communist revolution and the explosion of the first atomic bomb by the USSR, the climate of “fear” of the communist was accentuated. On February 9th, 1950, the US Senator Joseph McCarthy discovered the business dealing with the persecution of communism. McCarthy claimed to have a list of communist members infiltrating the State Department.

When did the illusion of a democratic path to socialism in the countries of the people’s democracies end? It was in 1947, when Western governments were told that they would not receive any economic aid if they continued to allow Communist ministers to be present. From that moment on, Stalin saw that the path to socialism through democracy was not possible. It was at this point that a withdrawal movement took place.

Between 1948 and 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death) a two-pronged persecution of Western agents took place in the Soviet-occupied countries:

The advanced democracies that were to be established during the Second World War were no longer tolerable on either side.

By 1948, the authoritarian shift had already taken place.

All articles of the course: History of the Contemporary World (1945-1991)

The WWII Peace ConferencesThe ideological, economic and military framework of the Cold WarMcCarthyism and the Persecution of Inner Enemies in the Cold War

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