McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of subversion and treason, especially when related to communism and socialism.[1] The term originally referred to the controversial practices and policies of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), and has its origins in the period in the United States known as the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s.[2] It was characterized by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.[2] After the mid-1950s, McCarthyism began to decline, mainly due to Joseph McCarthy's gradual loss of public popularity and credibility after several of his accusations were found to be false, and sustained opposition from the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren on human rights grounds.[3][4] The Warren Court made a series of rulings on civil and political rights that overturned several McCarthyist laws and directives, and helped bring an end to McCarthyism.[5][6][7]

American anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s, specifically addressing the entertainment industry

What would become known as the McCarthy era began before McCarthy's rise to national fame. Following the First Red Scare, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order in 1947 to screen federal employees for possible association with organizations deemed "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive", or advocating "to alter the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means." In 1949, a high-level State Department official was convicted of perjury in a case of espionage, and the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb. The Korean War started the next year, significantly raising tensions and fears of impending communist upheavals in the United States. In a speech in February 1950, McCarthy presented a list of alleged members of the Communist Party USA working in the State Department, which attracted substantial press attention, and the term McCarthyism was published for the first time in late March of that year in The Christian Science Monitor, along with a political cartoon by Herblock in The Washington Post. The term has since taken on a broader meaning, describing the excesses of similar efforts to crack down on alleged "subversive" elements. In the early 21st century, the term is used more generally to describe reckless and unsubstantiated accusations of treason and far-left extremism, along with demagogic personal attacks on the character and patriotism of political adversaries.

The primary targets of McCarthyist persecution were government employees, prominent figures in the entertainment industry, academics, left-wing politicians, and labor union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive and questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations and beliefs were often exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and the destruction of their careers and livelihoods as a result of the crackdowns on suspected communists, and some were outright imprisoned. Most of these reprisals were initiated by trial verdicts that were later overturned,[8] laws that were later struck down as unconstitutional,[9] dismissals for reasons later declared illegal[10] or actionable,[11] and extra-judiciary procedures, such as informal blacklists by employers and public institutions, that would come into general disrepute, though by then many lives had been ruined. The most notable examples of McCarthyism include the investigations of alleged communists that were conducted by Senator McCarthy, and the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).