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McCarthy Era

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

Einstein the Radical

Einstein in 1952
Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè Archives

Einstein supported a number of political causes that branded him a radical in the eyes of many in the U.S. government. He wrote of his support for socialism, for example, and described capitalism as "economic anarchy." Such statements, combined with his advocacy of nuclear disarmament and civil rights, made Einstein a highly controversial figure in the 1950s, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy were accusing many of being Communists. Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation amassed a file with almost 1,500 pages of information on Einstein's allegedly subversive political activities.

Einstein never backed down from his beliefs, however--and always emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom. "I have never been a Communist," he said. "But if I were, I would not be ashamed of it." Einstein despaired over the effects of McCarthyism : "The current investigations are an incomparably greater danger to our society than those few Communists in our country ever could be. These investigations have already undermined to a considerable extent the democratic character of our society."

October 25, 1945: U.S. Congressman John Rankin criticizes Einstein for his allegedly subversive political beliefs:

It's about time the American people got wise to Einstein....He ought to be prosecuted.
 —Rep. John Rankin, House Un-American Activities Committee

Einstein was never charged and never appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The McCarthy Era

Communist Witch-Hunts

Although the United States and the Soviet Union were WWII allies against the Nazis, many in America were deeply suspicious of the Communist country. As the tensions of the Cold War deepened, fear of Communism reached its peak in the early 1950s. The U.S. Congress, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, conducted witch-hunts in search of Communist sympathizers. The accused had two options. They could refuse to testify and risk losing their jobs and friends. Or they could cooperate and accuse friends and colleagues of being Communists. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by J. Edgar Hoover, monitored citizens' activities, searching for "subversive" behavior.

Einstein and his leftist political convictions attracted the attention of the U.S. government as early as the 1930s. Denounced as a Communist spy and watched by the FBI, Einstein persisted in publicly criticizing McCarthyism as a dangerous threat to democracy and freedom of expression.

Defending Oppenheimer

Einstein and Oppenheimer

The case shocked the scientific community: J. Robert Oppenheimer was the most prominent scientist to become a victim of McCarthyism. Einstein, a vocal critic of McCarthyism, joined 25 other scientists in defending Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's security clearance was never reinstated.