McCarthyism began in earnest with the end of World War II, as alliances ending between the U.S. and the Soviet Union left Americans suspicious of the growing communist presence on American soil. The association of this cultural movement with a Joseph McCarthy began with a speech by the senator on Feb. 9, 1950. The term “McCarthyism” first appeared in a Washington Post cartoon on March 29 of that year.
Prior to the end of World War II, a similar paranoia to McCarthyism had already begun to evolve within the context of the early, uncertain days of the Cold War. A new anti-communist law, the Alien Registration American of 1940, prosecuted suspected communists for years while the U.S. and the Soviet Union were still allies, though not to the extent that would soon follow. Tensions escalated quickly with two events in 1949: the Soviet Union’s testing of its nuclear bomb and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in China. Following McCarthy’s 1950 speech, in which he produced a paper that he claimed contained the names of 205 active communists in the U.S. State Department, the practices of McCarthyism expanded to the legal arrests, harassment and firings of thousands of Americans.