What were the main domestic and international factors leading to the postwar Red Scare and why did Americans react to it as they did? What part did the Forgotten War (Korea) play in this?
Several domestic and international factors led to the post-World War II Red Scare from 1947 to 1957.
Notably were the advent of Soviet nuclear weapons capabilities, the victory of communist forces in the Chinese Civil War, the Rosenberg trial, and the Korean War, to name a few.
This second Red Scare came at the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, whose successful detonation of its first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949 placed the United States on edge in regard to communism. The U.S. no longer maintained a monopoly on nuclear weaponry.
Then, on October 1st of that same year, Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong announced the communist victory over the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War that had begun in 1927 (Corbett et al., 2017).
By this time, America was in a frenzy over the suspicions that spies within the United States had passed bomb-making secrets to the Soviet Union and that communist sympathizers had withheld information that could have prevented Zedong’s conquest in China.
Indeed, in February 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy accused the U.S. State Department of harboring communists.
One allegation to note was that of German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs passing of nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. During Fuchs’ imprisonment and conviction in Great Britain, a number of Americans were implicated.
Two of these Americans were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. While no evidence was found against them at the time, the trial was high-profile and resulted in their execution in June 1953. It was later discovered that Julius had, in fact, given information to the Soviet Union, but that Ethel was seemingly innocent (Corbett et al., 2017).
The American panic was high when President Truman’s Executive Order (EO) 9835 of March 21, 1947 allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) broad powers to investigate federal employees and to subsequently identify potential security risks.
This Loyalty Order also spurred the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), created in 1938 to examine suspected Nazi sympathizers, to join the cause. The HUAC “sought to root out suspected Communists in business, academia, and the media” (Corbett et al., 2017). This group was particularly interested in Hollywood as it felt that motion pictures could easily be used as pro-Soviet propaganda (Corbett et al., 2017).
Following the close of World War II, the Soviet Union was granted control of the northern half of the Korean peninsula, while the United States was granted the southern portion.
Though Soviet leader Joseph Stalin claimed to not want confrontation with the U.S., North Korean leaders sought to reunify the peninsula under communist rule.
By April of 1950, the Soviet Union gave in to Kim Il Sung‘s requests and approved an invasion of South Korea, as well as provided weapons and military advisors. On June 25th, the North Korean People’s Democratic Army crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, the border between the North and South, officially beginning the Forgotten War.
Unfortunately, this upset the American government and public, as a communist victory in this war could have led to further communist expansion throughout Asia, directly affecting the United States’ chief ally in the area, Japan (Corbett et al., 2017).
Corbett, P. S., Janssen, V., Lund, J. M., Pfannestiel, T., Waskiewicz, S., Vickery, P. 2017. U.S. History. Houston: OpenStax.