Congressman Richard Nixon (right) and Congressional Investigator Robert Stripling examine microfilm containing classified U.S.information during the investigation of accused Soviet Spy Alger Hiss. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library).

The Roots of Red-baiting and McCarthyism

Originating from the Second World War’s finality, the ideological clash between the United States and Soviet Union proved a defining feature of the 20th century geopolitical landscape. With the longstanding European forces dismantled, the global power composition was void of a clear path forward. The marriage of convenience that had inspired short-term cooperation between American and Soviet interests proved diplomatically erosive, as each superpower hoped to rebuild the world in their own image. Taking cues from George Kennan’s seminal work “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” early American Cold War foreign policy abandoned any and all forms of political harmony with the Russians. Rivals by nature, the socialist and capitalist worlds operated as a zero-sum game–as either side treated any victory for the other as a personal defeat. Anticipating the USSR to display a “persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power,” the American political apparatus adopted an attitude determined to contain the spread of socialist revolution ubiquitously.

Reaching its logical conclusion, the struggle against communist expansion abroad soon shifted inward. The ambiguous nature of this new enemy fostered an audacious and sometimes suspicious political response from those in Washington. Grounded in belief, the socialist menace was not bound solely by political borders or nation-states–allowing it to covertly take hold of the mind. Such was the heightened state of national anxiety that allowed for the ‘red scare’ to ensnare the American populous. Amongst all others, two Congressmen scratched out reputations for their tenacity in the fight against domestic communism– Richard Nixon of California and Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Each entangled their political reputations within the pursuit of unravelling the internal communist conspiracy. Ultimately, it was not the ends but the appropriate means of conduct which lead to the severance of these former colleagues.

A senator from the American Heartland, McCarthy’s political expedience and resolve led him to iconic status within the extreme sects of red-baiting. Conducting hearings through the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), he would accuse hundreds of individuals and organizations of treason throughout his career. However, he was not acting alone in this enterprise. Though most noteworthy, McCarthy was only a single cog in the red-baiting machine. Rather than curtail from infamy, he basked in the notoriety that accompanied his draconian tactics. Becoming an embodiment of the hysterical nature that had tainted the American political scene, the targeting of those accused of communist affiliation based on little or unsubstantiated claims would take the namesake of its chief architects–McCarthyism. A universal paranoia of this enemy tempered conditions ripe for conviction. A simple accusation became as good as an admission of guilt.

Not all who wished to expose subversion marched to the beat of McCarthy’s drum. Similarly characterized by anti-communist undertakings, Nixon represented a zealous but disciplined branch of the red baiting faction. A believer in the Cold War dichotomy, he concluded the American brand of freedom existed in direct antithesis to the communist evil. Subsisting at home and abroad, communist tendencies deserved direct confrontation no matter the origin point. Decisive actions depended on congressional committees, as the Truman administration had “too many communist skeletons in the executive closet” to do an honest job weeding out traitors amongst them. Nixon’s commitment garnered him reputation as one of the most dependable cold warriors in either house of congress. However, his personal crusade remained aligned with what he understood as the nation’s core principles. The liberties and freedoms afforded to all Americans similarly extended protection to the Communist Party and those adhering to accompanying philosophy. No matter how deplorable, Nixon never understood participation within itself as grounds for criminal charges.

McCarthy and Nixon were united by a collective distaste of New Deal policies and the Washington elite. However, over time a clear schism developed. While sharing an enthusiasm for their duty, the tactics that each man found acceptable in pursuing the ends ultimately created a separation of the two notorious cold warriors.

Alger Hiss and HUAC

Within a year of being first elected, Nixon was conscripted by the newly Republican majority Congress to serve on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Fashioned during the Roosevelt presidency to extract those with sympathies towards Axis powers on the home front, HUAC had since drawn attention for their vigorous and sometimes dubious crusade to cleanse Washington of all things “red.” House Speaker Joe Martin recognized determination and integrity in the Congressman from California, envisioning the new appointee to act as “a young lawyer on that committee to smarten it up.” As Nixon saw it, the committee had an obligation to “ferret out un-American activities of government employees to the end that extremists of both the left and the right, whether they be Communist or Fascists, shall be removed from the federal payroll.” Though the overwhelming majority of government workers were indeed patriotic Americans, there remained a great importance in extracting the few displaying questionable loyalty. Nixon internalized the necessity of purging espionage and falsity from all ranks of government, understanding it to supersede the usual squandering of partisan politics.

Nixon’s rise out of relative congressional obscurity and onto the shortlist of promising young leaders within the Republican Party came on the tail end of his success in the Alger Hiss case. Acting upon information divulged during the testimony of renounced communist Whittaker Chambers, the initial investigation drew marginal interest. Responding to Chamber’s testimony, Hiss denied any affiliation or relationship with the witness–the latter detail would instill his later conviction. A product of the finest American institutions and former employee of the State Department, Hiss was admired by and had links to the highest levels of government institutions. President Truman dismissed the accusations as a ‘red herring,’ generated by the Republican Congress to distract from real contemporary issues.

Following the testimony with interest and reviewing the facts, Nixon concluded that the specifics did not add up and had an obligation to reach the truth. Eventually promoted to head the investigation, he insisted in the conduct of honest proceedings while deterring innocence or guilt. Sharing the president’s “great concern over civil rights,” Nixon’s dedication to liberty inspired an equal dedication to the objective trial of Hiss– stating it was “essential to conduct an absolutely thorough investigation into communism in the United States and the Government.” Applying the methods of law rather than hysteria, Hiss was charged and convicted of perjury and sentenced to five-years in prison. This case was the first successful attempt by HUAC to expose socialist collusion within the federal government.

Following a big win in the conviction of Hiss, HUAC and those who had long cried for the serious inquiry and expulsion of those guilty of espionage within the government enjoyed a much needed shot of legitimacy. Capitalizing on the heightened sensitivity of communist subversion, McCarthy began his ascent to becoming the nation’s most controversial ‘red hunter.’ Harnessing a sense for the dramatic, the Senator from Wisconsin brandished a white paper in front of the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia on 9 February 1950 proclaiming:

Ladies and gentleman, while I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205–a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Though the number of saboteurs had changed by the following evening’s speech in Salt Lake City, the overall charge remained the same. Senator McCarthy alleged a widespread and significant communist breach within the U.S. State Department. It appeared that since Nixon had risen to prominence unearthing the communist leanings of Hiss, McCarthy viewed him as a natural ally in his crusade. Allowing the senator from Wisconsin access to his files, Nixon later reflected, “I could not help but wonder whether he understood the need for absolute accuracy and fairness in going after them.” Whereas Nixon’s quest to weed out communism was conducted under restraint, McCarthy’s allegations flew wildly in all directions.

Vice Presidency

Emerging from a similar origin point, the evolution of their careers eventually diverged two men’s fortunes into contrasting camps. By the time he climbed the hierarchy within the Republican Party eventually assuming the Vice Presidency in 1953, Nixon had virtually cemented his credentials as one of the nation’s foremost cold warriors. Whereas still a Senator, McCarthy had grown more emboldened in the audacity of his attacks and the influence he wielded. Considering the increasingly fractured Republican Party and the looming public support, the political climate of 1952 mandated the need for a mediator– a role that Nixon was uniquely qualified to perform. Mutually respected by both camps, the Vice President was increasingly expected by the Eisenhower administration to curb the provocative tactics and targets of McCarthyism red-baiting. Still wielding some popular opinion, the White House still felt the need to make nice. However, when accusations became directed towards George Marshall, the military, and later the Eisenhower administration itself–the President’s goodwill towards McCarthy evaporated.

Reflecting his mentor, the vice president became similarly estranged towards those furthering the red scare. Nixon felt the near obsessive focus on selective political issues– namely communism and corruption– had weakened the Republican Party entering the 1954 congressional elections. Contesting McCarthy’s public charges of treason towards the Democratic Party, the vice president directly confronted the senator’s words. “There is only one party of treason in the United States–the Communist Party.” Eisenhower looked no further than his second in command as the designated person to confront McCarthy. Besides his intimate knowledge on the subject, “no one can charge him with being pinko.” The definitive fragmentation occurred on Nixon’s 13 March 1954 radio address.

Now, I can imagine some of you will say, “Why all this hullabaloo about being fair when you are dealing with a gang of traitors?” As a matter of fact, I have heard people say, “After all, we are dealing with a bunch of rats. What we ought to do is go out and shoot them.”

Well, I agree they are a bunch of rats. But just remember this. When you go out to shoot rats, you have to shoot straight, because when you shoot wildly, it not only means that the rats may get away more easily–but you make it easier on the rats. Also you might hit someone else who is trying to shoot rats, too. So, we have to be fair–for two very good reasons: one, because it is right; and two, because it is the most effective way of doing the job.

While never naming names, the message was clear. The present red-baiting conduct was unacceptable. This sentiment trickled throughout the Republican Party, foreshadowing the end of McCarthy’s bloated sphere of influence in Washington.

The era of McCarthy’s reign essentially concluded in December 1954 when the Senate voted to condemn his actions. The administration and Republican Party envisioned the path forward, no longer understanding him as an asset. Campaigning for Eisenhower’s reelection in 1956, Nixon neither mentioned nor acknowledged the senator though he attended the Minneapolis rally. Once essential to solidifying support in the Midwest, McCarthy’s support was understood to be nonessential or even potentially damaging. The local paper noted of the falling-out, “Nixon made it clear that he [McCarthy] is to be pushed far into the background of the national campaign.”

Enduring the political tides, Nixon ultimately would rise to occupy the highest office in the nation. McCarthy would not share such good fortune. Unfiltered attacks directed at the Eisenhower administration and U.S. military would not go unpunished, generating almost universal refusal from the Washington apparatus. Fading into obscurity after the 1954 censure, McCarthy was a shadow of his former self during his final two years in the Senate. Former Congressional colleagues were purposely absent for his speeches in the chamber and avoided working with him professionally. In his memoirs, Nixon found him to be personally likable but “felt sorry for him as a man whose zeal and thirst for publicity were leading him and other to destruction.” Suffering from alcoholism and accompanying complications, McCarthy’s health rapidly declined and he died in 1957 at the age of 48. His crusade against communism continued until his death, though receiving noticeably mild fanfare. Nixon’s statement regarding the infamous cold warrior’s death remains illuminating towards the long and complex relationship:

As a man who devoted a major part of his public career to his campaign against Communist infiltration in the U.S., Senator McCarthy became one of the most controversial figures of his generation. Years will pass before the results of his work can be objectively evaluated, but his friends and many of his critics will not question his devotion to what he considered to be the best interests of his country. Mrs. Nixon joins me in expressing our deepest sympathy to Mrs. McCarthy and the members of his family.


George Kennan (X), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 65, no. 4 (Spring 1987): 866-867.

Richard Nixon Biographical Material (espionage hearings); undated; folder 2 (biographical material); box 1; series 435 1950 campaign; Richard Nixon Pre-Presidential Materials (Laguna Niguel); Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA

Christopher Matthews, Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America (New York: Simon and Schuster Publishing, 1996), 74-75.

Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 44.

Irwin F. Gellman, The Contender: Richard Nixon The Congress Years 1946-1952 (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 107.

Nixon Asks Non-Partisan Study To Curb Communism; 28 January 1970; folder 8; box 4; PPS 205; Richard Nixon Pre-Presidential Materials (Laguna Niguel); Richard Nixon Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA

Richard Nixon, Six Crises: Richard Nixon Centennial Edition (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 2012), 9-11.

Gellman, The Contender, 217.

Nixon, Six Crises, 61-62.

James Giblin, The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy (Boston: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 80-81.

Nixon, RN, 137-138.

Day 3, tape 3, 00:22:41 (RN), Nixon-Gannon Interviews. 1983. Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, University of Georgia Libraries. Athens, Ga.

Nixon, RN, 161.

Day 3, tape 3, 00:25:11 (RN), Nixon-Gannon Interviews. 1983. Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, University of Georgia Libraries. Athens, Ga.

Richard Nixon Radio Address ‘These Are the Facts”; 13 March 1954; folder 8; box 14; PPS 208; Richard Nixon Pre-Presidential Materials (Laguna Niguel); Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum; Yorba Linda, CA

Nixon, RN, 147.

Newspaper Article “Nixon Snubs Sen. McCarthy” printed in the Minneapolis Star; 14 October 1956; folder McCarthy, Joseph; PPS 205; Richard Nixon Pre-Presidential Materials (Laguna Niguel); Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA

Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970), 318.

Nixon, RN, 149.

Statement by the Vice President on the death of Joseph McCarthy; 2 May 1957; folder McCarthy Joseph; PPS 320; Richard Nixon Pre-Presidential Materials (Laguna Niguel; Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA