McCartyism and the Department of State U.S. Department of Seal
Department of State

In the early years of the Cold War, congressional, press, and public scrutiny of Department of State conduct of foreign policy turned into direct attacks not only on policies, but also on personnel. The end of World War II marked the conclusion of America's short-lived alliance with the Soviet Union and communist parties which shared a common interest in defeating the Axis Powers. The Department, embroiled in larger political struggles related to the Cold War, was not immune from growing public and media concern over the possibility of communists within the U.S. Government. In 1945 and 1946 loyalty investigations began throughout the Department of State, resulting in the dismissal or reassignment of employees, often on no more than rumors and innuendo of communist leanings or activity.

The national debate over the "loss" of China reignited this conflict. In 1949, following a bloody civil war, the communists established the People's Republic of China on the mainland, and America's anti-communist ally, Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to the island of Taiwan. Shortly after the communist victory attacks by supporters of Chiang and conservative Congressmen upon the so-called "China Hands," Foreign Service officers and journalists seen as overly supportive of the communists, began in earnest. The campaign sought to blame Department of State employees with long experience in China for contributing to Chiang's defeat in the Chinese civil war. Particularly damaging was the charge (subsequently disproved) by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950 that more than 200 "active members of the Communist Party" worked in the Department. Though deeply skeptical of such claims, Secretary of State Dean Acheson allowed loyalty investigations to move ahead in order to convince the Congress and public that communists had not infiltrated the Department. Because of these politically charged inquiries, Foreign Service officers were fired or forced to resign even though none was proven to belong to the Communist Party. As a result the Department lost the expertise of many of its most experienced China specialists.

Additional Reading:
E.J. Kahn. The China Hands: America's Foreign Service Officers and What Befell Them (New York, 1972).
Thomas C. Reeves. The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (New York, 1982).