The Red Scare in the United States
Following World War II, fear reemerged that Communist influence had taken hold of the United States. Local, state, and federal government committees were created to investigate communist activity and eradicate spies. Often, mere suspicion of involvement with the Communist Party was enough for an individual to be accused of subversive actions against the United States. As a result of the investigations and suspicions, hundreds of suspected communists were imprisoned, while thousands of others lost their jobs and faced harassment.
As Communist power in China grew and tensions rose between the United States and the Soviet Union, reports emerged of espionage by U.S. government officials working for the Soviet Union.  The most active and notorious of these was Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover was also influential in the anti-communist crusade, often using illegal tactics to gain information and releasing confidential documents to Congress and the media. Government employees, those in the film industry, teachers, and union leaders were among the most targeted in investigations. The anti-communist sentiment and actions during this period came to be known as McCarthyism, named after the public face of the initiative, Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Changing public attitudes and influential court decisions led to the decline of the institutions of McCarthyism in the late 1950s. While later discovered documentation revealed that espionage by the Soviet Union was taking place in the United States during World War II, activities during the McCarthy era seem to have been minimal. Today, the methods and actions of McCarthyism are generally associated with intimidation and the violation of civil liberties.

 

Mollie and the Red Scare
West family 001
The West family was often separated during the early years of Steve’s life as James and Mollie worked as organizers for the Communist Party and avoided scrutiny from the FBI.

As Mollie settled into life with her new husband and son, she faced the difficulties of being involved with the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Little is known about Mollie’s jobs and services in the Communist Party, as many papers were destroyed to protect her and others from legal trouble. The FBI began investigating Mollie in 1941, documenting her activities, her relationships, and her involvement with the Communist Party.

By the 1950s, Mollie’s husband, James West, was a leader in the U.S. party. To avoid government punishment, he soon had to go “underground,” which involved a life of constant movement and staying in the homes of other Communist supporters. Mollie often did not know where her husband was as he moved around in Ohio. Soon, Mollie also felt pressured to go underground along with her infant son. The two spent five years hiding in the Chicago area, moving a total of 20 times.

In February of 1960, Mollie received a subpoena to appear for a hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding her involvement in the Communist Party. At the time, Mollie was very ill and unable to attend the hearing date. The hearing was postponed by the Committee several times and, fortunately for Mollie, never rescheduled.

In the same year, James West was arrested for violating the Taft-Hartley Act, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Mollie and Steve visited James in the Terre Haute, Indiana prison often, while Mollie attempted to raise support to get her husband out of jail. She believed he was falsely accused, as he was not a member of a labor union and therefore could not have violated the law. Meanwhile, the West family received hate mail and harassment due to James’s arrest.

West FBI File001
A page from Mollie West’s FBI file shows how closely she was being watched and reveals plans for an FBI officer to approach her.

 

West FBI File002
A page from Mollie’s FBI file describes an attempt by an officer to approach Mollie about her involvement with the Communist Party. The black marks denote information that was redacted before the file was released.

 

HUAC letter 1001
Subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee

 

HUAC letter 002
A 1960 announcement of hearings from HUAC. Mollie West was called to a hearing because of her longtime involvement with the Young Communist League and American Youth for Democracy.

 


Learn more: The Era of McCarthyism
As Communist power in China grew and tensions rose between the United States and the Soviet Union, reports emerged of espionage by U.S. government officials working for the Soviet Union. Fearing the corruption of the American political and economic system by Communist spies, local, state, and federal government committees were created to investigate communist activity. The most active and notorious of these was Congress’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover was also influential in the anti-communist crusade, often using illegal tactics to gain information and releasing confidential documents to Congress and the media. Government employees, those in the film industry, teachers, and union leaders were among the most targeted in investigations. The anti-communist sentiment and actions during this period came to be known as McCarthyism, named after the public face of the initiative, Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Changing public attitudes and influential court decisions led to the decline of the institutions of McCarthyism in the late 1950s. While later discovered documentation revealed that espionage by the Soviet Union was taking place in the United States during World War II, activities during the McCarthy era seem to have been minimal. Today, the methods and actions of McCarthyism are generally associated with intimidation and the violation of civil liberties.

 

 

Header image: Report from Mollie West’s FBI file

 

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