Political Repression in the United States
from the book
Ronald Reagan: The Movie
and other episodes in political demonology
University of California Press, 1988, paper
Most treatments of the countersubversive mentality, as we
shall see in chapter 9, disconnect demonology both from major
American social divisions and from institutionalized political
repression. Most versions of American history, by a complementary
set of choices, chart a progress toward freedom and inclusion.
To link countersubversive thinking to political repression is
to write another history. Such an account hardly stands in for
American history as a whole. But if certain familiar patterns
recede into the shadows, neglected, dark areas emerge into light.
At the same time, the subject of political repression must
not be confined to the suppression of already legitimate political
opposition. A history of American political suppression must attend
to the repression of active, political dissent. But it must also
direct attention to prepolitical institutional settings that have
excluded some Americans from politics and influenced the terms
on which others entered the political arena. An account of American
political suppression must acknowledge the suppression of politics
itself. It must notice the relations between politics and private
life. Countersubversive ideologies psychological mechanisms, and
an intrusive state apparatus all respond to the fear of subversion
in America. We begin with the controls exercised over peoples
"History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not
with discovery," wrote the American poet William Carlos Williams.
He was calling attention to the historical origins of the United
States in violence against peoples of color. He was pointing to
America's origins in the origins of a capitalist world system.
Indian land and black labor generated a European-American-African
trade in the seventeenth century and contributed to the development
of commodity agriculture, industrial production, and state power
in Europe and the Americas. Karl Marx wrote, "The discovery
of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and
entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning
of the conquest and the looting of the East Indies, and the turning
of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins,
signalized the rosy dawn of capitalist production. These idyllic
proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation."
By primitive accumulation Marx meant the forcible acquisition
by a mixture of state and private violence of land and labor to
serve the accumulation of capital. Primitive accumulation made
land, labor, and commodities available for the marketplace before
the free market could act on its own. The suppression, intimidation,
and control of peoples of color supplies the prehistory of the
American history of freedom. People of color were important, moreover,
not only at the origins of America but also in its ongoing history-through
westward expansion against Indians and Mexicans, chattel slavery
and the exclusion of emancipated blacks from political and economic
freedom, and the repressive responses to Hispanic and Asian workers.
The American economy exploited peoples of color, but American
racial history is not reducible to its economic roots. A distinctive
American political tradition that was fearful of primitivism and
disorder developed in response to peoples of color. That tradition
defines itself against alien threats to the American way of life
and sanctions violent and exclusionary responses to them.
Indians in early America, emblematic of chaos, were not seen
through New World lenses. They rather came to embody the masterless
men who appeared in Europe with the breakdown of traditional society.
"Liv[ing] without government," in the words of one early
report, and freed of the restraints of family, church, and village
as well, the idle, wandering savages were depicted as engaging
in incest, cannibalism, devil worship, and murder. Some European-Americans,
to be sure, depicted savages not as monstrous but as noble. Traders,
promoters of commercial ventures, settlers no longer threatened
by powerful tribes, and humanists drawn to a classical or Christian
golden age all imagined peaceful primitives enjoying a state of
innocence. But the noble savage and his dark double were joined.
Both images of primitivism appropriated Indians for white purposes.
Both made the Indians children of nature instead of creators and
inhabitants of their own cultures. Both ignored Indian agriculture
and depicted a tribalism that menaced private property and the
family. Neither the noble nor the devilish savage could coexist
with the advancing white civilization. Both images rationalized
the dlspossession of the tribes.
Indians did not use the land for agriculture, explained Massachusetts
Bay governor John Winthrop. Since the wandering tribes failed
to "subdue and replenish" the earth, white farmers could
acquire their land. Winthrop's principle of expropriation was
an accepted tenet of international law by the early eighteenth
century. It did not justify the individual acquisition of farming
plots, however, but rather state action. First the colonies and
the mother country, then the independent states and finally the
federal government expropriated land by making treaties with Indian
tribes. George Washington, justifying the treaty method, defended
the propriety of purchasing their lands in preference to
attempting to drive them by force of arms out of our country,
which, as we have already experienced, is like driving the wild
beasts of ye forests, which will return as soon as the pursuit
is at an end, and fall, perhaps upon those that are left there
when the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly
cause the savage, as the wolf, to retire; both being beasts of
prey tho' they differ in shape.
Indians were animals, but fortunately they were men as well.
As men they could make contracts, accept money, and consent to
the loss of their land. Treaties presented a fiction of Indian
freedom to disguise the realties of coerced consent, bribery,
deception about boundaries, agreements with one faction enforced
on an entire tribe, and the encouragement of tribal debts-real
and inflated-to be paid off by the cession of land.
The policy of Indian removal conceived by Thomas Jefferson,
employed in his and succeeding administrations, and forced upon
the southern Indians by Andrew Jackson, offered Indians the freedom
to move west if they relinquished their ancestral holdings. Although
removal treaties (discussed in chapter 5) were forced upon the
tribes, the treaty method allowed Indian expropriation to proceed
under the color of law. It engaged Indians in consent to their
The federal government abrogated tribal treaty-making rights
in 1871. In return for depriving Indians of their collective freedom,
the government promised individual freedom. The government had
begun to offer freedom to individual Indians early in the nineteenth
century to atomize tribes and subject their members to market
pressures and state laws. The most important individual freedom
offered Indians was freedom from communal land ownership. Some
tribal leaders in antebellum America believed that individual
allotments were the only way to preserve Indian land, but widespread
fraud and intimidation quickly transferred Indian freeholds to
white land companies. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which Theodore
Roosevelt praised as "a mighty pulverizing engine to break
up the tribal mass," offered Indians the opportunity to become
free Americans; the freedom that they actually acquired was the
freedom to alienate their land. Railroads, mining interests, cattlemen,
and land corporations acquired the land allotments granted Indians.
Between 1887 and 1934 the tribes lost an estimated 60 percent
of their holdings. In 1983 Secretary of the Interior James Watt
proposed to grant Indians "freedom" from their "socialistic"
dependence on the federal government and on their tribes; Indian
spokesmen, in response, denied they were Reds. The freedom offered
Indians, from Jackson to Watt, has undermined communal loyalties
as sources of political resistance.
American Indian policy from the beginning combined freedom
with coercion, the method of the marketplace with the method of
the state. Government has shown two faces to the tribes, one of
violence, the other of paternal guardianship. Consider the acquisition
of land. Whites claimed Indian land not only by right of treaty
or proper use but also as the fruits of a just war. Conflicts
over land and living space produced a series of Indian wars, beginning
with Virginia's war against the Powhatan Confederacy in 1622 and
with the New England Pequot War of 1636-37. White expansion provoked
most of these wars; savage atrocities were cited to justify them.
Wars over living space produced civilian casualties on both sides;
but whereas Indian violence was attributed to primitive ferocity,
the systematic destruction of Indian crops and villages was defended
as a matter of deliberate policy. White victories, it was said,
proved the superiority of civilization over savagery. Indian wars
were important in the colonies and during the Revolution. They
also promoted American continental expansion from the War of 1812
to the closing of the frontier. More than two hundred pitched
battles were fought in the West during the Gilded Age, and there
was also periodic guerrilla warfare in outlying regions. The history
of Indian war ended at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890 with
the massacre of two hundred Sioux men, women, and children, including
the old warrior, Sitting Bull, after a ghost dance ceremony.
Indians displaced by treaty or defeated in war were offered
"paternal guardianship." Indian tribes were "in
a state of pupilage," ruled the Supreme Court in Cherokee
Nation v. Georgia (1831); "their relation to the United States
resembles that of a ward to his guardian." Since the Cherokees
were not a nation, they could not maintain an action in court
to protect their autonomy. As the equals of whites, Indians had
the freedom to lose their land; as the wards of a paternal government,
Indians were confined. The government adopted a reservations policy
before the Civil War and enforced it on the western tribes in
the late nineteenth century. Confined to reservations, tribes
were dependent on government food, clothing, and shelter. Although
they were held in protective custody, their land continued to
be subject to encroachments from cattle, agricultural, and mineral
Confinement was seen not simply as the opposite of Indian
freedom but as the preparation for a new kind of liberty. "Civilized
and domesticated," reservation Indians were to be freed from
their tribal identities and remade as free men. "Push improvement
on them by education, alienation, and individuation," urged
an Osage agent in the late nineteenth century. Indian agents encouraged
commodity agriculture, ignoring unsuitable topographical and cultural
conditions and the presence of rapacious whites. Compulsory government
boarding schools regimented children in barracks far from their
parents' homes, forced them to abandon tribal dress, and punished
them for using their native tongue.
When antebellum Indian Commissioner Thomas McKenney had evoked
"their helplessness and their dependence on the President
as their father," his intention was more than benevolent
description. McKenney wanted to make Indians over into the "children"
he described. The passionate, profligate savages imagined at the
beginning of American history had given way by the end of the
nineteenth century to dependent Indians whose helplessness was
the condition of their improvement. Amerigo Vespucci had depicted
lascivious savages whose "women, being very lustful, cause
the private parts of their husbands to swell up to such a huge
size that they appear deformed and disgusting." Four hundred
years later a leading Indian reformer, Merrill E. Gates, explained,
"We have, to begin with, the absolute need of awakening in
the savage Indian broader desires and ampler wants.... In his
dull savagery he must be touched by the divine angel of discontent....
Discontent with the teepee and the starving rations of the Indian
camp in winter is needed to get the Indian out of the blanket
and into trousers- trousers with a pocket in them, and with a
pocket that aches to be filled with dollars." (Italics are
in the original.) The progress from sex to money had replaced
the swollen private parts of Vespucci's Indian with the aching,
empty pockets of Gates's.
Aspirations to turn native Americans into passive receptacle
for white desires were not wholly fulfilled, however. Reservation
tribes maintained some autonomy, thanks in part to varying mixtures
of accommodation and resistance and in part to federal recognition
(beginning with the New Deal) of Indian rights. Assaults on Indian
land, water, and minerals continue, nonetheless, often with the
cooperation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dillon S. Myer, for
example, as head of the bureau under President Truman, denied
tribes the right to hire lawyers to defend themselves against
predatory whites. The commissioner accused Felix Cohen, the leading
American authority on Indian law and an opponent of Myer's policies,
of being a Communist sympathizer. The Eisenhower administration
sought to abolish reservations altogether, and although that effort
was only partially successful, it shifted considerable land from
Indians to whites. Today Indian tribes remain what Cherokee Nation
v. Georgia defined them to be: "domestic, dependent nations"
within the United States.
The dispossession of Indians did not happen once and for all
in American history. America was continually expanding west, and
while doing so it decimated, removed, or confined one tribe after
another. That history had major consequences not only for Indian-white
relations but also for American history as a whole. It defined
America from the beginning as a settler society, an expanding,
domestic, imperial power. Expansion guaranteed American freedom,
so it was believed, protecting Americans from the crowded conditions
and social class divisions of Europe. Although Indian wars actually
exemplified state violence, they fed an opposite myth-the myth
of the self-made man. Masterless Indians had challenged European
institutional restraints at the beginning of American history.
Early settlers made Indians a threat to community. By the Age
of Jackson, Americans celebrated their own independence, which
Indian tribalism threatened to confine. White Americans contrasted
their own freedom, disciplined by self-restraint, with the subversive,
idle, and violent freedom of the Indians. The self-reliant American
gained his freedom, won his authority, and defined the American
national identity in violent Indian combat in the West.
With the perceived closing of the continental frontier in
the 1890s the policy of Manifest Destiny was extended to Asia.
The suppression of the Philippine independence movement after
the Spanish-American war caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.
America was, according to those who carried out and defended its
Philippine policy, continuing Its conquest over and tutelage of
primitive tribes. Indian policy also set precedents for twentieth-century
interventions in Latin America. The country's expansionist history
against savage peoples of color culminated rhetorically and in
practice in the war in Vietnam. Counterinsurgent, savage warfare
returned in the 1980s to the New World, Central American arena
where it had always prospered, as the United States supported
death squads in San Salvador and terror bombing and a scorched
earth policy in the El Salvador countryside, the torture and murder
of Guatemalan Indians, and terrorist attacks by "freedom
fighters" on the people and government of Nicaragua. Calling
the Nicaraguan contras "the moral equal of our Founding Fathers,"
President Reagan laid claim to a tradition for which other citizens
of the United States might wish to make reparation.
Indian policy also had domestic implications. Indians were
the first people to stand in American history as emblems of disorder,
civilized breakdown, and alien control. Differences between reds
and whites made cultural adaptation seem at once dangerous and
impossible. The violent conquest of Indians legitimized violence
against other alien groups, making coexistence appear to be unnecessary.
The paranoid style in American politics, as Richard Hofstadter
has labeled it, goes back to responses to Indians. The series
of Red scares that have swept the country since the 1870s have
roots in the original red scares. Later countersubversive movements
attacked aliens, but the people who originally assaulted reds
were themselves aliens in the land. Responses to the Indians point
to the mixture of cultural arrogance and insecurity in the American
history of countersubversion. The identity of a self-making people,
engaged in a national, purifying mission, may be particularly
vulnerable to threats of contamination and disintegration. The
need to draw rigid boundaries between the alien and the self suggests
fears of too dangerous an intimacy between them.
Just as fears of subversion moved from Indians to other social
groups, so did techniques of control. The group ties of workers
and immigrants were assaulted in the name of individual freedom.
State violence, used to punish Indians who allegedly preferred
war to labor, was also employed against striking workers. A paternal
model of interracial relations developed in slavery as well as
in Indian policy. Finally, Indians shared their status as beneficiaries
of meliorist confinement with the inmates of total institutions.
These arenas-slavery, the asylum, labor relations, and radical
dissent-form the major loci of American political suppression.
The early repressive labor system in the colonies, with restrictive
terms of indenture for both white and black workers, gave way
by the eighteenth century to freedom for whites and slavery for
blacks. That division had less significance in the North, which
lacked a large, propertyless proletariat, than in the South. Slavery
secured a labor force for southern plantations. It overcame the
twin threats of interracial, lower-class solidarity and class
war between propertied whites and land-hungry white servant workers.
A slave labor system restricted to blacks could not have developed
without preexisting invidious racial distinctions. But slavery
intensified racism. Racialist thinking simultaneously justified
black enslavement and forged racial bonds across class lines among
Both blacks and Indians, in racialist thought, posed primitive
threats to the social order. But those threats differed, in keeping
with the contrasting white desires for Indian land and black labor.
Indians, on the margins of white settlement, posed the subversive
threat of freedom; that threat was met by the displacement, elimination,
or confinement of the tribes. Blacks, upon whose labor whites
depended, posed the subversive threat of reversing the relations
of dependence. Indians offered escape from political, social,
and familial institutions; blacks threatened social and sexual
Slavery, a labor system, constituted the fundamental social
relationship between whites and blacks. But law and cultural myth
transformed white domination into a black sexual threat. The first
statements and acts that distinguished between individuals purely
on the grounds of ancestry had to do with interracial sex and
with determining the status of mixed offspring. By defining children
of interracial unions as black and therefore slaves, legal enactments
guaranteed a slave labor force.
Other slave societies, with small white settler populations,
created a special caste of mulattoes; human beings in the United
States had to be either white or black. Although this absolute
bifurcation had practical origins, it also derived from northern
European, Protestant cultural phobias.
Thomas Jefferson warned that the slave who engaged in interracial
sex was "staining the blood of his master." Jefferson
feared the black man's desire for the-white woman, reversing the
actual direction of interracial sexual exploitation under slavery.
Women were identified with blacks in the seventeenth century as
sources of dangerous, sexual passion. Prohibitions against sex
between black men and white women helped keep the women within
a patriarchal, family-centered society. As fears of female sexuality
went underground in the later eighteenth century, black men were
alleged to threaten white women by what they wanted from them,
not by what they shared with them. The repressive effect was the
same. "Mulattoes are monsters," warned the nineteenth
century Mississippi defender of slavery, Henry Hughes. "Amalgamation
is incest." Hughes's association of miscegenation with incest
suggests that he feared blacks not because they were so alien
to whites but because they were all too close to them.
Slaves were excluded from the political process in antebellum
America. Fears that they would enter politics in a revolutionary
way, through slave uprisings and mass murder, led to harsh southern
slave codes. These codes forbade teaching slaves to read or write
and prohibited slaves from congregating for social or religious
purposes without the presence of a white or from leaving their
plantations without a pass. Southern states made manumission difficult
or impossible. Slave marriages enjoyed no legal protection, and
slaves had no recourse against being bought or sold. A paternalist
ideology claimed that the plantation was a family and made the
master entirely responsible for the welfare of his slave children.
Slave codes were enforced intermittently, to be sure, and the
life of southern blacks was not defined solely by them; many planters,
moreover, took seriously their paternal obligations. But even
on its own terms paternalism attended to slaves only by depriving
them of the right to speak and act for themselves. In combination
with the slave codes, planter paternalism deprived slaves of all
legal protection. Slave patrols of armed white men maintained
racial order. In real or imagined times of trouble, these patrols
or other white mobs took racial matters into their own hands.'
Free blacks did not fare much better than slaves, either in
the North or in the South. Southern states tried to expel free
blacks; many had no legal residence. Northern states prohibited
blacks from voting, serving on juries, or testifying in court
and deprived them of civil rights as well. Northern mobs rioted
against free blacks, destroying neighborhoods and killing men,
women, and children.
Slavery not only denied freedom to blacks; it also decisively
influenced the history of freedom for whites. Americans fought
a revolution in part to protect property created by slave labor,
and the profits from that labor financed the revolutionary alliance
with France. In addition, the vast majority of propertyless workers
in revolutionary America were in chains, racially divided from
the mass of free whites. White Americans could demand the end
of their enslavement (as they called it) to Britain without fearing,
as their European counterparts did, that propertyless workers
would demand their natural rights as well.
Slavery also guaranteed white freedom in the antebellum South.
"In this country alone does perfect equality of civil and
social privilege exist among the white population, and it exists
solely because we have black slaves," declared the Richmond
Enquirer in 1856. "Freedom is not possible without slavery."
The South was a herrenvolk democracy, in which political and social
equality among whites rested on the subjugation of blacks and
in which the aspiration to acquire slaves made ambitious yeomen
into imitators rather than adversaries of the planter class. The
racial division mitigated tensions between the paternalist and
premodern plantation on which the southern elite lived and the
individualist and formally democratic order outside its gates.
The Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy of 1822, the Nat Turner
rebellion a decade later, and the beginnings of abolitionist agitation
in the early 1830s all fed southern fears of racial rebellion.
The resulting restrictions imposed on slaves underlined the dependence
of white southern freedom on black slavery. But the fear of antislavery
agitation drastically curtailed political and intellectual freedom
for southern whites as well. It was illegal to argue in southern
states that slavery was an illegitimate form of property or to
advocate its abolition. The federal government acquiesced in the
censorship of southern mail to prevent the circulation of antislavery
literature. Mob violence intimidated the occasional antislavery
editor, and the fear of subversive ideas spread beyond antislavery
to inhibit intellectual and cultural expression more broadly.
The defense of slavery also restricted political freedom in
the nation as a whole. Congress adopted a gag rule in 1836 to
prevent discussion of antislavery petitions. Antiabolitionist
mobs, more often than not led by local gentlemen of property and
standing, invaded abolitionist meetings and destroyed abolitionist
newspapers. In Alton, lllinois, in 1837, a mob murdered the abolitionist
editor Elijah Lovejoy.
The abolition of slavery, in spite of proslavery fears, led
to neither political nor social freedom for blacks. A new, quasi-peonage
system replaced slavery as the dominant form of labor in southern
agriculture Sharecropping arrangements, tenant farming, and a
crop lien credit system tied black agricultural workers to planters
and merchants. Black convicts, often imprisoned without due process,
worked southern mines and built and repaired southern roads. The
Ku Klux Klan terrorized blacks during Reconstruction, when they
enjoyed a small measure of political power. Jim Crow laws developed
to enforce social segregation, and Iynchings and mob violence
punished real or imaginary black assertions of freedom.
Black efforts to acquire political power climaxed at the end
of the nineteenth century in southern Populism, an interracial
alliance of black and white farmers. Physical intimidation, electoral
fraud, and racial fears all played a part in its defeat. That
defeat was followed by the total disenfranchisement of blacks.
Suffrage restrictions excluded many poor whites as well. The specter
of black power and the political exclusion of blacks created a
system of one-party politics in the South. That politics was characterized
by low participation; shifting, personally based factions; demagogic
appeals; and the emergence of leaders hostile not just to racial
equality but to a variety of ideas that were labeled un-American.
A pseudoscientific racist ideology, justifying black subordination
and stigmatizing non-Teutonic European immigrants as well, developed
in postbellum America. Imperial democrats like Theodore Roosevelt
and Woodrow Wilson merged tutelary visions of the white man's
burden abroad with justifications of racial inequality at home.
Blacks were deprived of political power and suffered from economic
discrimination in the North as well as the South, but no legal,
state-enforced system of segregation developed in the North. A
formal commitment to racial equality was enshrined in the Fourteenth
and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Courts used the
Fourteenth Amendment for seventy-five years to protect corporations
instead of blacks. But a series of rulings against discrimination
culminated in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which
outlawed legally segregated schools. The decision set in motion
a movement for black political and civil rights, the intimidation
of which belongs with a discussion of the politics of the 1960s.
The 1790 naturalization law, one of the first acts of the
new federal government, prohibited nonwhite immigrants from becoming
naturalized citizens. That act expressed desires for a homogeneous
population, the consequences of which have reached beyond racial
exclusion. Peoples of color, nonetheless, have felt the legal
effects of such desires with particular force. Hispanics and Asians
who came to work in the United States or who lived on land seized
by the expanding nation were denied full civil and political rights
well into the twentieth century. Most worked in labor-repressive
systems in the farms and mines of California and the Southwest.
Anti-Chinese agitation played a central role in California politics
from the 1870s through the Progressive period. In perhaps the
greatest single deprivation of rights in all American history,
110,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up and interned in "concentration
camps" (as President Franklin Roosevelt called them) during
World War II. The Japanese were, according to the army official
who recommended their incarceration, an "enemy race."
Earl Warren, then the California attorney general, explained that
he knew methods to "test the loyalty" of individual
Caucasians. "But [he complained] when we deal with the Japanese
we are in an entirely different field, and we cannot form any
opinion that we believe to be sound." The Supreme Court upheld
forcible Japanese internment in Korematsu v. U.S. (1943) on national
emergency grounds. President Harry Truman rewarded Dillon S. Myer
for directing the War Relocation Authority by appointing him Commissioner
of Indian Affairs in 1950.
American history is normally seen as a history of freedom
rather than suppression. American racial history suggests that
the suppression of peoples of color outside the normal political
system has supported the freedom of the people within it. But
the connections-real or imagined-between Indians and masterless
Europeans, black and white workers, black sexuality and white
women, all call into question any simple notion that whites were
granted political rights while peoples of color were denied them.
A fear of subversion has converted conflicts of interest in race
relations into all-encompassing, psychologically based dangers
to personal and national identity. That same fear of subversion
underlies the nonracial history of American political repression.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 nearly abolished freedom
of speech and the press in the new nation. The Sedition Act made
criminal "any false, scandalous and malicious" writings
or utterances against the government that were intended to defame
government officers or excite against them the hatred of the people.
The Alien Acts increased the period of residency prior to citizenship
to fourteen years, authorized the president to deport any alien
he considered dangerous to domestic peace, and empowered him to
expel citizens of a country at war with the United States. These
acts were the culmination of a dominant strand of thought in eighteenth-century
America hostile to political liberty.
The English common law of seditious libel, valid in the colonies,
punished criticism that lowered the government in public esteem
and threatened to disturb the peace. Defenders of free expression
in the colonies, before and during the Revolution, never attacked
the concept of seditious libel at its roots. They did oppose prior
restraints on the press, which the First Amendment eventually
prohibited. They also demanded that jury trials be held in seditious
libel prosecutions and that truth be allowed to stand as a defense.
There is no evidence that the authors of the First Amendment intended
to abolish the common law of seditious libel. The Alien and Sedition
Acts themselves instituted no prior restraint, called for trial
by jury, and permitted truth as a defense. Hence their supporters
could well have found the acts consistent with the First Amendment.
American revolutionaries had attributed colonial factionalism
to the British Crown. Once that alien presence was removed from
American life, it was thought, factional conflicts would disappear.
No theory justified an institutionalized opposition to popularly
based government. Trial by jury and truth as a defense protected
Americans who attacked the Crown; they offered no refuge for those
critical of locally popular governments. Only one case brought
under the Alien and Sedition Acts ended in acquittal.
The Alien and Sedition Acts refused to countenance the existence
of a legitimate political opposition. Jeffersonian Republicans,
targets of the acts, developed in response the first theory of
free expression in America to repudiate seditious libel. The Jeffersonians
rejected the distinction between ordered liberty and license,
the distinction upon which earlier defenses of free speech had
rested. The need to show the truth of an idea, they argued, inadequately
protected freedom of opinion. Madison, in Federalist 10, had already
insisted that factions could not be suppressed without destroying
liberty. His 1800 report to the Virginia House of Delegates argued
that popular governments, unlike hereditary monarchies, could
not be libeled. A system of popular rule required freedom to criticize
the government, wrote Madison. The defeat of the Federalists in
1800 established the legitimacy of political opposition in America.
Legitimate opposition was still to be distinguished from illegitimate
opposition. President Jefferson himself countenanced seditious
libel prosecutions in the states. State action to suppress dissent,
derived from the law of seditious libel, would come to play a
major role in the twentieth century. Modern governments seeking
to suppress sedition would also draw on the tradition enshrined
in the other half of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the belief that
blamed aliens for sedition.
Federalists had charged that agents of the French Revolution,
in combination with a secret order of Freemasons and Bavarian
Illuminati, were conspiring to destroy American independence.
The Illuminati conspiracy, a fantasy of the Federalist imagination,
justified the Alien and Sedition Acts. Although state laws were
rarely passed to suppress such foreign threats in antebellum America,
conspiratorial fears still dominated politics. Americans mounted
a series of crusades against Catholics, Masons, the Mormon church,
the "monster-hydra" bank of the United States, the abolitionists,
the slave power conspiracy, and the demon rum.
Aside from those demons connected to Indian dispossession
and slavery, the Catholic church was the most important continuing
target of antebellum countersubversion. "Three-fourths of
the foreign emigrants whose accumulating tide is rolling in upon
us, are, through the medium of their religion and priesthood,"
wrote the Reverend Lyman Beecher, "entirely accessible to
the control of the potentates of Europe, as if they were an army
of soldiers, enlisted and officered, and spreading through the
land." Members of this Catholic conspiracy, according to
the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse, stood "in
regular steps of slave and master." (Morse was the son of
the Reverend Jedidiah Morse, who had introduced the fantasy of
a "secret revolutionary conspiracy of Illuminati" into
America.) The Catholic church, like other targets of countersubversive
fantasies, combined total order with sexual license. Maria Monk's
Dutiful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (1836),
which charged that nuns and priests lived in criminal intercourse
and baptized and strangled their babies, was endorsed by the Protestant
religious press and became a national best-seller. The domination
exercised within Catholic orders, countersubversives believed,
threatened to spread throughout society. "The serpent has
already commenced his coil about our limbs, and the lethargy of
his poison is creeping over us," warned Morse. "We must
awake or we are lost." Fears of a Catholic conspiracy continued
to play an active role in American politics through the 1920s,
when the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan mobilized millions of followers.
The fear of alien conspiracies led to blaming problems in
American life on forces operating outside it. Conspiracy hunting
turned political differences into absolute struggles between good
and evil. Antebellum crusades had millennial, Protestant roots.
They also reflected the dark side of American individualism. In
mobile, antebellum American society, individuals influenced others
to advance themselves and hid their real identities behind confidence-inspiring
facades. Pervasive role-playing generated suspicions of hidden
motives, as individuals tried simultaneously to influence others
and to protect themselves from invasion. Countersubversives imagined
secret centers of power that issued directives and constrained
individual freedom. Conspiracies like the ones exposed by Maria
Monk threatened simultaneously to disorganize the vigilant self
and to fulfill its hidden desire to dominate.
Efforts to stigmatize aliens were often more than rhetorical.
Mobs not only assaulted abolitionists and free blacks; they also
attacked Catholic neighborhoods and destroyed Mormon communities.
The mob that burned a Roman Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts,
in 1834 had been stirred by the fiery sermons of Lyman Beecher.
Beecher attacked popery as the enemy of religion and republicanism,
exhorting his audience to action against it.
But those like Beecher, who were concerned with alien dangers
before the Civil War, relied most heavily neither on state laws
against dissent nor on mob action. They sought instead to build
institutions and form characters that would domesticate American
freedom. The antiMasonic impulse in Rochester, New York, for example,
was coopted and transformed into a method of evangelical, Protestant
discipline. The wives of manufacturers and other middle-class
women, visiting and converting the poor, substituted orderly institutions
of work, worship, and domesticity for secret centers of vice.
In attracting sober workers to the church, evangelicals reformed
working-class factories and neighborhoods.
The men and women who invented the asylum and reformed the
family proposed to work on the interior of the self. Their efforts
dovetailed with the pressures to conformity Tocqueville observed
on his trip to America. The tyranny of public opinion, the ideology
of domesticity, and the creation of the asylum all limited political
dissent in scarcely measurable ways. Insofar as they succeeded,
they did not simply intimidate political opposition already formed
but inhibited the formation of new opposition. Our subject now
is the suppression of politics at the prepolitical level, through
the transformation of potentially political discontent into problems
of personal life.
The removal of external British authority created a crisis
of order for elites in the new nation. "We have changed our
form of government," explained the Philadelphia physician
Benjamin Rush, "but it remains yet to effect a revolution
in our principles, opinions, and manners to accommodate them to
the forms of government we have adopted." One solution (which
Rush himself favored in the Pennsylvania constitutional debates
of 1776) was to maintain a restricted suffrage and keep those
who might threaten property and order out of electoral politics.
But suffrage was already widespread before the Revolution. By
the Jacksonian period all states except Rhode Island and South
Carolina had universal white manhood suffrage.
Suffrage restriction continued to deny a political voice to
women and peoples of color. Susan B. Anthony and fifteen other
women were arrested for voting in the 1872 presidential election
and charged with violating a federal law. Picketers from the Women's
party in Washington, D.C., were assaulted by mobs, arrested, and
jailed during World War I for attacking the effort to "make
the world safe for democracy" in a country that denied half
its citizens the vote. Although women received the franchise in
some states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
they were not granted voting rights in the nation as a whole until
the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Nineteenth-century women were denied not only the vote but
also control of their own property and entrance to many professions
and trade unions. An ideology of domesticity justified restricting
woman's sphere to the home. The proponents of domestic ideology
(such as Lyman Beecher's daughter Catharine) offered women the
power to shape their husbands and sons in the family in return
for relinquishing direct claims to exercise power in society.
Some women (such as Catharine Beecher's sister, Harriet Beecher
Stowe) employed domestic values against antifamilial social practices;
slavery and alcoholic intemperance were the most prominent targets.
But women who entered public life directly were said to unsex
themselves and unman men. Instead, domestic ideology made women
the instruments of morality and social control in order to confine
Domestic ideology offered the family as both a refuge from
and a solution to social disorder. The turn to the family did
not so much enrich private life, however, as socialize it. Denying
the truly private character of the home, domesticity made the
family less a haven for protecting eccentricity than an arena
for forming and standardizing personality. Enlisting the child's
desire for love and threatening him with the loss of love, the
mother would influence the child to internalize morality. Characters
formed by regulated affection in the home could safely enter the
world. This retreat to the family encouraged the displacement
onto politics of discontents originating in domestic life (but
forbidden to be traced to their source). At the same time, domesticity
dissolved political into personal problems. By locating social
troubles and their solution in the family, domestic ideology shifted
attention from the public arena into the home. It thereby took
its place as part of the second method (after suffrage restriction)
that Rush had proposed to domesticate political freedom, the method
of internalizing authority.
The internalization of authority in antebellum America had
four components: a shift away from ceremonial public places into
private but standardized interiors; a redefinition of political,
social, and cultural conflicts as problems of crime and disease;
loving confinement as the method of punishment and reform; and
the creation of a self-controlled interior; resistant to corrupting
temptations from the body and the world. Benjamin Rush, friend
of John Adams and other revolutionary leaders, was the founder
of the new discipline. Rush was a leading prison reformer and
opponent of public executions; the father of the mental hospital;
a promoter of public schools; and, as the American who discovered
the dangers posed to the vigilant self by liquor and masturbation,
the guiding spirit behind the nineteenth-century movements against
alcoholic consumption and self-abuse.
Rush did not confine his reform efforts to whites. An opponent
of slavery before the Revolution, the doctor responded to claims
of Negro inferiority by attributing black racial qualities to
disease. Jefferson compared the desire of black men for white
women to the desire of male orangutans for female blacks. Rush
rejected the view that the color of blacks had been produced by
intercourse with orangutans; he attributed it to leprosy instead.
Linking blacks to sexuality, immorality, and crime 'invit[es]
us to tyrannize over them," Rush explained. "Disease,"
by contrast, "has always been the signal for immediate and
universal compassion." And Rush thought he saw signs for
The effort to rescue blacks by making them leprous did not
have wide appeal in post-Revolutionary America. But in medicalizing
social tensions among whites and offering remedies to stop the
contagion, Rush initiated a lasting set of reforms. Rush proposed
to convert men into "republican machines. This must be done
if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great
machine of the government of the state." Such "good
citizens" would exercise their freedom in a selfcontrolled
way. Rush preserved the distinction between liberty and license
when he moved it from state enforcement into the individual conscience.
New institutions were to form that conscience. For the middle
class, as domestic ideology signaled, the most important of these
institutions was the nuclear family, and it was supplemented by
the school. Those falling out of the middle class-or never in
it to begin with- were to be confined and reformed in asylums:
schools, prisons, hospitals, and factories. Their purpose, Rush
explained, was to "render the mass of the people more homogeneous,
and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government."
Asylums responded to the perceived breakdown of a deferential
order in post-Revolutionary America. They housed those masterless
men and women liberated by the marketplace, political freedom,
and geographic mobility and no longer ordered within the traditional
structures of kin group, church, and community. Some asylums,
such as the mental hospital, offered protection from the outside
pressures of a mobile, acquisitive society. Others, such as the
prison and the paternally organized factory, contained the threat
posed by the "dangerous classes" of urban immigrants
and the poor. Just as the reservation would confine and reform
the "perishing classes" of savages, so the urban "dangerous
classes" were offered the prison.
Rush opposed public executions because they stimulated crowds
not to obedience but to disorder. Physical violence not only provoked
mob violence in return but also failed to reform the criminal.
Whipping offenders subdued their bodies, according to prison reformers,
but failed to reach their hearts. Instead of whipping the wrongdoer
and setting him loose (the normal practice in the eighteenth century),
the new prisons confined criminals behind walls. Like the home,
the asylum provided a place of refuge and replaced physical force
by disciplined love. In keeping with developing domestic practices,
greater privacy for the inmate was combined with surveillance
over him and attention to his interior. English and American reformers
advocated removing the chains from the prisoner and enlisting
him in his own cure. Isolated from the bad influences of one another,
regimented, observed, and subjected to a regularized authority,
criminals would learn to love society.
Although in practice the prison sacrificed the regeneration
of the criminal to his confinement, in theory it offered a perfect
marriage of the two methods that were coming to dominate the American
practice of control: concentrated state coercive power and the
creation through interior reform of a free man.
Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, who came to America to
study the new prisons, observed that "while society in the
United States gives the example of a most extended liberty, the
prisons of the same country offer a spectacle of the most complete
despotism." That paradox reflected the rise of total institutions
in response to fears of extended liberty. But a deeper commonality
lay underneath the contrast. Both the society and the prison wiped
out traditional loyalties that bound people together. The spread
of freedom in a society of such extended liberty required the
formation of selves who would not abuse that liberty. Both the
mobile society and the total institution isolated the self and
invaded his or her interior. Individuals fearful of incurring
disapproval, wrote Tocqueville, and deprived of support from traditional
subcultures and kin groups, would not risk isolating themselves
from the democratic mass. They would not develop the freedom of
opinion to entertain subversive ideas. Tocqueville explained,
"Despotism, to reach the soul, clumsily struck at the body,
and the soul, escaping from such blows, rose gloriously above
it. Such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics.
There the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved."
In Tocqueville's analysis the task of enforcing the distinction
between liberty and license, which once belonged to the state,
moved simultaneously within the individual conscience and out
into public opinion. Those who stepped beyond the bounds of legitimate
controversy faced not so much punishment by the state as estrangement
from the social mass. The institutional structures that domestic
and asylum reformers favored molded characters vulnerable to the
social pressures that Tocqueville described.
Reformers and institution builders in the twentieth century
reacted against the regimented isolation of inmates in the nineteenth-century
prison. Progressives proposed to attend to the life history of
the individual case and to turn the prison into a protocommunity.
They shifted attention from the crime to the criminal and from
guilt or innocence to sickness or health. But since confinement
itself remained intact, the consequence was to extend surveillance
inside and outside the prison walls. The parole system tracked
inmates after their release. Juvenile courts investigated offenders
before they were institutionalized. The young, the welfare recipient,
and the mentally ill surrendered legal rights to members of the
helping professions. Those incarcerated in "moral hospitals,"
as Denver judge Ben Lindsey called the asylums, did not need protection
A therapeutic approach to social problems affected the treatment
not only of crime, poverty, and mental disturbance but also of
political conflict as well. Reform practice turned conflicts of
interest into problems of personal and social adjustment. Its
soft form of coercion competed in politics and in crime with a
punitive, law-and-order methodology. Both dissolved the distinction
between political and personal disturbance, the one in the name
of therapy, the other in the name of punishment. The criminalization
of political differences, the collapse of politics into disease,
the spread of surveillance, and the stigmatization of dissenters
as social pariahs have all played important roles in the suppression
of radical politics. They have done so not merely through the
pressures of public opinion, as in Tocqueville's analysis, but
through the armed force of the state.
Antebellum politics had at its center the repression of Indians
and blacks; workers took their place after the Civil War. The
rhetoric of a struggle between savagery and civilization moved
from the frontier West to urban America, from Indian conflict
to class war. Late nineteenth century newspapers warned at the
same time, as Richard Slotkin has shown, against the "Hostile
Reds" on the frontier and the "Red Spectre of the Commune"
in American cities. They conflated the idle, disorderly free blacks
in the South with the northern, urban proletariat. These confusions
helped justify both search-and-destroy missions against western
Indians and violence against blacks, and they also promoted the
suppression of working-class discontent.
Racial mythologies continued to dominate American culture
and politics in the industrial age at the expense of peoples of
color, but pseudoscientific racial theories were now extended
to European immigrants as well. That signaled the new, central
importance in postbellum America of ethnocentric, class war. A
series of Red scares, one in the 1870s, one in 1886, and one in
1919, marked the half-century between 1870 and 1920. Each located
subversive political ideas within an alien, immigrant working
The modern history of countersubversion began with the Red
scare of 1873-78. It arose in response to the Paris Commune abroad
and to a major depression and radical labor protest at home. "Today
there is not in our language, nor in any language, a more hateful
word than communism," proclaimed a professor at the Union
Theological Seminary. Cities built armories to protect themselves
against working-class uprisings, states revived militias, and
police attacked strikers and unemployment demonstrators. Hundreds
of thousands of unemployed, roaming the country in search of work,
generated a "tramp" scare.
The dean of the Yale Law School announced in a paper delivered
at the 1877 meeting of the American Social Science Association,
"As we hear the word tramp, there arises straightaway before
us the spectacle of a lazy, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved
savage." Tramps, like Indians before them, were wandering,
masterless men. Participants in the tramp scare blamed the industrial
capitalist threat to homogeneous, ordered communities on the wandering
victims. The breakdown in social order was real. It stemmed, however,
not from savages and Communists but from centralized corporations
and their need for a national market in labor and other commodities.
Social breakdown climaxed in the nationwide railway strike of
1877 (called "nothing more nor less than French Communism"
by an official of President Hayes's administration), in which
strikers fought with police and mobs seized and burned the Pittsburgh
The first anti-Red political trial with nationwide significance
took place in Chicago in 1886. It was a response to mass working-class
support for the Knights of Labor, a strike against Jay Gould's
railroad system, and a national movement for the eight-hour day.
When mounted police ordered an anarchist demonstration in Haymarket
Square to disperse, someone threw a bomb. It injured seventy policemen
and killed one. Eight Chicago anarchists, some neither present
at the rally nor known to one another and none connected to the
bombing, were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Four
were executed. (One killed himself in jail, and the remaining
three were pardoned in 1893.) The Haymarket anarchists were convicted
for radical ideas and violent talk. Their trial, which was conducted
in an atmosphere of national hysteria, destroyed not only the
Chicago anarchist movement but the Knights of Labor as well. For
the next forty years industrial unions organizing unskilled workers
were the targets of state and state-sanctioned violence.
The most significant state labor repression in the next half-century
was the repression of the Pullman boycott and nationwide railway
strike of 1894. Attorney General Richard Olney, a former corporate
lawyer who sat on the board of one of the struck railways, obtained
a federal injunction that effectively outlawed union activity.
The injunction permitted individual workers to leave their jobs,
because to force them to work would violate their freedom of contract.
But in a massive prohibition of freedom of speech and assembly,
workers and union leaders were forbidden to convince others to
quit work. The injunction safeguarded the same private freedom
that was offered to Indians who abandoned their tribal ties. It
outlawed political freedom, the freedom of community members to
speak and act together. American Railway Union leaders were arrested
for violating the injunction; the union's president, Eugene Victor
Debs, went to jail.
States continued to suppress labor's free speech and assembly
in the twentieth century and to meet organizing efforts with violence.
Western miners suffered from a particularly bloody history of
state and corporate violence. When the anticapitalist Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in 1905, western miners
and woodworkers provided its major support. Local officials jailed
IWW organizers for making public speeches, a practice that led
to free-speech fights in such western cities as Spokane, Washington;
Fresno and San Diego, California; and Minot, North Dakota. Wobblies
arrested for exercising their rights of free speech filled the
local jails; their nonviolent civil disobedience often generated
violence in return.
Hostility to the IWW and to subversive ideas climaxed in the
Red scare during and after World War I. In the second great Chicago
conspiracy trial, thirty years after Haymarket, 101 Wobblies were
convicted of conspiring to obstruct the war. Many were guilty
simply of membership in the IWW. Others were convicted on the
basis of statements made before the United States entered the
The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18 made it a crime
to speak or act against the war. Even if aliens remained silent
and inactive, they were subject to summary arrest. Socialist congressman
Victor Berger, appealing his conviction under the Espionage Act,
was barred from taking his congressional seat by a vote of 311-1.
Debs, who had become a Socialist party leader after the suppression
of the Pullman strike, was sentenced to ten years in prison for
making an antiwar speech. The U.S. Post Office conducted a campaign
of censorship against the Socialist party and the IWW, removing
their publications from the mail.
State governments also passed laws outlawing opposition to
the war and forbidding expressions of revolutionary disloyalty
to the American form of government. The Supreme Court upheld convictions
under state criminal syndicalism laws, ruling that states could
punish revolutionary words spoken with malicious intent that might
have a tendency to provoke violence in the future. These rulings
revived the doctrine of seditious libel.
War intensified the hysteria over disloyalty in America, but
the Red scare reached its greatest heights after the war was over.
America in 1919, reported a British journalist, "was hag-ridden
by the spectre of Bolshevism. It was like a sleeper in a nightmare,
enveloped by a thousand phantoms of destruction." The assault
against subversion climaxed in two events: the suppression of
the 1919 steel strike and a series of Justice Department raids
that rounded up thousands of allegedly subversive foreigners for
deportation. The Red scare ushered in the nativist mood and the
obsession with 100 percent Americanism that dominated the politics
of the 1920s.
Political interventions helped destroy the Knights of Labor,
the American Railway Union, the IWW, and the organizing efforts
among steelworkers. State violence denied public space to workers
and inhibited broadscale political expression. It helped engender,
instead, the fragmented and privatized pluralism of the American
Federation of Labor. The conservative craft unions of the AFL
survived and grew between 1886 and 1920. Nevertheless, the entire
labor movement enjoyed little better than an outlaw status before
1935. The repression of labor was more violent and severe in America
than it was in any other western, industrializing country. The
Supreme Court, in In Re Debs (1891), legalized the use of court
injunctions to break strikes; employers enjoyed injunctive relief
from strikes that damaged "probable expectancies" of
future profit rather than existing real property. Unions were
subject to conspiracy prosecutions for boycotting nonunion goods,
for having large numbers of strikers present at plant gates, and
for inducing workers to break contracts that committed them not
to join unions. Courts protected the individual "freedom
of contract" of workers at the expense not only of worker
collective action but also of political efforts to regulate the
conditions of employment. Wage, hour, and child-labor laws were
all ruled unconstitutional.
State violence, which controlled peoples of color before the
Civil War, repressed postbellum working-class and radical protest.
State militias and federal troops were used to break strikes;
strike breaking became, with the end of the Indian wars, the most
conspicuous function of the regular army. Violence, killings,
and massive arrests occurred during strikes. The national state
shared its monopoly over legitimate force with corporations and
detective agencies. These private bodies conducted surveillance
and employed armed men. The conferring of state functions on private
groups, a general feature of American politics, played an important
role in labor conflicts through the 1930s. Together, state and
private action deprived workers before the New Deal of their right
The 1935 Wagner Act, called labor's Magna Charta, made employer
interference with the right to organize into an unfair labor practice.
One historian has labeled the act "perhaps the most important
civil liberties statute ever passed by Congress.'' Three years
earlier the Norris-La Guardia Act had outlawed the use of the
labor injunction. The Supreme Court, in Thornhill v. Alabama (1940),
extended First Amendment protection to peaceful picketing in labor
disputes. Later courts restricted the scope of Thornhill, and
the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act removed some of the legal protections
for union organizing activity. The percentage of the workforce
organized into unions has declined in the past forty years, as
the labor movement has lost its central place in the Democratic
party and been reduced to narrow, interest group status. Nevertheless,
since the 1940s organized labor has been accepted as a legitimate
interest in American society.
The organization of industrial workers into the Congress of
Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the ties of CIO unions to the
welfare state and the Democratic party began to eliminate working-class
activity as the target of countersubversion. Labor struggles remained
important, however, at the origins of the post-World War II Red
scare. Communists and their allies controlled several CIO unions.
Those unions supported the war and were allied with the Democratic
party. When the beginnings of the cold war ended that alliance,
the government and its union supporters moved to destroy left-wing
labor. The Taft-Hartley Act deprived unions whose officers refused
to sign anti-Communist loyalty oaths of the protection of the
National Labor Relations Board. The CIO expelled those unions
in 1948. Labor-management conflict in the motion picture industry
also contributed to the postwar Red scare by helping to generate
the Hollywood blacklist. Once the domestic cold war was fairly
launched, however, labor was not its central target.
Earlier Red scares developed out of class conflicts between
labor and capital in which the state served mostly as the agent
of the capitalist class. The Soviet Union replaced the immigrant
working class as the source of anxiety in the decades after World
War II. The combat between workers and capitalists was supplanted
by one between Moscow's agents (intellectuals, government employees,
students, and middle-class activists) and a state national-security
Both the postwar Soviet Union and the radical labor movement
of an earlier period posed genuine threats to dominant interests
in American society, although the nature and extent of those threats
are a matter of controversy. There were also real conflicts of
interest between white Americans and peoples of color. But the
countersubversive response transformed interest conflicts into
psychologically based anxieties over national security and American
identity. Exaggerated responses to the domestic Communist menace
narrowed the bounds of permissible political disagreement and
generated a national-security state.
The cold war marks the third major moment in the history of
countersubversion. In the first moment whites were pitted against
peoples of color. In the second Americans were pitted against
aliens. In the third, which revolves around mass society and the
state, a national-security bureaucracy confronts the invisible
agents of a foreign power.
Throughout American history the subversive has threatened
the family, property, and personal and national identity. But
three shifts-from visibility to invisibility, from the body to
the mind, and from the American individual to the national-security
state-distinguish the first Red scares from their cold war descendant.
First, subversives were alien in earlier Red scares, and they
looked visibly different from Americans. Communists in 1950s mass
society were indistinguishable from everyone else. Second, as
the visible differences that stigmatized subversives disappeared,
it became all the more important to discover who was under foreign
control. Instead of standing simply for savagery and disorder,
the subversive was the instrument of an alien order. That combination
was not new in itself; it harked back to claims that foreign powers
controlled American Indians and that the pope directed American
Catholics. But the shift in emphasis from the deranged subversive
body to the calculating alien mind justified the third departure
in countersubversive history, the rise of the national-security
In July 1919, without congressional authorization, the attorney
general's office created the General Intelligence Division (GID)
within the Justice Department. Its purpose was to infiltrate and
collect information on radical organizations. The GID borrowed
the techniques of labor G espionage and surveillance employed
by private corporations and detective agencies. It was headed
by J. Edgar Hoover, a twenty-four-year-old former cataloguer in
the Library of Congress, who had moved to a clerkship in the Justice
Department's Enemy Alien Registration unit. Hoover boasted of
his role in breaking the 1919 steel strike. He and Attorney General
A. Mitchell Palmer supervised the alien raids of 1919-20.
Hoover also made a series of sensational charges against alleged
radicals. Blaming subversives for the 1919 race riots (and thereby
not only imagining conspiracies that did not exist but also making
blacks the perpetrators rather than the victims of the outrages),
Hoover attacked black leaders for being under Bolshevik influence.
He charged them with being "openly, defiantly assertive"
of their "own equality or even superiority." Hoover
established files on alleged subversives. He investigated and
tried to discredit people who opposed his actions, like the noted
civil libertarians Zechariah Chafee, Jr., and Felix Frankfurter.
Attorney General Harlan Stone terminated the GID in 1924,
the year he reorganized the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Stone
placed Hoover in charge of the entire FBI and ordered the FBI
to limit its investigations to actual violations of federal law.
In violation of Stone's memorandum, the FBI continued to collect
information on radical labor and political organizations. Moreover,
Hoover's appointment meant that the United States was unique in
combining criminal detection and political surveillance in a single
agency. Stone placed in charge a man trained in political countersubversion
rather than law enforcement. Hoover's rise to head the FBI confirmed
the confusion between crime and radical dissent at the heart of
the American fear of subversion.
Franklin Roosevelt secretly rescinded Stone's restrictions
on the FBI in 1936, reactivating it as a political surveillance
agency. But although Roosevelt occasionally used Hoover for intelligence
against his own political adversaries, he was not aware of the
large-scale expansion in bureau activities that began under his
presidency. Hoover was creating a secret political police to infiltrate,
influence, and punish dissenting political speech and action.
Other branches of the federal government also developed countersubversive
instruments. The House of Representatives created a committee
to investigate un-American activities in 1938. In 1940 Congress
passed the Smith Act, making it a crime to advocate, or conspire
to advocate, the overthrow of the government by force or violence.
Congress attached this prohibition to the Alien Registration Act,
perpetuating the association of aliens and sedition.
Nazism provided the occasion for the emergence of the national
security apparatus. Communists, who were to be its major targets,
actually helped develop the countersubversive ideological rationale.
The first prosecutions under the Smith Act, welcomed by the Communists,
were of leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party. Within
a few years the Communist party would be the target of Smith Act
prosecutions. In the period after World War II, as in the decades
before it, Communists and their alleged sympathizers have been
the major targets of the suppression of political dissent.
In March 1947 President Harry Truman announced he was sending
military aid to Greece and Turkey to defend their regimes against
Communist attacks. In that same month the president established
a new government-loyalty program. Declaring Communism a domestic
as well as a foreign menace, he set the stage for the Red scare
of 1947-54. All present and prospective government employees were
to undergo investigations of their loyalty, with each government
agency establishing its own loyalty review board. How was loyalty
to be established? Loyalty boards gave great weight to past beliefs
and memberships. They asked questions about political views and
social practices. Such questions included, "Do you ever have
Negroes in your home?" "Do you read Howard Fast? Tom
Paine? Upton Sinclair?" Loyalty boards relied heavily on
information supplied by anonymous informers, who included former
Communists, FBI infiltrators, and ordinary citizens who claimed
to have derogatory knowledge of those against whom they informed.
Accused employees were not entitled to hear the specific charges
against them or to know the names of government informers. The
burden of proof lay on the accused individual, who had to establish
not only that he or she had been loyal in the past but also that
there were no reasonable grounds to expect disloyalty in the future.
An estimated 13.5 million workers, 20 percent of the labor
force, were subject to loyalty programs in government and sensitive
private industry. Other nations facing greater political instability
instituted no elaborate loyalty tests for government employment.
The historic American fear of subversion was spawning a government
bureaucracy, whose growth marked a sharp, institutional break
with the past.
The criteria for determining loyalty included past or present
membership in any organization designated as subversive by the
attorney general. The attorney general's authority to issue such
a list, wrote civil Iibertarian Alan Barth, gave him "perhaps
the most arbitrary and far-reaching power ever exercised by a
single public official in the history of the United States."
The attorney general's list played a major role both inside and
outside the government. "Its aim," explained Attorney
General Tom Clark, was "to isolate subversive movements in
this country from effective interference with the body politic."
The attorney general could proscribe any organization and thereby
deprive individuals who had once belonged to it of government
employment. The list was also used to deny employment to individuals
in the private sector and to stigmatize political opponents.
The Truman and Eisenhower administrations moved against alleged
subversives in society as well as in government. Communist party
leaders were arrested and convicted under the Smith Act. The government
denied passports to anyone whose travel was "not in the interests"
of the United States, including the black singer and actor Paul
Robeson. Hundreds of aliens were arrested for deportation in early
1948 alone, and prominent resident aliens like Charlie Chaplin
were denied reentry. The State Department also moved to deport
naturalized citizens. When Rose Chernin resisted such efforts
as head of the Los Angeles Committee for the Protection of the
Foreign-Born, the government tried to deport her, too. During
the years of the cold war and the Korean War, the Supreme Court
excluded Communists and Communist-sympathizers from the protections
of the Bill of Rights. But in Yates v. U.S. (1957) the Court ruled
that those convicted of conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of
the government by force must be shown to have urged others "to
do something rather than merely to believe in something."
That decision, which freed Rose Chernin and other Communist leaders
convicted with her, effectively ended prosecutions under the Smith
National-security agencies of the government greatly expanded
their activities under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The FBI
perfected its two major countersubversive weapons, surveillance
and files. By 1960 the bureau maintained 430,000 files on individuals
allegedly connected to subversive activities. Private citizens
cooperated with the bureau in reporting suspicious behavior. Harvard
professor Henry Kissinger opened a letter sent to a participant
in his international relations seminar and communicated its contents
to the Boston FBI office. The FBI also kept an index of those
who posed a danger to national security and who should be rounded
up during a national emergency. The index contained the names
of writer Norman Mailer and of Senator Paul Douglas, a liberal
Democrat and anti-Communist.
The FBI relied heavily on wiretaps and bugs. Eisenhower's
attorney general, Herbert Brownell, authorized break-ins to install
wiretaps. Brownell boasted that FBI investigations covered "the
entire spectrum of the social and labor movement" in the
country. Under the COMINFIL program, the bureau did not wait to
act until it had evidence of Communist activity; rather it infiltrated
any organization where it suspected it might find Communists.
Hoover kept files on the private lives of congressmen and
other prominent Americans. He used information from those files
to intimidate or discredit people critical of the FBI. Fear of
reprisals helps explain Hoover's political untouchability during
the half-century he headed the bureau. His mass and elite popularity
also stemmed from the American obsession with Communism and with
the equation of the fight against Communism with the fight against
The transformation of political dissent into criminal disloyalty
was fed by sensational accusations of espionage in the late 1940s
against Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Congressman Richard Nixon, who rose to national prominence through
the Hiss case, described it as "a small part of the whole
shocking story of Communist espionage in the United States."
Hiss, accused of transmitting confidential state department documents,
was convicted of perjury. The Rosenbergs were executed for, in
Judge Irving Kaufman's words, "putting into the hands of
the Russians the A-bomb." Judge Kaufman accused the Rosenbergs
of responsibility for Communist aggression and American deaths
in Korea. Hiss and the Rosenbergs may well have passed confidential
information to the Russians; their guilt is still in dispute.
But the Rosenbergs neither gave the Soviet Union the atomic bomb
nor caused the Korean War. Their highly publicized trial and unprecedented
death sentences helped to justify the governmental obsession with
national security and to identify opposition to American policies
in the cold war with criminal, treasonable disloyalty.
Truman and his anti-Communist, liberal supporters distinguished
the Communist party from legitimate political oppositions. The
Communist party, they argued, was an international conspiracy
to overthrow American government, taking orders from a foreign
power. Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe, the Berlin blockade,
and the invasion of South Korea required, in their view, a firm
American response. Anticommunist liberals rightly called attention
to Soviet expansion, to the monstrous crimes of the Russian state
against its own people, and to Moscow's direction of the American
Communist party. Some members of the party were probably spies
and murderers, just as some agents of the American state were.
But the assault on Communists and Communist sympathizers focused
not on actual crimes but on memberships' beliefs, and associations.
It thereby spread by its own logic to so-called fellow travelers,
people who associated with Communists, shared their beliefs, and
might secretly be responsive to party direction.
The Truman administration initiated the postwar anti-Communist
obsession, but its logic turned it against those who had given
it birth. Congressional Republicans found the Democratic administration
itself sympathetic to Communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin
was the most prominent Republican to accuse Truman of "coddling"
Communists. Accusations by McCarthy and other Republicans intensified
the pressures on government employees for political conformity.
Congressional committees investigated the political associations
of private citizens and government employees. Individuals were
forced to name the names of their alleged Communist associates,
take the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, or go to
jail for Contempt of Congress. The major function of these degradation
ceremonies was neither to discover crimes nor to make new laws
but, rather, to stigmatize individuals, proscribe political ideas,
and turn community members against one another. Like the effort
to break up Indian tribes and like the labor injunction, the ritual
of naming names atomized political association. As Tocqueville
had foreseen, isolated individuals faced the opprobrium of public
opinion. They also faced reprisals from private employers and
from the state.
Senator McCarthy gave his name to the atmosphere of suspicion
and political fear that dominated America from 1947 until after
the end of the Korean War. McCarthy's use of the Red scare against
both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations led scholars to
call the domestic Red scare McCarthyism and to interpret McCarthyism
as popular hysteria against responsible, elite policymakers. Such
views ignored McCarthy's institutional support-in the Republican
party, in Congress, and among local elites. Labeling the Red scare
McCarthyism also deflected attention from the origins and continuation
of countersubversive practices within the executive branch; from
the growth of a national security bureaucracy; and from the association
of Red scares with liberal, Democratic presidents. Democratic
chief executives, from Andrew Jackson to Lyndon Johnson, forged
a strong, personal presidency and carried out a messianic, expansionist
foreign policy. From the 1830s to the 1960s they were the major
presidential sources of Red scares.
In understanding the power of the countersubversive imagination
in American political life, it is essential to attend to mass
fears of Communism and to the -tyranny of public opinion and pressures
for political conformity. Red scares cannot be reduced to mass
hysteria, however. Similarly, advertising and the mass media and
their impact on political demonology do not simply reflect popular
desires. Mass opinion has institutional sources. Hollywood, discussed
in chapters 1 and 8 of this volume, was one center of opinion
formation during twentieth-century Red scares; Madison Avenue
was another. Insofar as the mass public is concerned, the significance
both of movies and of advertising from the 1920s until the present
lies less in mass countersubversive political mobilization and
more in the displacement of politics by private life.
Advertising, which came of age in the 1920s, responded to
the political turmoil of the postwar years. Influenced in part
by the consumer-oriented political reforms of the Progressive
period, advertisers proposed to replace workers-as-producers,
who engaged in class conflict, with workers-as-consumers. Mass
society would replace class society, since goods bound together
people at antagonistic ends of the political spectrum.
The political concerns of some advertising executives dovetailed
with more widely shared reliance on consumer goods to promote
personal happiness. The exploitation of the psychological function
of commodities had much in common with therapeutic approaches
to politics. The language of self-fulfillment in both arenas promoted
personal dependence, in the one case on the institutions of the
helping professions, in the other on new products that could cure
Advertisers proclaimed not consumer dependence but consumer
democracy. Through purchases, buyers were "constantly participating
in ... their industrial government," claimed department store
magnate Edward Filene. "The masses of America have elected
Henry Ford. They have elected General Motors," said Filene,
"and all the other great industrial and business leaders
of the day." By presenting the corporation as a source of
goods for sovereign consumers rather than a structure of market
or workplace power, Filene legitimated private concentrations
of power and directed voter-consumers away from political challenges
to the corporation. The ads and surveys that determined consumer
preferences, explained market researcher Edward Bernays, marked
a "Declaration of Independence" from traditional democratic
ideas. Such arguments moved in post-World War II America from
advertising into the political arena itself. Social scientists
who had engaged in market research or were adapting its survey
techniques defined political democracy on the model of consumer
democracy. Arguing that direct public participation was dangerous,
they restricted democracy to offering the masses a choice between
The advertising industry, which reached its maturity in the
1950s, promised a suburban utopia of pacified private life. The
Red scare enforced that utopia. Both advertising and countersubversion
stigmatized un-American activities. External coercion and internal
influence worked together, as they had in Indian policy and asylum
reform, to domesticate the self and make it safe for political
But the 1950s American dream contained within it the seeds
of its own disintegration. The optimism about private life that
Hollywood and the advertising industry had helped to create formed
a generation that would turn to political action to fulfill personal
desires. Responding to the dominant culture's subordination of
politics to personal life, the New Left made the personal political.
New Left activists entered political life as the anti-Communist
politics of the cold war were culminating in Vietnam. Expansion
against Asian Communists generated opposition from the "new
barbarians" (as their critics called them) in America. This
symbolic reenactment, at home and in Asia, of the conflict between
civilization and savagery coalesced with a black protest movement
in which the original New Left cadres had been formed. The racial
politics of American history, in a massive return of the repressed,
took over the country in the 1960s, producing in response a massive
state repression of political dissent. That repression climaxed
in presidential usurpations of power and in the only resignation
of an American president. In the 1980s the Reagan administration
has avoided the political opposition that brought Nixon down because
it has benefited from comparisons with the perceived haplessness
of Ford and Carter and because it has concentrated its intimidation
on the margins and beyond the borders of the United States.
The end of the Korean War, the Senate censure of Joseph McCarthy,
and Supreme Court decisions in several civil liberties cases all
reduced political suppression in the latter 1950s. The Court declared
the attorney general's list illegal and in New York Times Co.
v. Sullivan (1964) ruled that prosecutions for seditious libel
violated the First Amendment. The national-security surveillance
bureaucracy was still firmly in place, however, and the rise of
the civil rights and New Left movements in the early 1960s triggered
a broad campaign of intimidation.
In 1962 the FBI placed Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of
nonviolent mass protests against southern segregation, on its
list of those to be arrested in a national emergency, and Hoover
began a campaign to discredit him. Accusing King of being under
Communist influence, Hoover obtained Attorney General Robert Kennedy's
permission to tap his phone. The FBI already had under surveillance
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At the same time, the FBI refused to protect the civil rights
of people whose legal protests against segregation resulted in
police and mob violence against them. The rise of a mass movement
against the war in Vietnam, after Johnson's election in 1964 and
his escalation of the war, led to a vast expansion of the government's
The decade from 1965 to 1975, marked by antiwar and student
protests, urban black ghetto uprisings, and impeachment proceedings
against Nixon, was the most turbulent period of the century. Presidents
Johnson and Nixon believed that Moscow was behind the antiwar
movement. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, charged that
the "international Communist movement" had "organized
and masterminded" demonstrations against the draft. Under
Johnson the CIA developed an illegal domestic surveillance network;
its existence was denied under oath by Director Richard Helms,
who had set it up. Between 1967 and 1971 army intelligence collected
information, as the Senate Intelligence Committee later reported,
on "virtually every group seeking political change in the
United States." The FBI vastly expanded its surveillance
activities, including break-ins. The bureau expanded its COINTELPRO
program which went beyond infiltrating dissident groups (COMINFIL)
to actively disrupting them.
Under COINTELPRO, FBI agents forged letters, set political
associates and marital partners against one another, got people
fired, and instigated violence. A staff report of the Senate Intelligence
Committee called COINTELPRO a "sophisticated vigilante operation
aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights
of speech and association." Political activists could not
be sure whether those with whom they worked were comrades, informers,
or provocateurs. COINTELPRO, according to one confidential FBI
document, would "enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles,
and will further serve to get the point across that there is an
FBI agent behind every mailbox.
The techniques of political repression had changed dramatically
by the post-World War II period. Brutal and public in the Iast
decades of the nineteenth century, intimidation was carried on
by private as well as public bodies. It became bureaucratized
and more centered in a state apparatus during the Red scares following
both world wars. As state surveillance intensified after World
War II, violent intimidation decreased. Political repression went
underground, intimidating by its invisibility. Surveillance worked
by concealing the identity of its actors but letting the existence
of its network be known. Like warders in Jeremy Bentham's model
prison, the panopticon, the surveillants planted in subversive
organizations could see without being seen. The political activist,
like Bentham's or Rush's prisoner or Tocqueville's democratic
man, was always to wonder whether he or she was being observed.
The state was carrying on a hidden war against the bonds of trust
that make political opposition possible.
National security supplanted un-American activities during
the cold war as the major justification for suppressing political
dissent. At the same time that it increased political surveillance,
the national-security bureaucracy expanded its system of classifying
government documents. By keeping its policies and political disputes
secret, the State took politics out of the public realm. To publicize
confidential government proceedings was, under those circumstances,
not to engage in political controversy but to endanger the national
security. The Nixon administration thus prosecuted Daniel Ellsberg
for making public the Pentagon papers. This classified set of
materials on American involvement in Vietnam contained nothing
to endanger the national security but much to endanger the justifications
for the continued prosecution of the war.
Public prosecutions played an important role in the suppression
of political dissent. The Johnson administration prosecuted the
pediatrician Benjamin Spock, Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin,
and other antiwar leaders for counseling opposition to the draft
Spock was proscribed from advising the young men who had been
raised on his childcare book. The Nixon administration initiated
the third great Chicago conspiracy trial. In an eerie reenactment
of the Haymarket affair, it prosecuted eight leaders of the antiwar
movement-some of whom had never met-for conspiracy to riot. The
indictment made antiwar activists responsible for the police violence
that had erupted against protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Violence, which had receded during the cold war, reemerged
as a weapon of political punishment during the war in Vietnam.
Law enforcement officers killed a black student at Jackson State,
South Carolina, in 1967 and four Kent State, Ohio, students three
years later. Urban police departments used agents provocateurs
against militant, northern black ghetto organizations. Chicago
police, with FBI cooperation, raided Chicago Black Panther headquarters
and killed two leaders of the party.
Although political repression helped destroy the Panthers,
it broadened opposition to the government and its war in Vietnam.
Repression helped split the protest movement into a violent fringe
on the one hand, enraged at and isolated from American life, and
a vast, more amorphous, liberal opposition on the other. The Nixon
administration's public statements stigmatized opponents of its
Vietnam policies as members of the violent fringe. The administration's
covert operations moved against the large, respectable antiwar
movement as well. Nixon also tried to intimidate long-established
American political institutions. He even antagonized the traditional
centers of countersubversion, the FBI and the CIA, by trying to
centralize their operations in the White House. The significance
of Nixon's activities and the ultimate cause of his downfall lay
in his systematic application to politics of techniques long accepted
for use against alleged subversives. By his surveillance and intimidation
of political opponents and the press, Nixon recreated the hostility
to legitimate opposition that lay behind the Alien and Sedition
Nixon's resignation was followed by the end of the Vietnam
War and the political turmoil that surrounded it. The suppression
of political opposition that climaxed under Nixon had, it was
widely felt, endangered the constitutional fabric of the nation.
Gerald Ford's attorney general, Edward Levi, promulgated rules
limiting the FBI to law enforcement and bringing its actions under
the law. FBI officials were convicted of authorizing illegal burglaries.
Former CIA director Helms, indicted for perjury, pleaded nolo
contendere to a lesser charge; he received a suspended sentence
and a fine of two thousand dollars. The House and Senate Internal
Security Committees were abolished, and Congress established an
Intelligence Oversight Committee.
Neither the national-security bureaucracy nor the rationale
for countersubversion was subjected to fundamental challenge,
however. The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that former CIA agent
Frank Snepp violated the terms of his employment by failing to
clear his book manuscript with the agency. Snepp disclosed no
classified information; the Court's decision implied that anyone
who worked in the national security bureaucracy permanently waived
his First Amendment right to publish without prior restraint.
Ronald Reagan extended the Snepp principle in his 1983 "Presidential
Directive on Safeguarding National Security Information."
Officials who handled sensitive, classified material, according
to the executive order, would have to submit to lie detector tests
and agree not to say or write anything on national-security matters,
even after leaving the government, without first getting official
clearance. That rule would allow an administration to censor critics
who had once worked for the government and who differed with it
on matters of defense, foreign policy, or internal dissent. These
provisions were shelved after a public outcry, but officials are
still being required, under another portion of the directive,
to acknowledge in writing that they face legal penalties for unauthorized
disclosures for the rest of their lives.
The government has also acted to prevent aliens with dangerous
opinions or associations from entering the United States. America
has been protected from such figures as Isabel Allende, widow
of the murdered president of Chile; George Woodcock, anarchist
historian; and Farley Mowat, author of Never Cry Wolf. The Justice
Department is prosecuting Sanctuary workers for criminal conspiracy
to import illegal aliens, because the Sanctuary Movement is offering
a refuge inside the United States to Central American victims
of U.S.-sponsored state terrorism. And in Regan v. Wald (1984)
Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist, ruling in the name of national
security, gave the executive branch broad authority to curtail
the rights of American citizens to travel abroad.
The Reagan administration has also issued new FBI guidelines
that, unlike the Levi rules, permit surveillance without evidence
of crime. The new rules allow the infiltration of "violence-prone"
groups that engage in the "advocacy of" criminal acts
or have the "apparent intent" to commit crimes. Perhaps
acting under these guidelines, perhaps disregarding them, the
FBI spied in the early 1980s on such peaceful antiwar groups as
the Physicians for Social Responsibility. The president also granted
the CIA authority to conduct surveillance within the United States.
The alleged menace of international terrorism provides the
rationale for these executive actions. The Soviet state is accused
of directing small bands of terrorists, mostly from the Third
World, to commit acts of political violence. This theory of international
terrorism not only permits the American government to sponsor
its own acts of surveillance and state terror. By merging savages
(from the first moment in American political demonology), revolutionaries
(from the second), and Soviet agents (from the third), the theory
of international terrorism also encapsulates and brings up to
date the entire history of American countersubversion.