Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943

Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943

Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943

Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943

Synopsis

The anticommunist crusade of the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not start with the Cold War. Based on research in the early files of the FBI's predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, the author describes how the federal security officials played a decisive role in bringing about the first anticommunist hysteria in the US, the Red Scare in 1919 to 1920. The Bureau's political role, it is argued, originated in the attempt by the modern federal state during the early decades of the 20th century to regulate and control any organised opposition to the political, economic and social order.

Excerpt

The subject of the following work is the development and institutionalization of the surveillance of political activities by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during its formative years between 1919 and 1943. Traditionally, historical research into modern American anticommunism, especially the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s, has tended to explain the recurrent outbreaks of political intolerance and repression as the result of an irrational and paranoid mass movement suffering from “status anxiety,” or as the product of partisan politics or the activities of demagogues, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy. However, as a result of the revelations in the wake of the Watergate scandals about the systematic abuses by the US intelligence community and because of the increased access to government files following the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act in 1974, historians have become aware of the institutional and bureaucratic factors behind the outbreaks of political intolerance. Much of this recent research has emphasized the decisive role played by the FBI in the formulation of anticommunist politics. As one historian noted when the FBI files began to become available to scholars as the result of FOIA requests, “The political activities of FBI officials were probably much more pervasive than is generally known and … historians still have a great deal to examine.” He added that several aspects of the recent anticommunist movement “need to be rewritten.

Richard M. Fried has noted that “this institutional or sectoral approach to McCarthyism
constitutes an important trend in recent scholarship” (Richard M. Fried, Nightmare in Red. The
McCarthy Era in Perspective
(New York, 1990), 226). See also, M. J. Heale, American Anti
Communism. Combating the Enemy Within, 1830–1970
(Baltimore, 1990).

Kenneth O'Reilly, Hoover and the Un-Americans, The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace
(Philadelphia, 1983), xi. Ellen Schrecker has suggested, based on recently opened FBI files
from the Cold War years, that McCarthyism should properly be renamed “Hooverism”
because of the pivotal role played by the Bureau in creating the anticommunist consensus:
“For the FBI was the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy era” (Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the
Crimes. McCarthyism in America
(Boston, 1998), 203).

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