Creating the Idealized Nemesis
The Collective Psychology of the Red Scare
by Alexander C. Chirila
The idealized nemesis, as constructed by the collective psychology of a nation, can take many forms, from the barbarous hordes storming the gate to the cunning opponent scheming across a global chessboard. Perhaps the most insidious of these nemeses is the enemy within. Characterized as a “fifth column(1),” viral infection, or spreading cancer, the enemy within generates a range of psychological reactions on the national scale, including an inward-focused aggression fixated on “rooting out” the enemy by emphasizing, aggrandizing, and mythologizing a standard of health linked to collective self-identity. The enemy, in turn, is a negative composite of oppositional, undesirable, and grotesque qualities that are uniquely configured to infiltrate, contaminate, and potentially transform the national body.
This negative composite can, moreover, be superadded to deviations from the accepted standard of ideal health or purity. The question is: who is applying and measuring this standard? Who determines what is healthy and what is deviant? Once labeled as belonging to the enemy by willful or unwitting association, persons within the collective are targeted, isolated, and ostracized. During the infamous Red Scare in the United States(2), many individuals were either accused or suspected of being communists, from entertainers and filmmakers to union leaders and government officials. The domestic communist was nothing less than a traitor, actively working toward violent revolution and the utter destruction of the American way of life: “Communism is a deadly menace; a scourge which threatens the very existence of Western civilization” (Hoover 1950).
Richard M. Fried writes that “it was in 1949 that anti-communism planted itself squarely in the nation’s political consciousness” (1990:87)(3). Known now as the “McCarthy era,” the years between 1947 and 1955 saw the American perception of the communist threat reach a fever-pitch. On Lincoln’s birthday, February 9, 1950, Joseph McCarthy delivered his now-infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, considered to mark the beginning of an explicit, publically recognized declaration of war against domestic communism(4). Here is an excerpt of the speech, illustrative of his public style:
Today we can almost physically hear the mutterings and rumblings of an invigorated god of war. You can see it, feel it, and hear it all the way from the Indochina hills, from the shores of Formosa, right over into the very heart of Europe itself. The one encouraging thing is that the “mad moment” has not yet arrived for the firing of the gun or the exploding of the bomb which will set civilization about the final task of destroying itself. There is still a hope for peace if we finally decide that no longer can we safely blind our eyes and close our ears to those facts which are shaping up more and more clearly … and that is that we are now engaged in a show-down fight … not the usual war between nations for land areas or other material gains, but a war between two diametrically opposed ideologies.
Anti-subversive measures had been ongoing since 1919, but the Republican Party had found their front man in Joseph McCarthy. In retrospect, the subsequent affair may be viewed in terms of political maneuvering, spectacle and sensation, and the brutish tactics of a man who overplayed a sensitive hand. Similarly, the era can be over-exaggerated and made to appear a horror show of injustice, paranoia, and Inquisition-like tactics(5). While the scope of the Red Scare during the McCarthy era was more limited than certain accounts may have indicated(6), the narrative itself—the mythology of communism vs. the Free World—embedded itself into multiple prisms of discourse and experience.
There were many people who did not doubt that what McCarthy declared regarding the Communist threat was true; that there were Reds everywhere, prepared to debilitate the country in advance of nuclear war(7). On both the individual and collective level, the Shadow—momentarily dissipated following WWII—resolved into another shape, painted with advancing degrees of impressionistic boldness by McCarthy’s rhetoric. The fears shared amongst members of the American collective, both intimate and public, coalesced into a “Red menace,” a new bogeyman that “could be everywhere.” Coworkers, neighbors, associates, and friends—no one was exempt from suspicion. Another quote from McCarthy’s Wheeling address highlights his strategy of turning America’s eye on itself:
The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores … but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this Nation, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest Nation on earth has had to offer … the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.
This prevalent atmosphere of wariness and censorship, ostensibly meant to safeguard the integrity of the United States from the machinations of domestic communists, threatened instead to endanger the supports of national identity—those freedoms believed absent under a communist dictatorship. Hoover writes, “The individual, in Communist society, is a pawn, subject to the whims of a ruling elite. Civil rights are nonexistent; concentration camps are the symbol of justice; terror the order of the day” (1950)(8).
While America was never in any significant danger of degenerating into a dictatorship, antipathy towards tyranny runs deep in the fiber of the national psyche. Any severe curtailment of civil liberties (or any imagined or perceived curtailment) neutralizes the primary attributes ascribed to the heroic projection of American identity(9). When the enemy’s qualities begin to resemble those associated with the heroic Self, there is a moment of schism, of rupturing, when the Self and the Nemesis are both revealed as creations of the collective psyche. Their purpose is to enact symbolic dramas of validation.
Through participation in the stories and storytelling that generate this drama, individual members of the collective are reassured that the immortality of their nation is secure. If there is any doubt that the nation is perpetual, representing recurrent and continuous historical identities, Hoover’s language should prove sufficiently revealing: “it is in the faith of our fathers, a trust in God, and a belief in the dignity of man that the real revolutionary power of history arises; and that it is this power that over the centuries has ripped apart tyrannies, overthrown dictators, and humbled the idolatrous” (1964)(10).
National identity is strengthened through individual and collective experience, reaffirmed through triggers in the environment that validate the meaning ascribed to various elements of the narrative. Ideally, these triggers are positive validations. Realistically, identity comes into sharper focus when it is challenged or threatened. Fortunately for the American psyche, there were not enough negative triggers to warrant the extremes of behavior indulged in by McCarthy. His methods proved so unsavory that, by 1954, the American people were no longer behind him(11). This is not to say that the fear of the Communist menace did not remain at the forefront of American foreign policy, or that the terror associated with the potential for nuclear Armageddon did not continue to inspire and frighten the public.
Behind McCarthy, and far more influential by far, was J. Edgar Hoover. As Director of the newly minted Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover directed considerable energy towards the identification and investigation of suspected communists(12). For Hoover, domestic communism was an enemy of apocalyptic proportions: “it stands for the destruction of our American form of government; it stands for the destruction of American Democracy; it stands for the destruction of free enterprise; and it stands for the creation of a ‘Soviet of the United States’ and ultimate world revolution” (1947)(13). The author of two books on the subject—Masters of Deceit (1958) and A Study of Communism (1962)—as well as numerous pamphlets and articles, Hoover’s rhetoric is a striking example of how the enemy within is ideated.
Collective representations of identity are complex matrices pieced together from active symbols, dominant narratives of interpretation, and the many voices that disseminate public opinion and perspective. Naturally, these matrices change over time; “American-ness” was not the same in 1960 as it was a decade earlier, nor was it the same in 1940 as it was in 1920. Many of the same symbols may be used—the star spangled banner, for example—but their meanings may subtly change from one generation to the next. Nor, despite a cultivated projection of unity, are identity-matrices entirely cohesive; in fact, the United States may have among the most diverse and internally dynamic identities in the world. Portions of this composite may be fragmented, or cracked along specific fracture lines; as they are between Democrats and Republicans in contemporary America, for example. As they were between liberals and conservatives during the McCarthy era(14).
Identity is a product of storytelling on multiple levels. Consider that during the 1930s and early 1940s, America’s short-lived isolationist identity(15) was composed of narratives that recalled the fate of historical empires and upheld the nation’s paradoxical role as an exemplar of success, innovation, and morality. Paradoxical because this role was an international one, inextricable from the ties that bound the young country to a global stage. Arthur Herman writes that “at its heart noninterventionism was a fear of empire, and of America’s becoming an imperial presence…America would assume the same historical fate of Rome and other great empires…By playing the game of international power politics, America would lose its unique identity as the moral standard-bearer of the world” (2000:28)(16). This neutral position was an ongoing narrative that, while overwhelmed in late 1941, would “reemerge in the face of the new Soviet threat” (30).
The insularity sacrificed to join the Allies would open the United States to potential contamination by external forces. So soon after the turmoil of the Great Depression, an international show of strength would attract the attention of enemies eager to exploit the vulnerabilities of a “unified modern nation” (2000:30). Still, as Herman points out, “the war made size and abundance the chief facts of American economic life. But they were key characteristics of its new cultural life as well. Against all expectations, the war changed life for the better for most Americans” (ibid). WWII was to be the economic and industrial stimulus that propelled the United States into a position of strength and induct a new narrative of superiority, might, and international dominance.
However, such a potent and virile mythos cannot exist in total isolation, uncontested by an opponent worthy of perpetuating the conflict. A nemesis that poses a threat on two levels is ideal; on a global scale, to validate the international strength of the nation. On a domestic scale, the enemy addresses the other narrative, quietly undermining the projected strength of the world’s “standard-bearer” by representing the consequences of international engagement. In other words, America caught a deadly bug in the course of its interactions with the volatile outside world: a communist virus.
Identity matrices are composed in relation to what is believed foreign or antithetical to them. Identity is shaped around dynamic interfaces with forces that exist “outside” the assumed boundaries of the Self. Some of these interfaces may be aggressive, confrontational, or combative; others may be friendly or supportive; others neutral, convenient, necessary, or obligatory. It is often the case where the Self, engaged in various negotiations and interactions with outside forces, is presented as a whole. It is distilled into a specific matrix of projected associations—the equivalent, on a collective scale, of what is known as putting on a face(17).
This projection or persona is primarily intentional; specific characteristics are given emphasis in order to better guide its interaction with enemies and allies alike. In many ways, this process is magnified when the outsider is believed to have infiltrated the Self. Only by strengthening those elements that are associated with self-identity can the corruptive agents be distinguished, quarantined, and excised. Moreover, this self-identity cannot be composed of competing narratives (although in reality it always will be), inasmuch as radical, marginalized, or vulnerable perspectives will be exploited by the contaminant and possibly turned against the host body(18).
However, in order for the enemy within to exist, competing narratives must be recognized and accorded a position relative to the interface between virus and antibody; the magnitude of the response is commensurate with the assumed threat. When there is a disjunction between the threat and response, as when the response far exceeds the presumed danger, the consensus necessary to perpetuate the purgative or curative strategy is lost(19).
J. Edgar Hoover’s ideation of communism substantiates the viral metaphor clearly: “Victory will be assured once communists are identified and exposed because the public will take the first step of quarantining them so they can do no harm. Communism, in reality, is not a political party. It is a way of life–an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic; and like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation” (1947). By the time McCarthy took the stage, the roots of anti-communism in the United States had already burrowed deep into the psychological soil of the country(20).
During the second Red Scare, “state and local anti-subversive efforts often resonated to stimuli from Washington, but sometimes the initiative was local and more or less independent” (Fried 1990:104). The tactics of anticommunism were varied: redbaiting, blacklisting, surveillance, using the press as a weapon, deportation, loyalty oaths; “the period 1949-54 marked the nadir of civil liberties during the Cold War…The era witnessed bitter, scarring political conflict…political comity was particularly lacking in those times. They were ripe for a quintessential demagogue to carry the issue to its ultimate extremity. That man, Joseph R. McCarthy, gave his name to the era” (118).
The senator from Wisconsin became a narrative locus for a knot of stories that would characterize the psychological landscape. Why is this significant? Arguably, McCarthy’s downfall mitigated the scope of the damage and, by shifting the public’s emotional focus away from paranoia and fear, effectively stifled a dangerous social trend. The protests of the late 60s, Civil Rights, and subcultures of dissent can to some extent be interpreted as a reaction to the chokehold that nearly suffocated a generation. At the same time, men like Hoover were able to effectively sustain ideational and rhetorical strategies of representation. In 1967, Hoover writes in “A Statement on Communism”: “If you listen to a communist, he’ll exclaim that our system of government cannot meet the test if time…We must recognize the communist effort for what it is—an effort to inject poison into the bloodstream of America, to confuse, obscure and distort America’s vision of itself.”
Hoover would not live to see the collapse of the USSR, but the continued study of Marxism in many American universities, numerous alternative ideologies of social governance, widespread distrust of centralized authority, and the burgeoning of diverse counter-cultural movements and radical groups would have continued to chafe at him. In 1969, he writes: “The chaotic issues of the day—the student New Left, ghetto riots, black power, the rise of extremism, violence in society, the war in Vietnam, the increase in crime, the breakdown of law and order—have presented perplexing problems and dilemmas.” This litany of social ills, with but a few substitutions, would likely have been essentially the same had Hoover been describing 2014; and his language and expression would have remained equally symbolic when turned against domestic threats active in modern America.
Hoover rhetorically asks what can be done to combat the menace of subversive communism: “the best anecdote to communism is vigorous, intelligent, old-fashioned Americanism with eternal vigilance” (1947). What exactly does Hoover mean by “Americanism”? Here is part of his answer: “Americans, young and adult, should know more about the basic traditions of America, our history, our national heroes, our democratic traditions. A young person versed in the concepts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln will not follow the siren calls of communist traitors” (1969).
The ideal self-identity, capable of defending its adherents against contamination, is composed in part of: tradition (habitual patterns of behavior linked to cultural beliefs); history (or the dominant narrative thereof); heroes (a specific mythology containing intricate networks of symbolic resonance); and knowledge of democracy (a laden term implying not only a system of government, but also an entire way of life). All of these ingredients are necessary because “Communism is a totalitarian philosophy which embraces all phases of human life: education, art, literature, the press, etc. It is all-encompassing” (Hoover 1969). Consequently, an adequate defense against a philosophy of this kind is an all-encompassing one. In to protect every organ, anti-communist strategies must be deployed throughout every major system of the psyche…in effect, every organ capable of generating narrative(21). Tradition, history, and mythology are all forms of storytelling.
What was distinctly American—a part of the collective self-identity of the United States—contained embedded in its own design a negative, or oppositional, matrix of associations that were “un-American.” David M. Oshinsky writes that, during the first Red Scare that attended the rise of Bolshevism in 1917, “by exploiting traditional fears of immigrant radicalism, the government, in conjunction with patriotic groups and employer associations, began to stifle dissent, deport foreign ‘troublemakers,’ and restrict the flow of immigrants into the country. The main focus of this period was a negative one—to preserve the status quo by excluding or destroying those ‘foreign influences’ that might subvert it” (1983:87).
It is important to note that the emphasis here is on foreign influences, identified as potentially radical or subversive elements that undermine the social and ideological integrity of a perceived unity(22). “Before long,” Oshinsky writes, “‘Bolshevism’ and ‘Communism’ had become catch-words to discredit movements with which Americans disagreed…it was no coincidence, moreover, that the 1920s saw the first loyalty oaths for teachers and the mass production of patriotic observances—Flag Day, Constitution Day, Preparedness Day, and the like” (1983:89-90). The concept of foreignness in this context presupposes a native American-ness that must be protected and safeguarded against contamination.
Unlike homegrown radical movements that originate within the national body, domestic communism in the United States began as a result of foreign influence(23), operating in stealth and secrecy: “The Party’s first decade in the United States was chiefly one of becoming oriented, that is, emerging from an underground existence, recruiting a native cadre, and perfecting an organizational structure” (Hoover 1969).
The cloak-and-dagger portrait of the early American Communist Party in 1919 properly belongs to a turn-of-the-century thriller, confined to the back alleys and basements of urban America. The United States was on the cusp of a gilded age; healthy, vigorous, and successful. There was only one problem: there were many who could not partake of the nation’s affluence, smears on a projected image of prosperity: immigrants, foreigners, radicals. Unnerved by the Bolshevik success in Russia, Americans turned on Russian immigrants; a number of organizations advocated measures as extreme as deportation(24). It is significant that the first Red Scare was focused on foreigners, as it would cement the accepted source of domestic communism in the United States as having been contracted “outside” the Self. This same fear would encourage the isolationist policies that characterized political and public thought until 1941.
George Kennan, an American diplomat on the Soviet front, wrote what would prove an influential Long Telegram, later published and titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947). It is noteworthy in this context because it provides insight into how the enemy was represented. Kennan was considered an authority on the subject; his analysis of the Soviet character would have been taken as the product of professional insight and direct observation. Writing on Stalin and those who aided his succession, Kennan considers that:
Their particular brand of fanaticism, unmodified by any of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of compromise, was too fierce and too jealous to envisage any permanent sharing of power. From the Russian-Asiatic world out of which they had emerged they carried with them a skepticism as to the possibilities of permanent and peaceful coexistence of rival forces. Easily persuaded of their own doctrinaire ‘rightness,’ they insisted on the submission or destruction of all competing power.
The accuracy of Kennan’s profile is irrelevant here; what is important is how the attributes assigned to the enemy should be interpreted as ideated constructs intended to both justify and mythologize the conflict between the Self and Nemesis. Kennan emphasizes the foreignness of the Russian psyche in terms of its unwillingness to compromise or share power. Unlike the ideal of reasoned debate and civil discourse held as counterpoint, Stalin and his allies are portrayed as unreasonable and implacably determined to reign alone over a subjugated world. Peaceful coexistence, as Hoover would himself write throughout his career, was impossible.
Kennan goes on: “Now it lies in the nature of the mental world of the Soviet leaders, as well as in the character of their ideology, that no opposition to them can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever. Such opposition can flow, in theory, only from the hostile and incorrigible forces of dying capitalism.” American democracy certainly opposes Stalinist communism, and by doing so has guaranteed that no virtue or quality in its own character can, to the enemy, have any “merit or justification.”
To the ideation of the enemy within, this is significant. If there were any chance that a communist would recognize the supremacy of free society, particularly after having participated in it firsthand (even as a spy or radical), there would also be a possibility that subversive contaminants could be neutralized through integration or assimilation. This, however, is impossible: for why would an individual convinced of communism’s superiority be swayed by a hostile, incorrigible, and dying enemy?
To the American mind, the notion that the United States would be “dying” would likely have been a particularly offensive one, utterly antithetical to the projection of strength supported by the booming postwar economy. Hoover declares it “an incontestable fact that our country, the symbol of the free world, is the ultimate, priceless goal of international communism. The leaders of international communism have vowed to achieve world domination. This cannot be until the Red flag is flown over the United States” (1960)(25). This image is a powerful one, evoking nothing less than conquest—justified by the hostility and incorrigibility of “dying capitalism,” as perceived by Kennan’s version of Soviet psychology.
Kennan continues: “tremendous emphasis has been placed on the original Communist thesis of a basic antagonism between the capitalist and Socialist worlds. It is clear, from many indications, that this emphasis is not founded in reality.” Interestingly, Kennan’s strategy is to compare this thesis to mythology. On the surface, this comparison highlights its fictional quality. However, more significantly, Kennan’s move only exaggerates the conflict by elevating it to mytho-symbolic dimensions. Further: “but least of all can the rulers dispense with the fiction by which the maintenance of dictatorial power has been defended. For this fiction has been canonized in Soviet philosophy by the excesses already committed in its name; and it is now anchored in the Soviet structure of thought by bonds far greater than those of mere ideology.” Beyond ideology is _action_—mythologized not through narrative, but through the visceral, tangible, and lasting effect of collective human experience.
Kennan’s ideation of Russian psychology also features the image of a besieged castle, imperiled by inevitable dissent and battered by the imagined forces of a ravenous and desperate capitalism. Normally, an image of this kind would suggest a limited timeframe, a hastened or protracted range of opportunities in which to advance the cause of violent revolution. However, in contrast, Kennan indicates that the Russians believed ideological and economic victory to be inevitable, upheld by an unflinching conviction: “we have seen that the Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry.
Like the Church, it is dealing in ideological concepts which are of long-term validity, and it can afford to be patient.” On a similar note, Hoover writes that “communists regard themselves as ‘riding the wave of the future’ toward their ‘rendezvous with destiny’” (1945)(26). Both Kennan and Hoover clearly intend these statements to be taken sardonically, and to alert their readers that they are dealing with a deluded psychology. These delusions, theses, and mythologies, reinforced by tyranny, bloodshed, and oppression, are stubborn fixtures that neither Kennan nor Hoover believes can be dissolved.
Still, it is important that the enemy is not entirely unshakeable in its convictions, lest those convictions appear more stable than those held by the members of the Self. Consequently, Hoover points out that there are former adherents of communist ideology that have become disillusioned (A Study of Communism 1962:12). Kennan, later in his telegram, describes the bulk of the Soviet populace as crushed under the oppressive heel of Party dictatorship, an untenable social paradigm bound to collapse under its own weight—a turning of the tables, implying that the natural desires of an otherwise sensible and intelligent people for civil freedom will lead to a revolution in favor of democracy.
Kennan’s ideated Russian identity is the source of the many-headed beast that Hoover insists is slavishly devoted to Russia. Both Hoover and McCarthy emphasize the link between domestic and international communism, a strategy that accomplishes two purposes. On the one hand, it stresses the foreignness of domestic communism, hopefully removing any lingering reluctance on the part of American citizens to target members of their own communities: “When the Kremlin trumpet sounds, the American stooges echo and re-echo the tune. They make worshipful obedience to the Master on High” (Hoover 1950)(27).
On the other hand, it anchors the ideology of American communists to Kennan’s representation of the Stalinist psyche as misguided and fundamentally flawed. “The Soviet thesis,” he writes, “assumes Russian unity, discipline and patience over an infinite period. Let us bring this apocalyptic vision down to earth” (1947).
Kennan’s analysis reaches a metaphorical crescendo when he writes:
Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, [like] one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist. And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane? Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.
Elsewhere, Kennan refers to this light as a “strange charm” and “magical attraction,” suggesting a sort of spell. Hoover considers this due in part to the illusory trappings of objectivity that veil the mythic ideology of proletariat revolution. How is this important to the larger drama, to the narrative of conflict expected to strengthen American identity? Kennan addresses this question directly:
It is…a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time. To the extent that such an impression can be created and maintained, the aims of Russian Communism must appear sterile and quixotic.
How is this impression created but through narrative? McCarthy believed himself the man to tell this story—to shout it, even—but his excesses revealed a possible weakness in the American psyche. This was to be expected, perhaps, inasmuch as military, economic, and industrial superiority were a recent development in America’s historical narrative. McCarthy, like many Americans, had not forgotten the downturn that had shaken the country(28); there were other narratives that would remain resonant for many years, expressed not only in personal stories, but in works of lasting art, like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or the many photographs that immortalized those dealt a heavy hand by the events of 1929.
The Great Depression would shake the foundations of the young nation, unleashing an army of unemployed, disgruntled laborers that would—to a communist—have been viewed as the makings of a proletariat revolution: “Even liberals who were still dubious about ‘the great Soviet experiment’ were shaken by [the Great Depression]. Nearly a third of American workers were unemployed…The year 1930 seemed to sound the death knell of laissez-faire capitalism” (Herman 2000:65).
This proved to be a somewhat exaggerated concern, due in no small part to America’s economic and industrial involvement in World War II. However, the balance of power was seen to have shifted away from an earlier and more familiar paradigm of success—an earlier standard of health and “Americanness” and towards a model attributed in part to Roosevelt’s controversial New Deal. This was not a welcome transition for everyone: “To many people…the New Deal had come to symbolize all that had ‘gone wrong’ with America: the rise of big government and big labor; the elevation to power of urban and foreign types, haughty bureaucrats, and intellectual misfits; the demise of cherished concepts like free competition, individual initiative, and local control” (Oshinsky 1983:51).
In other words, the New Deal was perceived to bear some measure of resemblance to the enemy, similarly characterized as an opponent of capitalism, individualism, and the grassroots; and a proponent of centralized authority, labyrinthine bureaucracy, and absolute conformity. The late 1930’s saw the formation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or HUAC(29), chaired by Martin Dies. HUAC “included several members—indeed a majority—who opposed New Deal reforms and often equated them with treason” (Oshinsky 1983:92).
By 1946, the second Red Scare was poised to begin. Earlier in 1944, Hoover expressed the transition from one national archenemy to another(30): “The Fascists and Nazis were not the only menace to our internal security. To their forces must be added the American Communists with their godless, truthless philosophy of life. They are against the America our forefathers fought and died for; they are against the established freedoms of America. They pose behind a dozen fronts; they have endeavored to infiltrate practically every stratum of life.” What was the perceived vector of the communist disease? What were its symptoms? How was the virus identified and diagnosed?
Hoover writes: “What is important is the claims of communists themselves that for every party member there are ten others ready, willing, and able to do the party’s work. Herein lays the greatest menace of communism. For there are the people who infiltrate and corrupt various spheres of American life. So rather than the size of the Communist Party, the way to weigh its true importance is by testing its influence, its ability to infiltrate” (1947). Like many pathogens, communism’s threat is measured in terms of how contagious it is, how able to spread and how difficult to contain.
Hoover goes on to list the channels of infiltration used by American Communists to pursue their agenda, including: correspondence campaigns, radio, motion pictures(31), labor unions, foreign language groups, government, and various front organizations. Obviously, Hoover considered labor unions to be especially vulnerable: “The communist tactic of infiltrating labor unions stems from the earliest teachings of Marx, which have been reiterated by party spokesmen down through the years. They resort to all means to gain their point and often succeed in penetrating and literally taking over labor unions before the rank and file members are aware of what has occurred.”
Again the underlying metaphor is implied: for a body may become infected without conscious awareness of it, at least until the symptoms show themselves. In some cases, this manifestation comes too late—as in the case of cancers, for example, which can proliferate undetected until more advanced stages. Hoover did not seem to believe this to be the case with domestic communism; throughout his writings, there is a concrete sense that the threat can be successfully checked provided the appropriate measures are taken. McCarthy, in contrast, behaved as if any delay could prove fatal to American society.
There were three channels of subversion that were considered particularly vulnerable: the arts—not only Hollywood, but music, television, and the fine arts (e.g. paintings, comic strips, etc.)(32); education (primarily universities)(33); and the government. Regarding education, Hoover writes: “Here is a terrifying aspect of Communism—its effort to indoctrinate the rising generation, to mold these minds in the atheistic tenets of Marxism-Leninism, to make them mere soulless cogs of a brutal machine” (1963)(34).
Here, the ideational metaphor is not viral, but industrial in character; nor is this the only strategy Hoover employs. He also invokes the mytho-symbolic. Writing on the same topic—infiltration tactics— in a pamphlet entitled “Communist Illusion and Democratic Reality” (1959) Hoover points out that “the non-communist world…is pictured as seething with political instability, economic exploitation, and social upheaval. By identifying the communist world as the hero and the Free World as the villain in the drama of historical progress, communist propaganda represents the triumph of communism, not only as an inevitability, but also as the victory of good over evil.”
Of course, Hoover and McCarthy both employed the same framework in reverse: positing America (representing free society, democracy, and civil liberties) as the Hero, and Communism (the USSR and China) as the villain. Both were mythologized: attributes were extracted from a complex associative network and composited into an emergent representation. For example, in an article entitled “Storming the Skies: Christianity Encounters Communism” (1962), Hoover grandly declares that the “tragic irony of the mid-twentieth century decade is the heart-rending dichotomy between the vaunted claims of Communism to exalt man and its actual relentless and perverse subjugation of him into inhuman tyranny, with millions of men, women, and children behind the Iron Curtain being encased in a Communist strait jacket of conformity, meaninglessness, and spiritual impotence”. Conformity, meaninglessness, and spiritual impotence…these are the building blocks of the perfect nemesis to a Hero conversely defined in terms of individualism, the genuine exaltation of man through free society, and Christianity.
However, this process was by no means pure narrative abstraction; on the contrary, this representation was disseminated through the same channels that were deemed vulnerable to infiltration and subversion. Anti-communist propaganda was every bit as overwhelming and influential as Hoover and McCarthy believed communist ideology to be(35). Both anti-communism and its counterpart were cultural creations, existing within the collective psyche of the American mind.
In essence, America had been turned on itself. Storytellers like Hoover and McCarthy had created too perfect a virus, too frightening a nemesis. In its global form, communism was a worthy opponent. George Kennan writes: “Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this…the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear” (1947).
In many ways, as a global threat, communism provoked a certain terrifying awe; it was a godless machine bent on world domination, devouring one war-torn country after another. It was nothing less than a dragon, the perfect match for the gleaming knight of liberty. Such a legendary struggle necessitated legendary actors, and the postwar United States was more than willing to play the required role. Unlike the former empires of Western Europe, its mainland had escaped unscathed by the ravages of war…but the country had notescaped entirely unsullied.
The Great World Wars were grotesque, more so than any conflict that had come before. From trenches and mustard gas, to the Holocaust and atom bomb, two generations had seen the world drastically change. The continuity of history had been shaken, the rules of engagement rewritten…and yet, like background instruments that maintain rhythm despite changes in melody, certain narratives played through the global upheaval: the fear of the outsider, the bitter dream of conquest, the rise of empires over battlefields strewn with the ashes of preceding kingdoms.
One cannot, especially in retrospect, underestimate the extent to which the American people believed that a nuclear war was possible or even inevitable. The fear that a war between superpowers would extend to every corner of the civilized world was only exaggerated by the idea that this war would not only be fought with soldiers—men who could be fought back—but with forces comparable to those that fueled the sun. Simply put, everything was at stake. Mass media (including newspapers, radio, television, and Hollywood) by the 1950s had successfully penetrated the public psyche (and would during the Vietnam War less than 20 years later prove pivotal in shaping opinion).
Images of the mushroom cloud, marching armies, brave soldiers, and beleaguered citizens provided access-points for continued ideation. Young men in 1950 were more than aware that a great many things had changed since their fathers’ day, and doubly so since their grandfathers’—the scale of the conflict (even before the deployment of the atomic bomb) must have appeared exaggerated beyond proportion solely by virtue of its contrast to the quaint wars of previous eras.
However, it would be a relatively new medium that would curtail McCarthy’s crusade: television. Arthur Herman offers an analysis of why the senator’s tactics did not so effectively translate from the public stage or newspaper onto the small screen: “The television camera teaches us to see with, not through, the eye. Its overpowering superficiality left McCarthy floundering from the start…its bias toward intimacy, not public declamation. Its real power is not in electrifying the masses but in addressing the individual” (2000:260).
This point is not to be overlooked. McCarthy was able to commandeer the headlines, the stark and undeniable print that conveyed the raw message like a shot through a pane of glass. It could spread like wildfire in the homes and workplaces of countless Americans, garnering publicity irrespective of whether the newspaper in question was pro or ant-McCarthy(36). In front of the gathered masses, McCarthy’s “ability to sway them won him the reputation of being a demagogue, but that ability had less to do with McCarthy than with McCarthyism…McCarthy declared (one can imagine him pounding the podium, as he often did) that the Democrats seemed unaware that America was at war with communism” (185). As a competent orator, McCarthy could become more than simply a man; he could become a force, a mouthpiece for the fears of a nation confronted with a soulless enemy. Always fond of accusing President Truman of inaction and leniency, a few choice words should illustrate the character of McCarthy’s performances:
Mr. Truman, your telephone is ringing tonight. Five thousand Americans are calling, calling from prison cells inside Russia and her satellite nations. They are homesick, Mr. Truman. They are lonely and maybe a little afraid. Answer your telephone, Mr. Truman. It will be interesting to hear what you have to say. I say one Communist in a defense plant is one Communist too many. One Communist on the faculty of one university is one Communist too many. One Communist among the American advisors at Yalta was one Communist too many. And even if there were only one Communist in the State Department, that would still be one Communist too many. (Herman, 2000:204)
While the prevailing of cooler heads would cast the threat of domestic communism in a rather paltry retrospective glow, “McCarthy’s disgrace would cast a permanent pall over the work of professional anti-Communist investigators and their reputations…This is particularly true of Hoover and the FBI, whose anti-Communist investigations have given it the reputation of being a kind of American Gestapo. In reality, feelings at the FBI regarding McCarthy tended to be ambivalent” (Herman, 2000:164). Hoover certainly supplied the senator with information, but “McCarthy’s compulsion for making public what Hoover believed should be kept under wraps led to a growing distance between the two men” (165). Hoover and McCarthy certainly agreed on the nature of the communist threat, and the Director of the FBI would continue to insist that the godless red hordes endangered the integrity of Western civilization well after McCarthy’s death in 1957, three years after his censure.
Columnist James Wechsler of the New York Post commented that McCarthy had been “the creature of a time of national frenzy and frustration over Communist aggression in the world…McCarthyism…lives on…in all the blacklists, taboos, and suppression of ‘controversy’ that still shadows our society, and hold so many men prisoners” (2000:303-4)(37). Wechsler’s choice of words is notable here; for it was a frenzy that had betrayed the more insinuating narrative that guided Hoover’s subtler actions. McCarthy had pronounced the gaze, had called it forth, and had revealed the wary eye of suspicion, censorship, and ideological monopoly.
By turning that terrible eye on the people, he had isolated himself and those closest to him(38). More importantly, however, he had misjudged how far the American people were willing to go in support of his war against domestic communists. The few genuine victories he was able to claim were far outstripped by the scope of his unchecked aggression—by McCarthyism. J. Edgar Hoover, likely making a reference to McCarthyism, would later have occasion to write: “We must be careful whom we call communists. We must be certain of our facts. Great damage can be done by reckless accusations, false charges, and the spreading of false rumors” (1969). Hoover approached the war with a pathologist’s eye; McCarthy with the frenetic, melodramatic fervor of a man prepared to sacrifice the patient in an effort to destroy the disease(39).
Herman cites Willi Schlamm speaking of McCarthy: “It was this hot sense of urgency which he, for a short time, forced upon his country. But the automobiles were too sleek, prosperity much too tepid, Eisenhower much too nice, TV much too amusing: and so the country grew tired of the truth and of the man who kept shouting it, redundantly and at the end, hoarsely. The country went to sleep again. And the man lay down and died” (2000:307).
The narrative, however, did not die with him. Richard M. Fried writes, “In the 1970s, with the rise of terrorism, the internal-security bugaboo enjoyed partial rebirth. Congress eyed the phenomenon, and some members drew an exaggerated linkage of communism with terrorism…yet that old horse would no longer run” (1990:198-9). Perhaps not, if we are talking strictly about McCarthyism in terms of the anti-subversive laws and loyalty oaths that unsettled American liberals from the 20s through the 60s. If we are talking about the fear of the outsider, aggressive ideologies rooted in unfamiliar symbolic and cultural gestalts, or the threat posed by the homegrown radical who turns against the Self…then we can see easily enough how similar patterns emerge.
Hoover writes, “We have a great heritage of freedom to protect. The times call for courage, resolution, and integrity, not cleverness, expediency or love of soft living. No man has a right to a ‘time out,’ ‘a leave of absence’—all must be on the front lines” (1967). This great heritage is a symbolic representation of historical continuity projected into a perpetual future. For so long as the people continue to invest in the narrative that bridges past, present, and future, the self-identity of the collective stands supported by the loci that serve to generate and disseminate the stories that compose this narrative.
Stories told by men like McCarthy are jarring and seemingly discordant, but they are part of the greater narrative all the same, surfaced from underlying currents of ideology that define identity in terms of conflict, antagonism, and the fear of an enemy within. Hoover could just as easily have declared that all must always be on the front lines. Without an idealized nemesis capable of threatening, challenging, and interactively structuring collective self-identity, the stories that express and support this identity wither and fade into obscurity. Strength must be measured against what it can affect, and to what degree; the strength and numinosity of an ideological matrix must similarly be measured against both internal and external opposition. National ideological matrices are measured in terms of their ability to bring and hold together individual members of a collective.
Divergent perspectives and ideologies are exposed and assaulted to demonstrate unity and solidarity, and in order to reinforce the symbols and ideas that construct and represent self-identity. International ideological matrices are measured in terms of their influence over, or ability to resist, the expansionist trajectories of competing systems. The cultural origins of successful ideological systems are rarely divorced from their globalized expressions; in many developing countries, for example, modernization is readily associated with the West. That democracy is the cultural property of the United States was a view held by many during McCarthy’s day, and the emphasis laid on the global success of the model may have provided a stable framework for America’s increased involvement in world affairs in the decades that followed.
Did America look for a new enemy to replace communism? One that could exist on two levels, as a domestic threat and an international one? Or did the rise of terrorism naturally provide new material for a recurring pattern of conflict and identity ideation? New eras provide new martyrs and demagogues, heroes and villains…and new viruses.