Communist fear festered within government ranks. In February 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin charged that the State Department knowingly employed more than 200 Communists. He later revised his claim to a much lower number, and after an investigation, all of his charges were proved to be false. But McCarthy, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Governmental Operations, continued to accuse others of Communist sympathies, often without any evidence. He launched investigations of the Voice of America as well as the U.S. Army Signal Corps. J. Edgar Hoover, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director, assisted McCarthy in hunting Communist spies and sympathizers, often using the power of his bureau.
Congress passed the McCarran Internal Security Act in 1950, forcing the registration of all Communist organizations and allowing the government to intern Communists during national emergencies. It also prohibited those people from doing any defense work and prohibited entry into the United States to members of “totalitarian” organizations or governments. The act was passed over President Truman's veto.
Such behavior became known as McCarthyism, meaning any unfounded accusation of subversive activities. Not only were government officials accused and interrogated, but also film directors, military officers, and others from all walks of life were brought before Senate hearings to name those they knew with Communist ties. As a result, many reputations were ruined and careers left in shambles. A few of the accused even committed suicide.
Senator Margaret Chase Smith, lambasting her Senate colleagues, said, “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America.” President Truman warned of the fear and hysteria wrought by Senator McCarthy, for the senator even accused the U.S. Army of Communist infiltration. By 1954, his Senate colleagues censured McCarthy for abusing his powers. A known alcoholic, Joseph McCarthy died of liver damage a few years later.