The events of September 11th, 2001 shook America to the core. Attacked on its own soil for the first time since 1941 at Pearl Harbor, attempted to hold the perpetrators accountable by invading Afghanistan on October 7th, 2001, not a month after the attacks. In doing so, the administration of then President George W. Bush connected the so-called terrorist threat at home with the terrorist threat abroad. Launching the War on Terror, the president rolled out an agenda that included the aforementioned Afghan invasion and the Iraq War of 2003. In the resurgence of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, and the passage of the Patriot Act, President George W. Bush’s administration combated terrorism perceived to be lurking at home. Considering the last time the U.S. faced a surging geopolitical threat in the United Soviet Socialist Republics immediately after the Second World War, the response to the communist threat abroad carried ramifications and manifestations in domestic politics similar to those initiated before the smoke had settled over Ground Zero. The Red Scare, addressed ardently by Senator Joseph McCarthy, provoked a dramatic change in domestic politics during successive administrations headed by Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as Communists were rooted out of government and condemned in society. Terrorists received similar treatment, as a nationwide hunt for them ensued and dominated the political landscape of post-9/11 America. Accounting for the similarities between the 1950s and 2000s, terrorism may have represented a new threat to U.S. national security interests, but the response to it is deeply rooted in a Cold War context, exemplified by McCarthyism and Red Scare tactics.
In the immediate wake of the Second World War, the phenomenon known as the Red Scare embodied the growing concerns of Soviet capabilities abroad as politicians took aim at a perceived Communist threat from within the American government. Alluding to the prevalence of public fears Washington Post article detailed on July 25th, 1947, “the current Red scare is being whipped up into a kind of typhoon of hysteria. As it whirls, it acquires new momentum, feeding on the perfervid rumors of the frightened, the frustrated and the insecure.” Spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an expansion of oversight in governmental affairs extended beyond the precedent scope to personal politics, out of fear that policies of containing the global communist threat would corrupt the United States from within. Originating from the prewar Great Depression context, “HUAC was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and rebel activities on the part of private citizens, public employees and organizations suspected of having Communist ties. Citizens suspected of having ties to the communist party would be tried in a court of law.” Some of the most prominent politicians of the twentieth century would take up the charge of Anti-Communism at home and make careers for themselves, most prominently later-President Richard M. Nixon, then a House Representative from California. Nixon convicted former State Department official Alger Hiss of espionage in service of the Soviet Union, confirming fears of Communist sympathizers and even agents within the borders of the United States. In the nascence of the Red Scare, “the committee’s purpose is to find out to what extent ‘espionage’ operations may be continuing in Government from 1938 to date.”
The breadth of HUAC hearings extended well beyond thorough investigation to more malicious tactics, such as smearing and borderline slander and defamation. In response to allegations of burying or mishandling evidence in the Alger Hiss trial, “the House Committee called a press conference to denounce the department for what it called ‘a patent fabrication’ and ‘a vicious sneak attack.’” Such attacks emanated from the other chamber of Congress as well, most visibly from Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Capturing the zeitgeist of the Red Scare and amid the beginning of the Korean War, “in 1950, as the time for his re-election campaign approached, he sought an issue and found it. He made a speech accusing the State Department of harboring 205 (or eighty-one or fifty-seven; the number he used is disputed) Communists on its staff.” McCarthy’s tactic worked in his reelection, as well as in others where Democrats opposed him, birthing the political movement bearing his name. McCarthyism took to the Senate what HUAC did to the House, and “as chairman of the investigations subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, he badgered the Voice of America, the State Department, the Army.” One of his most ardent opponents, Richard H. Rovere, held much disdain for McCarthy. He described the man he called a demagogue, among other things, saying, “‘he walked, then,’ Mr. Rovere, says, ‘with a heavy tread over large parts of the Constitution of the United States and he cloaked his own gross figure in the sovereignty it asserts and the powers it distributes. He usurped executive and judicial authority whenever the fancy struck him. It struck him often.’ Then, as suddenly, it ended.” The next election cycle came in 1954, and with little more than vague accusations in varying amounts, McCarthy lost re-election and the wave of Anti-Communism abated.
What relevance, then, do McCarthyism and HUAC have to the post-9/11 political landscape? The political malice against communism in the 1950s extended into the public sphere, as evidenced when “Mrs. Dorothy Funn, a prominent figure in Stuyford civic and social circles, on Monday branded 21 present and former school teachers as Communists during a hearing held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Manhattan. She named 44 others as Reds.” In the same way, fear of terrorism in September 2001 proliferated in public life, particularly as the U.S. government took measures that threatened the privacy and civil liberties of average Americans. Public opinion in the wake of the devastation in New York was confusion, which extended years afterward and into politics as well;
“when Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in those first panicky weeks after 9/11, giving law enforcement more power to track down terrorists, much of the response was either bewilderment or alarm. Many lawmakers who voted for it admitted that they hadn’t even had a chance to read the bill. Civil libertarians, newspaper and editorial boards and others warned that the new legislation gave government worrisome new powers to pry into people’s private lives.”
The panic of an eminent threat from terrorism in 2001 mirrors the one from communism to the people of the 1950s. The response of the government to broaden its involvement does so even more closely. New acts such as the Patriot Act joined newly strengthened existence governmental institutions and organisations, namely the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and associated FISA court. Used in 2001 to grant warrants in the judicial reaction to the September 11th attacks, “the secret court, known simply as the FISA court, was created by Congress in 1978 after it was revealed that President Nixon had authorized wiretaps in the name of national security that were, in fact, aimed at protecting his own political interests.” The very mechanisms that worked to protect Americans after the Watergate scandal now threatened their protection, but that would not be the first instance where surveillance and reconnaissance lie beneath the rhetoric of protection and security for American daily life.
One of the most landmark political changes in the wake of 9/11 was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Heralded by members of the government as a remedy to the national security woes that led to the planning and execution of the coordinated attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and supposedly the White House on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the Homeland Security Bill consolidated many of the foreign and domestic intelligence services into one cabinet-level department, placing the president at a one-person hierarchical level from the critical issues and information. A precedented move by the President Bush, as new cabinets have been created when need arose in various administrations, this “set in motion a vast bureaucratic reorganization that the president said would ‘focus the full resources of the American government on the safety of the American people.’” While previous presidents set the precedent for executive reform such as this,
“the birth of the department flowed from a bipartisan consensus after last year’s terrorist attacks that the nation needed to do more to protect its citizens at home. It will require the largest reshuffling of governmental responsibilities since the founding of the Defense Department after World War II, a process sure to encompass turf battles and culture clashes even as the country parries a steady stream of terrorist threats and gird for possible war with Iraq.”
Auspiciously, the department received an outpouring of bipartisan support, but its critics question its constitutionality as well as its legitimacy in regard to its effect on civilians civil liberties. Consolidating agencies in such a way that the Homeland Security Bill did facilitates information sharing between them, and combined with the Patriot Act’s potentially overreaching facets, enabled law enforcement to penetrate privacies in unprecedented ways. Skepticism over government response, most visibly in the form of the Patriot Act, began shortly after its introduction as “even supporters of the Patriot Act acknowledged that the image of plucky librarians standing up to the Bush administration and refusing requests for information about their users was a politically powerful one.” Such images of resistance became symbolic of opponents of government intervention and defendants of civil liberties. Though many Americans went along with the new mechanisms of government, many too became outraged by its imposition into private life, or simply rejected it as the plucky librarians did. At a time when it stood supposedly at the top of the world after outlasting the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States reacted out of fear rather than strength, a characteristic unbecoming of the dominant superpower.
Proverbs often speak of demonstrating character in times of great strife. Whether actual or perceived, the Red Scare as well as the terror in the aftermath of 9/11 constituted times of great strife in America, ones in which its true character revealed itself. The responses to Communist and terrorist threats at home, again actual or perceived, reflected the fear and instability of America in many facets, namely public security and international prominence. While limited by the technologies available, agents of the 1950s, particularly later-President Richard M. Nixon and Senator Joe McCarthy employed questionable tactics in order to squash Communists in the government at the expense of privacies and civil liberties of ordinary citizens. Backed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Committee on Government Operations, McCarthyism dominated the early 1950s in much the same way that fear in response to 9/11 dictated policy in the early 2000s, and even laid precedent to react to threats at home and abroad. The conduct of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the passage of the Patriot Act represent similar invasions of citizen’s privacy and threats to their civil liberties. Both political agendas capitalized off of the zeitgeist of their landscapes and leveraged it into greater government oversight and involvement into the civic affairs of citizens. Though the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred after the end of the Cold War, America’s reaction represented a deviation to Cold War tactics most embodied by the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.