Last November I attended an annual academic conference of scholars of East European and Slavic Studies in Washington DC. It was a surreal time to land in the nation’s capital, on the heels of the Trump victory. One usually hears critical voices at this event, voices documenting and analyzing the mounting evidence of the erosion of independent institutions, corruption, illiberal intolerance, and the rise of right-wing populism — and this not only in Russia but also in Poland and Hungary, both members of NATO and the European Union.[1] Yet this year was palpably different. It was as if the “bad” politics “over there” had shockingly and unbelievably arrived “here,” on US soil. The voices comparing 2016 America to 1933 Germany were many.

Without denying the relevance of the European experience, however, I want to suggest there is plenty in U.S. history powerfully instructive to the present moment. When the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798, and again following World Wars I and II during the first and second “Red Scares,” political leaders encouraged a dangerous, and peculiarly American, nativist populism targeted at many domestic and foreign “others.” Despite the lack of significant or credible evidence, it was these others who were allegedly responsible for the national insecurity experienced at these different moments in U.S. history. I suggested as much to my colleagues over one of our conference lunches. Among the most striking of these analogies from American history, I mentioned, is one of the lynchpins of McCarthyism, the 1950 Internal Security Act (popularly known as the McCarran Act) which required investigation and registration of American communist and “front” organizations with the ominously titled Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB). The law also included a provision for the detention of dangerous, disloyal and subversive persons, which could be activated by executive order in case of an “internal security emergency.” Parts of the law were eventually struck down as unconstitutional, but not until 1956, and the SACB existed until 1965. Yet the FBI under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with domestic communism, directing public resources to surveillance of party activists for literally decades. In one FBI file I recently reviewed, surveillance lasted for more than twenty years and involved more than a dozen regular informants, yet the person was never detained or arrested.

After the conference, I reviewed the history of McCarthyism, the government supported onslaught of red-baiting that began well before the paranoid eponymous senator from Wisconsin rose to national prominence alleging that hundreds of communists permeated the State Department. My review only deepened the analogies I had mentioned to my colleagues. To wit: the culture industries were attacked first with the contempt of Congress sentences handed to the Hollywood Ten. Unofficial industry blacklisting worked together with the “naming names” and guilt-by-association tactics of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Universities did little to protect professors with radical views, and thousands lost their jobs as teachers or in the public service, both at the state and federal levels.[2] And then there were the Smith Act prosecutions: 16 trials of supposed communist “leaders” from Puerto Rico to Hawaii — more than a hundred of whom were found guilty of an alleged conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the US government by force and violence. Historical hindsight is 20/20: there was no plot. American communist party leaders — publicly reviled as a dangerous Fifth Column although in reality a factionally-divided rump — were effectively found guilty of teaching their own cadres what they believed. Even more damning, this attack on free speech was upheld as constitutional in 1951. The media too largely supported these prosecutions, actively participating through the language they used, how stories were framed, and the editorials that graced the opinion pages.

McCarthyite hysteria did not just infect Congress. The Federal Loyalty Security Program which screened government employees for their “sympathetic association” with allegedly subversive groups, was implemented by executive order. The Attorney General of the United States, Tom Clark (later a Supreme Court judge) publicly stated that, “Those who do not believe in the ideology of the United States shall not be allowed to stay in the United States.”[3] This was not mere rhetoric: those who were “foreign born” and convicted under the Smith Act were deported after serving their prison sentences. And the McCarran Act tightened existing alien exclusion and deportation laws. Even U.S. citizens could lose their citizenship.

The Supreme Court acquiesced in politically motivated persecution and prosecution until a changed court under Chief Justice Earl Warren finally rolled back many of the legislative excesses as contrary to the First and Fifth Amendments. For more than half a dozen years, the Court was profoundly deferential to the aims of the executive and legislative branches of government. This submission contributed to, rather than mitigated, the heightened temperature of political life and the over-securitization of domestic politics of the McCarthy era.

Civil society organizations and unions weren’t innocent either. Many such groups purged their memberships of those with radical views. The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in particular required union leaders to provide affidavits that they were not members of the Communist Party or any other organization seeking to overthrow the government by illegal or unconstitutional means. Unfortunately, those with radical views were often the best and most effective organizers, so the union movement as a whole suffered from these and other such restrictions.

In short, during these years, in many sectors of society, dissent was translated into disloyalty. As Ellen Schrecker has written, McCarthyism was no “passing aberration” but rather the “most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history.”[4]

Make no mistake, there was an actual threat then — just as there is an actual threat of violent extremism today. Soviet espionage did harm American security, and a minority of true-believing American communists did function as Soviet agents — although much of the damage was done before 1945.[5] But as McCarthyism amply demonstrated, over-reaction served other right-wing objectives and a general moral panic ensued. So it was that the Red Scare was accompanied by a “Lavender Scare” whereby “known homosexuals” were targeted as risks to national security — the term “pinko subversive” had multiple meanings.[6] The early Cold War was a shocking and confusing time — our wartime ally the Soviet Union was suddenly our enemy and within four years had developed nuclear weapons. And communist belligerence was real.[7] Still, casting a wide net to capture potential domestic security risks was legally over-broad, expensive, and ineffective. It trampled civil liberties and generated real harm — harms that ran from job-loss to incarceration. The lesson learned is not that security trumps liberty, but rather that when securitization is mobilized for political purposes, the result is not security but the dramatic reduction of liberty for the few at the prodding of the cheering sanction of the many. Today American progressives are appalled at the Trump administration’s efforts to impose an illegal and unconstitutional immigration ban, but this move has been enormously popular with his base. And now he can blame liberal and elitist courts, not to mention “so-called judges” for halting his efforts to make America “safe.”

In retrospect, because of the legal architecture set up, McCarthyism could have been worse. The president could have activated the internal security provisions of the McCarran Act, rounding up and detaining thousands of Americans for their radical views with no congressional or judicial oversight. Many more Americans could have had their passports revoked or been stripped of their citizenship. In other ways, however, what has occurred in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has been worse than anything McCarthy himself concocted. And it could be worse still under President Trump. At least during the Cold War there were trials as opposed to indefinite detention with “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the extra-judicial killing of American citizens. Much more has been done via executive order under the Bush and Obama administrations than was done under Truman’s; a pattern that will no doubt continue under the Trump administration. The composition of the Supreme Court could lead to a much more rights-restrictive approach, and eventual judicial redress could take, literally, decades. And responsible media will be in a struggle for their very souls, not to mention the viability of their business model, given the White House offensive against facts and evidence.

And yet hope remains. Neither American civil society nor the oft-targeted “liberal coastal elites” have surrendered to cynical resignation. Both, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, are willing to put their bodies where their beliefs are. The American Civil Liberties Union, which not only declined to represent American communists in the late 1940s and 1950s, but also purged radicals from their own executive office, has been determined to fight such actions as the ill-formed and unconstitutional immigration ban. Sanctuary cities have banded together, vowing to protect undocumented immigrants. If there remains social resistance rather than acquiescence, McCarthyism will remain a thing of the past rather than a dark harbinger of times yet to come. And if there is one thing that Americans can learn from the experience of Eastern Europe, it is that, in the words of Czech playwright-president Václav Havel, the supposedly powerless in fact do have power.[8]


[1] Over lunch one day I heard about how Russia’s foreign agent law restricts the activity of NGOs and prohibits the transfer of funds from international headquarters to local Russian offices and forces submission to a complicated auditing process.

[2] See especially Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989 and Eleanor Bontecou, The Federal Loyalty-Security Program, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953.

[3] Attorney General Tom Clark addressing the Cathedral Club of Brooklyn, January 15, 1948, epigraph to David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1978.

[4] Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998, xii.

[5] The most complete treatment is John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

[6] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

[7] To wit: the Berlin blockade, the Korean War and the involuntary takeover of postwar governments in Central and Eastern Europe.

[8] Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” in Paul Wilson, ed., Open Letters: Selected Prose 1965-1990, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 127-214.