Thoughts of December

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Dec 2014


Why the Red Scare was scary for so long



It is instinctive thinking for communities to worry about things. But what they choose to worry about is very much up to the community. In the case of the US one of the long enduring worries was about the spread of Communism. This worry lasted in a strong form from the First Red Scare which started in 1918 after the Bolsheviks under Lenin took over ruling Russia in 1917, through to 1991 when the USSR collapsed in bankruptcy and broke into 15 separate states. This collapse was such a dramatic change that Francis Fukuyama's writing about The End of History and the Last Man became a slogan for the era.

This is an essay about why this fear was both strong and long-lasting in the US.

The Philosophic Conflict

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." is a slogan for the goal of Communism. The slogan is commonly attributed to Karl Marx to give an in-a-nutshell explanation Communism. In fact, it predates him and was commonly used among socialists and communists of his era (the 1850/60's).

The premise of this slogan is that productivity would increase enormously under the Communist system and there would be plenty for everyone. In that environment everyone would get what they needed. The further premise was that it would be for the government to decide both what was produced and how it would be handed out.

With time came twists to the thinking of what Communism really meant. Just as Christianity became the exportable version of Judaism, the Bolshevik version became the exportable version of Communism. And the definer-in-chief of what Bolshevism meant became Joseph Stalin after Lenin died in 1924.

(The American/Capitalist equivalent (thought up my me) would be "From each according to his ability, to each according to the value of his contribution to the community.")

The First Red Scare

Socialism and Communism developed as alternatives to Liberalism and Capitalism in the mid-1800's. Das Kapital by Karl Marx was first published in 1867. (The "Cliff Notes" version, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engles, was published in 1848.) The Paris Commune, which was a surprise evolution of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, was one of the first attempts at implementing Communism. It lasted only a few months before conservative Frenchmen and Prussians conspired to crush it. Being short-lived, small, and quite strange during its existence, it was interesting, but only a little scary to Americans. There were many other more interesting things to worry about, such as Anarchists. (after the Haymarket Bombing in 1886) Time passed, and a much bigger war followed in 1914: World War One.

The aftermath of World War One was a lot different than the aftermath of the War of 1870. All the empires and monarchies east of France collapsed, every one! There was deep chaos throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. What took hold in Russia, in the midst of all that chaos, and very much a part of it, was a Bolshevik government. In spite of the chaos, it survived. And in addition to surviving these Russian leaders preached that this was just the beginning: Communism was the coming wave and it would sweep the world, and when it did Capitalism and Liberalism would be swept away.

This talk delighted anti-capitalists in America and Europe, and when the Bolshevik rulership transformed into the longer-surviving USSR, it scared the Capitalists and Liberals. It scared them for about two years, then other things, such as rebuilding America, got their attention. That was the First Red Scare. After that Americans were still not happy about Communists running the USSR, but there were other more urgent matters to pay attention to.

The 1930/40's Distraction: Nazism

The prosperity of the 1920's was an exciting distraction. It was time to think about growing America even more and faster. In Russia it was time to think about transitioning from Agricultural Russia to Industrial Russia, and doing it real fast. This speed would be accomplished thanks to the virtues of Communist-inspired central planning and ownership. This transition would leapfrog the worker-exploiting capitalist phase that Western Europe had gone through during the 1800's, that ugliness would not be needed in well-planned Communist Russia.

Then came the 1930's and what to think about changed dramatically once again. The Great Depression of the 1930's was a deeply scary distraction around the world. In America, it was time to think about how to get back to growing America.

Likewise in all other developed regions of the world the same problem of how to get back to growing was being faced. During the early 1930's it was a deeply scary, seemingly insolvable, problem around the world, and each part of the world tried to solve the problem with their own style of solution. (What all the solutions had in common was not working with other regions -- protectionism ran rampant.)

The USSR stuck with trying to solve this the Communist way, now using the Stalin style. America first tried the Hoover Way, then the FDR/New Deal Way -- both of these continued to support Liberalism, Capitalism and the Constitution. In Italy, Germany and Japan, democracy, liberalism and constitutions were trashed in favor of a "kick ass and take names" dictator and socialist-style state intervention. (In China, it was just the "same ole/same ole" chaos, war lords and civil war, with some serious Japanese intervention added after 1937.)

By the late 1930's Nazism and Fascism had become even scarier to Americans than Communism. When World War Two broke out in 1939, and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Nazi/Fascist scary got deeply visceral, and America became strange bedfellows with the Soviets in fighting the Nazi/Fascists.

The Return to Red Scare

In 1945 the war ended with an Allied victory -- Russia, the US and England were the "big three" victors, and Germany, Italy and Japan were the three big losers. The big question of the second half 1940's became, "What now?", and this question was asked around the world.

In the US this question centered on how to treat the USSR. Because the USSR was Communist, how to treat Communism was tightly related. (How to treat Nazi/Fascism had been decisively decided. It was no longer an issue.)

The US and the USSR were both real happy about winning, so both were real happy to spread the good news of how successful their way of living was. Sadly, this exuberance was also very scary to be watching from the other side of the ideological fence. In the US this raised suspicions among conservatives that the Communists were still intent on taking over world, and using the both Red Army and sneaky spies to make that happen. The Soviets worried about the US Army and the CIA.

By 1950 the question of "What now?" had been answered: What would come next was The Cold War, in which the US and USSR would contest for economic, military and moral influence around the world. The world would be divided into Communist and anti-Communist... Oh, and those "wimpy 'Third World' players", such as India, who didn't want to be part of either side.

Inside the US this pick-a-side mentality manifested itself as the McCarthy era. This was a time when if you picked Communist, or were accused of being on that side, it was deeply damaging if you wanted a carrier in business, government or entertainment.

This Us versus Them thinking went on, sometimes hotter, sometimes colder, until first the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and then the USSR dissolved in 1991.

And in 1992 it was once again time to ask, "What now?"


Communism had a surprisingly long run as a scary ideology for many Americans. It ran so long because it was so successful in the USSR and so attractive to many people in other parts of the world, and because it was so antithetical to the American ideals of tolerance, rule of law, and property rights. It was particularly scary after the end of World War Two because there was a mighty Red Army backing it up, an Iron Curtain coming down in Eastern Europe and China, and great worry that there were conspiring agents operating inside America.



--The End--