The Roots of the Protest Era: McCarthyism and the Artist’s Voice in 1950s America

Essential Question

How were musicians and artists affected by McCarthyism in 1950s America?


The so-called “Protest Era” in the United States is largely associated with the Civil Rights movement and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. But the roots of the protest era, and even some of the songs associated with it, came out of the late 1940s, during the early years of the Cold War.

By the end of World War II in 1945, America’s diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union, once its wartime ally, had grown strained. During the late 1940s, the Soviets expanded their influence across Eastern Europe and built up a stockpile of nuclear weapons—technology that had previously been in the exclusive possession of the U.S. military. Many people in the United States came to view the Soviets, and the Communist Party that controlled the Soviet Union, as a threat to America’s newfound economic prosperity and position as world leader. In that tension between Soviet and American powers, the Cold War was born—and with it, the U.S. entered into an era in which the flipside of an unprecedented economic boom and rise in world power was the “Red Scare,” a widespread fear and suspicion of Soviets and their ideas, which many viewed as a potential threat to American life.

At the center of the Red Scare was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, who by 1950 had become the face of a national campaign to identify communists in American society. McCarthy enflamed America’s uneasiness about Soviet power. “McCarthyism,” as his crusade became known, emerged from the worry many Americans shared that the Soviets might drop an atomic bomb on U.S. soil, a threat that led communities to practice air raid drills in preparation for an attack. But McCarthyism also fed off the anxiety that communist ideas could infiltrate the hearts and minds of American citizens. In the early 1950s the U.S. government began to produce films about the dangers posed by the Soviets and their beliefs. These films included information on how to recognize communists by their opinions and activities. Concurrently, McCarthy and his followers compiled—and in some cases publicly read and published—lists of suspected communists in various professional fields, including the entertainment industry. One of these lists appeared in Red Channels, a 1950 newsletter that named 151 entertainers whom its right-wing editors accused of associating with the communist party. The list included composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Miller, and folk singer Pete Seeger — all outspoken artists who, under McCarthyism, were labeled as “subversive,” no matter their actual political affiliations or ambitions.

McCarthyism propagated an extreme version of communism that focused on the political and social control the Soviet government held over its state and people. This monolithic version of communism did not account for the multiple variations in communist ideas and practices that had existed for decades, both in Europe and in the United States. Several government programs and professional organizations in America, including social security, public education, and labor unions, had roots in socialism — a social and economic system based on equal and fair treatment of all people that had connections to both capitalism and communism. But at the height of the Red Scare, any member or supporter of an organization that could be connected to communist ideals, no matter how tentatively, was vulnerable to being branded as a supporter of the Soviet Union.

McCarthy was only one of many political figures determined to expose communist “traitors.” As early as 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began a series of public hearings intended to uncover communists in the United States. Artists known for their political activism were particularly at risk of being targeted by HUAC. Among the hundreds who were subpoenaed by the committee were Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, co-authors of the activist Folk song “If I Had a Hammer.” Seeger and Hays had first performed the song in 1949, at a dinner hosted by members of the American Communist Party. In Seeger’s 1955 HUAC hearing, the committee interrogated Seeger as to where, and for whom, he had performed the song. Rather than answering, Seeger refuted the committee’s line of questioning outright on the grounds of his right as an American to freely express his opinions through his music. Hays, too, refused to cooperate. Both Seeger and Hays were held in contempt and were subsequently “blacklisted” in the entertainment industry. For the next several years, they were denied the opportunity  to appear on television, to release music on major record labels, and to perform in many of the country’s top venues.

Unlike many other artists whose lives were destroyed by McCarthyism, Seeger remained a popular act in the 1950s and early 1960s, even with limited support from the mainstream entertainment industry. He frequently performed small informal concerts, released records on the independent “Folkways” label, and cultivated an audience of young people who admired his Folk songs — audiences who would come of age in the 1960s and often adopt their own activist causes. Seeger’s musical spirit, and his style of activism, carried into the protest era and well beyond. Artists including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and Richie Havens, and later, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine, continued the example set by Seeger that popular artists could, and should, speak freely on issues of social and political injustice. Large scale musical events, such as George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, Live Aid, and Artists United Against Apartheid, provide further examples of ways that artists have banded together to confront unfair power structures not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.

This lesson focuses on McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and how artists were targeted by HUAC during the Cold War. Students will view several government-produced “educational” films and television interviews from the 1950s, and will participate in a group reading of HUAC’s interrogations of Seeger and Hays, discussing how activist artists championed the civil liberties of American citizens.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the Cold War increased American anxieties over Soviet power and the spread of communism in the U.S.
    • Senator Joseph McCarthy and the implications of his mission to expose communists in 1950s America
    • Ways that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and publications like Red Channels targeted entertainers suspected of having communist sympathies
    • How folksingers Pete Seeger and Lee Hays refused to cooperate with HUAC, invoking the the First and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Bill of Rights in their testimonies before the committee
    • Pete Seeger’s legacy as an inspiration for popular music artists to speak out on issues of social and political injustice
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Make connections between popular music and historical events
    • Discuss figurative and connotative meanings of folk songs
    • Describe the protections provided by the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Bill of Rights
    • Common Core: Read closely to determine what a text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text (Reading 1)