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1949 Fifty Years Ago

March 2024
2min read

The Red Scare


On January 21, 1950, a federal jury convicted Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking State Department employee, of perjury. In 1948, in testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hiss had denied being a Communist and having more than a casual acquaintance with Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist who had accused him of being a Soviet agent. When Hiss initially appeared before the committee, his firm denial and relaxed demeanor seemed to carry the day. Many observers thought his accusers’ case had fallen flat. But one committee member, a freshman from California named Richard Nixon, was determined to prove Chambers right. Under questioning from Nixon, Chambers gave intimate details of Hiss’s personal life and habits. Later he produced copies of classified documents that Hiss had given him.

In an era when Americans considered perjury to be a serious crime, the conviction created an uproar. Most alarming was its demonstration that spying had taken place at the highest levels of American foreign policy. (Hiss could not be prosecuted for espionage because the statute of limitations had run out.) Hiss served three years and eight months in prison and devoted the rest of his life to clearing his name, filing appeals for a new trial into the 1980s in the face of mounting evidence against him. His steadfastness made him a hero to opponents of the antiCommunist frenzy of the 1950s.

Even before Hiss’s conviction, a reaction against anti-Communism had begun among the nation’s liberals. In November 1949 a former Air Force officer named George Racey Jordan approached Life magazine with a wild and frightening story. He had evidence purporting to show that during World War II Soviet agents had flown thousands of stolen documents to Russia from an air base in Great Falls, Montana. Furthermore, America had openly sent the Soviets large amounts of materials useful in building nuclear reactors.

Life found Jordan’s tale incredible and sent him away. When the commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr., broke the story on his radio show in December, Life departed from its usual fare about cats climbing fences and the travails of pretty young models to call Lewis’s airing of the charges “a disgraceful abuse of the news.” Response from readers was mixed, but fellow journalists applauded Life’s courage. Alfred A. Knopf, of publishing fame, renewed his subscription in support; a Texas newspaperman said that Life had “rendered a service . . . to the American people” when it “put the finger on these hysteria peddlers.” Unfortunately, later evidence proved Jordan’s charges correct: The Soviets had indeed been given large amounts of nuclear materials and had stolen documents by the planeload.

Hiss’s conviction marked the high point of the postwar anti-Communist effort. In the previous few years numerous spies in government had been unmasked, along with the extensive networks they were parts of. The nation’s labor unions had also managed to extirpate most of the Communists from their midst. With some exceptions, such as the overblown inquiry into Communism in Hollywood, the investigations of Communist influence had been as fair and reasonable as the times permitted. Then, within a ten-day period beginning on the last day of January 1950, everything went crazy.

First President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would proceed with plans to build a hydrogen bomb, raising the stakes in the arms race a hundredfold. Next Klaus Fuchs, a former member of the Manhattan Project who had helped build America’s atomic bombs during World War II, was arrested for passing information to the Soviets. Little more than a week after that, a little-known senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list of scores of Communists in the State Department. Over the next few years, as nuclear tensions ratcheted ever upward and McCarthyism ran rampant, rumors increasingly took the place of evidence, and suspicion became as devastating as proof. The ensuing mess ruined the good name not only of many innocent Americans but also of the principle of anti-Communism itself.

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