While socialist activity and organizations in the United States date back to the nineteenth century, American communism found its roots in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the organization of the Comintern in March 1919. The Comintern, or Third International, claimed leadership of all true revolutionary socialist parties around the world and brought them under Soviet influence. Initially, Soviet-inspired communism met stiff resistance in the United States, as the Red Scare of 1919–1920 associated communism with violence and subversion. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 increased the status of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and associated organizations.
The Soviet leadership of the Comintern traditionally forbade the formal association of its member parties with other groups on the political Left. This changed in 1935, however, as communist groups were encouraged to work with other sympathetically minded organizations against fascism, forming a so-called Popular Front. In the United States, this resulted in the cooperation of liberals and socialists with the CPUSA. Groups such as the American Labor Party, the American Student Union, and the Workers' Party found common cause with Soviet-sponsored communism. The American artistic and literary communities often demonstrated sympathy for the communist agenda, forming the League of American Writers. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 further enhanced the bond between the various facets of the American Left as they cooperated to foster political and financial support for the republican side in the conflict. During the Spanish Civil War, a varied group of American volunteers (most of them communists), went to Spain to fight the fascists there. The policies of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, however, particularly the August 1939 Nonaggression Pact with Nazi Germany, ultimately alienated many members of the American Popular Front and drove them from continued association with the Communist Party.
The American alliance with the Soviet Union that began in 1940 ensured tolerance for domestic communism during World War II. As tensions with the Soviet Union grew inexorably in the mid- to late 1940s, however, the CPUSA and its associated groups came under great suspicion. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) feared the activities of alleged communist subversives in American government and took drastic steps to expose them, despite damage to the reputations of the innocent. In 1949, eleven leading members of the Communist Party were convicted of subversion, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions. The anticommunist accusations of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, beginning in early 1950, further inflamed the situation.
In the atmosphere of this second Red Scare, which soon came to be known as McCarthyism, organizations with any past affiliation to the Communist Party came under intense suspicion as well. Individuals and groups affiliated with the Popular Front of the 1930s were branded as communists (some justifiably, others not). The Independent Progressive Party, which had run former Vice President Henry Wallace for president in the 1948 election, was suspected. In 1950, despite President Harry S. Truman's veto, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act, making it illegal to combine or conspire to support totalitarianism in the United States. The law was aimed at combating organizations suspected of subversive communist activity. In 1955 the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, established to enforce the McCarran Act, issued a list of eighty-two sponsors of such activity in the United States, including labor organizations, youth groups, academic associations, and literary groups, many of them former Popular Front members.
Robert S. Kiely
Sworakowski, Witold, ed. World Communism: A Handbook, 1918–1965. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1973.; Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.