Since time immemorial, the American government has waged a brutal and oppressive war against flag bearers of communist, or as many put it, Soviet ideology. Instances in history indicate to a manic and frenzied hunt for ‘suspected’ communists which resulted in the infringement of civil liberties and rights, the very foundations of the American State.
The first Red Scare started in the early 1900’s in retaliation to the October Revolution and the rise of Bolshevism. It reached its peak during 1919-1920 and was characterised by the rise of Bolshevism and Anarchist bombings that plagued America. The period saw several strikes by American workers such as the Seattle General Strike (in which a total of 60,000 workers went on strike an paralysed the city for days), Boston Police Strike and several bombings by anarchists such as Emma Goldman on major business and political organisations. As a result of this, the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer started an oppressive campaign using illegal means such as unlawful arrests, detention etc to break the backs of several so-called communist or anti state organisations. Before we look at Mr Palmer and his actions, we must look at the Overman Committee. The Overman Committee was a special five-man subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary chaired by the North Carolina Democrat, Lee Slater Overman. First charged with investigating German subversion during World War I, its mandate was extended on February 4, 1919, just a day after the announcement of the Seattle General Strike, to study “any efforts being made to propagate in this country the principles of any party exercising or claiming to exercise any authority in Russia” and “any effort to incite the overthrow of the Government of this country.” The Committee’s hearings into Bolshevik propaganda, conducted from February 11 to March 10, 1919, developed an alarming image of Bolshevism as an imminent threat to the U.S. government and American values. The Committee’s final report appeared in June 1919. This was followed by the rise of Mr Palmer and was characterised by Palmer raids. In these, he rounded up several radicals based on their membership of a communist organisation. This was widely opposed by civil libertarians and leftists through widespread protests. The Unites States Secretary of Labour, Louis Freeland Post, stood up to Palmer by not sanctioning several deportations of radicals to Russia and was later declared the victor of this confrontation and the saviour of American Civil rights. On 29th of April 1920, the red Scare reached its peak with Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover fearing that radicals and anarchists will overthrow the American Government. This led to deployment of 11,000 policemen in Boston alone for almost 32 hours straight. The Boston American assessed the Attorney General on May 4:
Everybody is laughing at A. Mitchell Palmer’s May Day “revolution.” The joke is certainly on A. Mitchell Palmer, but the matter is not wholly a joke. The spectacle of a Cabinet officer going around surrounded with armed guards because he is afraid of his own hand-made bogey is a sorry one, even though it appeals to the humour of Americans. Of course, the terrible “revolution” did not come off. Nobody with a grain of sense supposed that it would. Yet, in spite of universal laughter, the people are seriously disgusted with these official Red scares. They cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars spent in assembling soldiers and policemen and in paying wages and expenses to Mr. Palmer’s agents. They help to frighten capital and demoralize business, and to make timid men and women jumpy and nervous.
Palmer’s embarrassment buttressed Louis Freeland Post’s position in opposition to the Palmer raids when he testified before a Congressional Committee on May 7–8, 1920.
The Second Red Scare and the more prominent of the two took place after the Second World War. It is of immense importance to understand the circumstances surrounding the notorious witch hunt. In 1949, the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, and in the same year Mao Zedong came to power in China despite American support for the Kuomintang. This was soon followed by the Korean War in which America and Russia fought against each other through South and North Korea respectively with America entering the war later. There were also more subtle forces encouraging the rise of McCarthyism. It had long been a practice of more conservative politicians to refer to progressive reforms such as child labor laws and women’s suffrage as “Communist” or “Red plots.” This tendency increased in the 1930s in reaction to the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many conservatives equated the New Deal with socialism or Communism, and saw its policies as evidence that the government had been heavily influenced by Communist policy-makers in the Roosevelt administration.In general, the vaguely defined danger of “Communist influence” was a more common theme in the rhetoric of anti-Communist politicians than was espionage or any other specific activity.
Now, the final piece in this game of chess against communism was Senator Joseph McCarthy himself, a man described by many of his peers as a corrupt individual and one of the least qualified politician’s of his time. His zeal for political power began when he joined the Democrat’s, but quickly switched over to the Republican’s. He was a circuit court judge who rose to the said position after a dirty political campaign. He then was given a chance to contest elections as a Senator for the Wisconsin Seat. He won the said seat on the sole fact that he was a Marine in the Second World War and his competitor Robert La Follete was not. After becoming a Senator, his performance was dismal at best. He now started looking for an opening which could buy him electoral popularity and he decided to prey on the rising fear of Communism among the American population. On February 9,1950 he addressed a press conference and made a statement that supposedly started the phenomenon known as McCarthyism. He claimed that he had a list of 205 individuals employed by the state who had communist affiliations.McCarthy relentlessly pushed through and became the chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, widening his scope to “investigate” dissenters. He continued to investigate for over two years, relentlessly questioning numerous government departments and the panic arising from the witch-hunts and fear of communism became known as McCarthyism. Several Loyalty programs (investigations really) were initiated against federal government employees and hundreds were arrested only on the suspicion that they were affiliated to communist organisations in the past.
In 1953, Robert K. Murray, a young professor of history at Pennsylvania State University who had served as an intelligence officer in World War II, was revising his dissertation on the Red Scare of 1919–20 for publication until Little, Brown and Company decided that “under the circumstances … it wasn’t wise for them to bring this book out“. He learned that investigators were questioning his colleagues and relatives. Finally, the University of Minnesota press published his volume, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920, in 1955.
In 1953, after he left office, Truman criticized the current Eisenhower administration:
“It is now evident that the present Administration has fully embraced, for political advantage, McCarthyism. I am not referring to the Senator from Wisconsin. He is only important in that his name has taken on the dictionary meaning of the word. It is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society.”
People lost their jobs, their reputations and their families too were made to suffer. American rights and ideals were trashed and a maniac was let loose on the entire nation. McCarthy did not restrict himself to just communists, he also went after people he termed as sexual deviants and this led to the creation of the Lavender Scare.
Tyranny and Evil have never persisted and eventually fall. On 1st June 1950, Senator Margaret Chase Smith made a moving speech in the Senate regarding civil liberties and the right to propagate ideas free from fear or prosecution. This speech was called the Declaration of Conscience and received widespread acclaim and approval. She said “freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America“, and decried “cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes“. Six other Republican senators—Wayne Morse, Irving M. Ives, Charles W. Tobey, Edward John Thye, George Aiken, and Robert C. Hendrickson—joined Smith in condemning the tactics of McCarthyism. McCarthy’s downfall however started when he began investigation against the communists in the Army.In 1954, the Army accused McCarthy of trying to ensure privileges for certain enlists and demanding special favours from the Army. Joseph Welsh, the Special Counsel for the Army destroyed McCarthy’s reputation and exposed him to the nation as a possessed man who would stop at nothing to meet his personal agendas however wrong they may be. On December 2, 1954, the Senate voted 67–22 to censure McCarthy, effectively eradicating his influence, though not expelling him from office.McCarthy continued to chair the Subcommittee on Investigations until January 3, 1955, the day the 84th United States Congress was inaugurated; Senator John L. McClellan (D-Arkansas) replaced McCarthy as chairman. President Eisenhower also distanced himself from McCarthy and it was not long after that that McCarthy lost all positions of influence. Soon, the American courts followed and upheld civil rights and spoke out against such prosecutions. In 1956, the Supreme Court heard the case of Slochower v. Board of Education (350 U.S. 551). Harry Slochower was a professor at Brooklyn College who had been fired by New York City for invoking the Fifth Amendment when McCarthy’s committee questioned him about his past membership in the Communist Party. The court prohibited such actions, ruling “…we must condemn the practice of imputing a sinister meaning to the exercise of a person’s constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment. The privilege against self-incrimination would be reduced to a hollow mockery if its exercise could be taken as equivalent either to a confession of guilt or a conclusive presumption of perjury”. Another key decision was in the 1957 case Yates v. United States (354 U.S. 298), in which the convictions of fourteen Communists were reversed. In Justice Black’s opinion, he wrote of the original “Smith Act” trials:
The testimony of witnesses is comparatively insignificant. Guilt or innocence may turn on what Marx or Engels or someone else wrote or advocated as much as a hundred years or more ago. When the propriety of obnoxious or unfamiliar view about government is in reality made the crucial issue, prejudice makes conviction inevitable except in the rarest circumstances.
Is this a “grand piece” of history the GOP and even, the United States, ignoring, or have they overcome it, paving way for a realpolitik alliance? Why are Americans silent on the “alleged Russian intervention” and more so, why is the GOP deciding to sit on it? Is it some covfefe diplomacy that Trump might surprise us with, given that his presidency has been quite eventful as of now?
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- Red Scare
- Zakaria, Fareed, The GOP’s Deafening Silence on Trump
- Army-McCarthy Hearings
- Lavender Scare