Monday, August 23, 2010

Why So Scared?

One of the more puzzling phenomena of the early cold war is the "red scare" paranoia of the late 1940s and early 1950s. By that I don't mean to suggest that there was no potential threat to the U.S. in the cold war. The Red Army, in the words of Churchill, "tore the guts out of the German army," so a healthy respect for the Soviet potential to do harm to American interests and allies was entirely appropriate.

What I'm referring to is not the foreign policy of containment, but the domestic condition of near-hysteria regarding communism, the fear that the threat was not foreign armies, but right here among us. I've often thought that this tendency of Americans to bring the problem home was, at root, a reaction to the disorienting sense of being unable to control such large, global events. Realistically, what could one person do about the armed might of the Soviet Union? Nothing. But what if the threat is here at home? What if it is the disloyal State Department official, or that unorthodox teacher at the local school? That person can be fired. That person is not distant, is not invincible: this is a fight one person can really contribute to, and win.

These thoughts have come to me as I've pondered recent developments such as the anti-immigrant mindset represented by the Arizona law and especially the utterly irrational response to the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Like Americans in those cold war years, we are told we must be constantly vigilant against insidious enemies, and increasingly, we are seeing them not abroad, but right here at home.

On immigration, people frustrated over the inability to control the borders decide to target anyone who looks like a potentially illegal immigrant. "Maybe we can't stop them all from coming in," they seem to be saying, "but we can find some of them and send them back. Or scare them into leaving. That we can do."

Similarly, nearly nine years into the amorphous "war on terror," we see no end in sight. The war in Afghanistan is deadlier than ever for American troops. Drones strikes in Pakistan are more common than ever. Quietly, the Obama administration has extended the fight to new fronts such as Yemen. And on and on it goes, with the average person powerless to affect it. That sense of powerlessness explains, I think, at least part of the present rage over the Islamic center. "This we can do--no mosque, no way!"

But like the hysterical anti-communism of the early cold war, this is targeting the wrong people. Back then, the right-wing tried to lump together everyone to their left as "communist" (ignoring such things as the fact that one of America's staunchest allies was Britain's explicitly socialist Labour government). Anyone who was even slightly different from the cultural norm ran the risk of running afoul of the loyalty test. I can still hear those old newsreels with Joe McCarthy's bullying voice rattling off the ethnically suspect names (many of which ended in vowels) of people who didn't sound like good, loyal Americans to him.

The public's vulnerability to scapegoating in times of economic recession and international tension I can somewhat understand, but what about the demagogues like McCarthy who exploited it? Why did they act so scared? Why did they make it seem as if the U.S. was a fragile edifice in imminent danger of collapsing in the face of the Soviet threat?

Here again I think it is useful to make the distinction between the foreign policy and the domestic. The people making foreign policy in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were not frightened. They had a healthy respect for Soviet power, but they did not feel threatened by its ideology. They always retained a firm conviction that the liberal tradition that had prevailed against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan would outlast Soviet communism. And it did.

The founding document of the cold war, George Kennan's "X" Article, demonstrates the confidence of those leaders. The policy of containment he called for was "patient [and] vigilant," it was confident, not fearful. Kennan understood communism, and saw as early as 1946 the possibility that "Soviet power ... bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced." Time was on America's side, because its system was better. It simply had to be patient and vigilant. (Containment was far from perfect, and its perversions in places like Vietnam are among its failings. But Kennan himself opposed the Vietnam war and stated that containment "has nothing to do with outward histrionics, with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness'.")

In contrast, the red-baiting demagogues like Nixon and McCarthy demonstrated no such confidence in America and its liberal principles. Nixon denounced what he called the "College of Cowardly Communist Containment" and accused Truman of being a "traitor" and "appeasing communism in Asia." McCarthy warned that "a conspiracy so immense" of communists in the American government threatened the U.S. with losing the cold war. The paranoia they expressed and exploited led to such abominations as the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act (initially sponsored in the House by Nixon), which Truman vetoed but Congress overrode.

That act required registration of communist organizations, established a Subversive Activities Control Board, provided for denaturalizing allegedly "subversive" citizens, and allowed for the detention of U.S. citizens deemed potentially disloyal during times of "internal security emergency." Truman called it "the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798." In his veto message, Truman plainly stated the important principle at stake: "In a free country, we punish people for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have."

Truman saw what the bill's supporters did not: you cannot effectively fight totalitarianism by becoming totalitarian yourself. The self-styled super-patriots who pushed this legislation had no confidence in the inherent strength of the American system--ultimately, whether they consciously realized it or not, they were jealous of a totalitarian system's ability to disregard such niceties as civil rights and liberties. They felt it made the enemy stronger and they thus emulated it.

And so it is with the fearmongers who have whipped up today's hysteria. They have no faith in the ability of American culture to encompass varied ethnicities and religions. They yearn to be able to act like our enemies (remember Gingrich's comment about the lack of churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia). They see enemies lurking everywhere, and in response they act more and more like the people we are supposed to be fighting.

In that famous article, George Kennan had some words that were directed at the Soviets, but apply to Gingrich, Palin et al today: "It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right." If Americans follow the lead of today's demagogues and act as if all foreigners, all Muslims are our enemies, we will one day be right.

On the other hand, if we remain true to our best selves, we can survive, prevail and prosper. What Kennan said of the cold war is true of the crises facing us today. It was, he said, "in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation." What we need to today is the confidence of Truman and Kennan. But in Gingrich and Palin and all of those who parrot their party line, we are getting the fearful lack of faith in America of Nixon and McCarthy.


  1. Excellent. One would think we would learn from the mistakes of our past, but instead we are so prone to repeat those mistakes.

  2. Excellent as always - I do love the way you contextualize these otherwise frustratingly baffling goings-on of today. I was inspired by your depiction of Truman and Kennan here. And disappointed that I don't see Obama understanding the need to take inspiration from them.