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1946-1955: The Era of Fear and Smear

By Herblock
Sunday, December 31, 1995

Political cartoons, unlike sundials, do not show the brightest hours. They often show the darkest ones, in the hope of helping us move on to brighter times. And they all represent personal views.

The Fear-Filled Forties and Fifties were a dark period, when the spread of communism abroad increased anxiety and frustration at home. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) had long been in the business of looking for "subversives." The hunt was now joined by many groups, large and small, official and self-appointed. If we couldn't crush communism abroad, a person could nail a neighbor at home. All kinds of super-patriots – from congressional committees fed by J. Edgar Hoover's aptly named "raw files" to a New York state grocery operator – compiled lists of "un-Americans." Simply seeing a person's name on such a blacklist was enough to prompt entertainment and broadcast executives to ruin careers.

Does the condemnation of the Girl Scouts in the cartoon of the veterans' group seem incredible? No more so than thousands of other accusations in a time of national nuttiness.

Richard M. Nixon came to Congress in 1947, elected in a low-road campaign impugning the patriotism of his opponent. He gained more publicity as a member of HUAC. The same 1946 election also brought a senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, who later struck pay dirt when he declared that he held in his hand a list of some 205 communists in the State Department. He never disclosed the names, but he carved out a name for himself by carving up reputations of people.

The term McCarthyism first appeared in the tower-of-tarbuckets cartoon, showing supposedly respectable politicians urging the GOP elephant on.

President Harry Truman, and members of his administration as impeccable as George C. Marshall, became political targets of these "anti-communists." So much for the Truman administration's help in rehabilitating Europe and containing communism – even going to war to stop communist aggression in Korea. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, running for president in 1952, promised to rid the government of "reds and pinks" -- which his administration didn't seem to find.

In 1954, Eisenhower's vice president, Nixon, attacked the patriotism of some of the most responsible and respected members of Congress in a campaign so low-down that it struck me he must be traveling the country by sewer.

Meanwhile, some of us saw real danger in the increasing strength and number of nuclear weapons. These I represented in a "Mr. Atom" character who kept growing in size and power. Yet the danger of nuclear devastation was no match for the fears whipped up by the "subversive hunters."

In December 1954, nearly five years after McCarthy first grabbed the country by the ears, a few courageous senators of both parties finally prevailed on their cowed colleagues to censure him. Even so, with the era of fear-and-smear beginning to wind down, the nation would be a long time recovering. And many victims of smear tactics never recovered at all.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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