Paranoia comes in different styles, usually with roots in real fears. A column by Mark Bushnell in the Sunday Times Argus and Rutland Herald explored the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s and how it manifested itself in Vermont. It is a valuable lesson to recall at a time when the nation continues to confront fears from another source.
Our fears of terrorism and Islamic radicalism have a basis in the real-life losses we have suffered in a decades-long struggle that reached a culmination with the attacks of Sept. 11. Fear of communism also had a basis in reality. The Soviet regime of Josef Stalin was one of the three monstrous dictatorships, along with those of Hitler and Mao, that made of the 20th century a vast charnel house. In the wake of World War II, the United States was wary of Soviet aggressiveness and justifiably fearful of a new war.
The attacks of Sept. 11 awakened the nation to the forces of radical Islam that viewed us as the great enemy. We had been engaged in hostilities in the Muslim world for decades, parrying threats from Iranians, Palestinians and others, as well as backing a war by tradition-minded Afghans against the pro-Soviet Afghan regime in Kabul.
But in both arenas justifiable fear created self-inflicted wounds. In Vermont, Rep. Charles Plumley, our Republican congressman, called for the establishment of a state censorship board to filter out textbooks that might be “communistic.” Sen. Joseph McCarthy, progenitor of McCarthyism, had trained his attention on Vermont by attacking supposed communist sympathizers (“com-symps,” in the vernacular of the day) who had vacation homes in Vermont.
The Legislature defeated a bill calling for a censorship board, but a more notorious incident was to follow. Alexander Novikoff, a cancer researcher at the University of Vermont, had refused to respond to questions from a Senate subcommittee on international security about whether he had been a communist in the 1930s and 1940s. A special committee at UVM reviewed his case and concluded there was no basis for firing him. But pressure from Gov. Lee Emerson led to his firing, though he found a job soon enough when Albert Einstein offered him a place at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
These incidents were part of the blacklisting and intimidation that sent currents of fear through the society. Fear of terrorism has also warped U.S. policy and attitudes, leading to shameful abuses and demagoguery. Politicians whip up opposition to the establishment of mosques. Police profile Muslims. Innuendo about President Obama’s origins persists. At a different level, our foreign policy choices are subject to pressures created by unwarranted fear.
The red scare of the 1950s differed from our more recent anti-Muslim paranoia in part because alleged communist sympathizers were said to be living among us, invisibly working their wiles. They might be school board members, textbook writers, movie stars. Danger from Islam is generally seen as coming from the other — a foreign source — leading to anti-Muslim bias with a racial overtone.
The danger of overweening fear is that it can cloud our judgment. The new agreement with Iran has already become the occasion of dire warnings about the reasons that we can never trust the Iranian government. In fact, the agreement affords us a rare opportunity actually to reduce the antagonism between nations. If Israel is afraid of Iranian nukes, fear should not be allowed to stand in the way of an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes. It is possible to solve the problem peacefully.
Paranoia strikes deep on both sides, but it must not be allowed to rule the day. Trust but verify, said President Reagan. It was good advice. Never negotiate out of fear, said President Kennedy, but never fear to negotiate.
The narrowness and bullying of the McCarthy era are plain to us now. At the time it required courage to stand up against the bullies. Today we must remind ourselves of the courage required to wage peace.MORE IN Editorials
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