The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America

The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America

The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America

The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America


The term Cold War has long been associated with the "red menace" of communism at home and abroad. Yet as Lee Bernstein shows in this illuminating study, during the 1950s the threat posed by organized crime preoccupied Americans at least as much as the fear of communist subversion. At the beginning of the decade, the televised hearings of Senator Estes Kefauver's crime committee, focusing on colorful mob figures such as Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, attracted far more attention than the spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In the years that followed, public concern about gangsters and racketeering continued unabated, even after the anticommunist fever of McCarthyism had begun to subside.

Drawing on a broad range of evidence, from government records to films, television shows, and pulp novels, Bernstein explains how the campaign against organized crime, like the crusade against communism, reflected deep social and political anxieties. Just as the inquisitions of Senator McCarthy fed on popular fears,of international conspiracy and alien infiltration, the anticrime investigations of the 1950s raised the specter of a foreign-based criminal cartel -- the Sicilian Mafia -- preying on a vulnerable American public. In both cases, the association of the foreign-born with criminal or un-American activity led to the creation of state and local citizens committees and to calls for new restrictions on immigration. Labor unions also came under attack, particularly after the McClellan Committee and its chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, claimed to have found a link between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, led by Jimmy Hoffa, and the Mafia.

As Bernstein points out, despitesignificant changes in the way organized crime actually operated, and despite repeated protests from Italian Americans, the popular image of the sinister gangster persisted, because it served a more profound need. In an era marked


Myth and reality collided in upstate New York in November 1957. Perhaps this was fated in a region where the names of small towns and cities are an atlas of ancient Rome, Africa, and Greece: Syracuse, Utica, Homer, Attica. The small town of Vestal is named for the virgins who tended the sacred fire in the temple dedicated to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. Vestal, the town's founders probably hoped, would carry the same connotations of purity and virtue. The town's Parkway Motel, however, catered to the descendants of the vestal virgins' less virginal sisters. On the afternoon of November 13, 1957, New York State Police officers Sergeant Edgar Croswell and Trooper Vincent Vasisko arrived at the motel on a routine call about a bad check. The motel, an anonymous little place along a stretch of Route 17 outside of Binghamton, was a great place to stay if you did not want your presence noticed. That's what brought Joseph Barbara Jr. there by coincidence on that same November day.

Officers Croswell and Vasisko observed Barbara, the twenty-one-year-old son of a well-known local character, reserving three rooms for two nights. His father, Joseph Barbara Sr., had owned the Canada Dry Bottling Company of Endicott, New York—a regional beer and soft drink distributorship—ever since the end of Prohibition made his previous occupation as a still operator in Scranton, Pennsylvania, obsolete. In addition to his known past as a bootlegger, Barbara was a . . .

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