Jay Feldman’s “Manufacturing Hysteria”

“In early 1947,” Jay Feldman writes, “after Britain’s decision to cut off aid to Greece and Turkey — the governments of which were both threatened by strong Communist movements — [Harry] Truman approached skeptical Republican leaders of the new Congress to ask for $400 million in military and financial assistance to the two beleaguered countries. In a strategy session, the Republican senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan counseled, ‘Mr. President, if that’s what you want, there’s only one way to get it. That is to make a personal appearance before Congress and scare hell out of the country.’ ”

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(Pantheon) - ‘Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America’ by Jay Feldman.

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That’s just what Truman did. On March 12 he addressed Congress and announced the Truman Doctrine: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He spoke darkly about the “gravity of the situation which confronts the world today.” Soon the economic recovery of Europe was under way, underwritten by the United States in aid to Greece and Turkey as well as in the hugely ambitious Marshall Plan, and so too was the Cold War.

Whether that undeclared conflict was actually started by Washington or Moscow doubtless will be debated by historians until kingdom come, but Vandenberg was right: Stirring fear among the American population and its elected representatives proved to be an effective way to cow Congress into giving Truman what he wanted. The aid that Greece and Turkey received may well have been instrumental in keeping them out of the Soviet bloc at a time when its opportunities for expansion seemed limitless, but it was sound policy put into effect by calculated if not outright cynical means.

This has been a familiar pattern in American life since the early 20th century, Feldman argues, though in this particular instance the purpose behind it was relatively benign. Too often politicians and their minions have tried to scare the hell out of the American people in order to advance considerably less exalted goals: the propaganda campaign during World War I aimed at stirring hatred of all things German; the Red Scare of the 1920s engineered by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer; the forced deportation of Mexican immigrants during the same decade; the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the anti-Communist hysteria whipped up during the late 1940s and early ’50s by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy; the campaign against homosexuals in the State Department during the same period; the Patriot Act and other intrusions on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11; and, most recently, the anti-immigrant frenzy in Arizona. Feldman writes:

“Since World War I, this pattern has played out repeatedly in the United States in periods of real or exaggerated crisis. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have scapegoated ‘dangerous’ minorities — be they ethnic, racial, political, religious, or sexual — citing them as the excuse for using a variety of lawful and unlawful methods to stifle opposition and curb civil liberties. It is most often carried out in the name of national security. . . . Nativism, certainly, had been a force in American life since the early nineteenth century, but it was during World War I that the government established the precedent of manipulating nativist fears as a way of clamping down on civil liberties and curtailing dissent.”

Feldman, a freelance writer whose previous books are “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards” (2005) and “Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream” (2006), doesn’t tell us anything new in “Manufacturing Hysteria,” as all the cases about which he writes have been thoroughly documented, investigated and, by and large, discredited. Still, it is useful to have the entire history outlined in a single volume, for as more recent events have made plain, the susceptibility of the American populace to appeals based on fear and prejudice has not been eradicated. Indeed, the incredibly mean political mood of the moment leaves no doubt that fear and resentment — of Latino immigrants, of Arabs and Muslims, of homosexuals — remain powerful resources for unscrupulous politicians, whose numbers have not noticeably diminished since the days of McCarthy.

That World War I was the turning point is beyond question. Woodrow Wilson may have won the presidency on a progressive platform, but he was far from immune to racial and ethnic prejudice, and as American entry into the European conflict grew near, he laid “a foundation of intolerance and suspicion” toward real or imagined disloyalty. The anti-German frenzy that was ignited by his speeches around the country and by his supporters at the Committee on Public Information, “the official state organ of propaganda,” spread deep into American society and ruined the lives of innumerable ordinary, patriotic Americans who had the misfortune to bear German names. As one official of the Justice Department put it: “No other one cause contributed so much to the oppression of innocent men as the systematic and indiscriminate agitation against what was claimed to be an all-pervasive system of German espionage.”

As a consequence of the government’s efforts, “spying on civilians . . . became the order of the day.” It was supported by much of the press — the New York Times called it “the duty of every good citizen” — and enthusiastically embraced by the young J. Edgar Hoover, who joined the Justice Department in 1917 and “over the next half century . . . would become the most adroit expert in the practices of secret government and surveillance of citizens that the United States has ever known.” Feldman’s judgment of this period is no exaggeration:

“The World War I years left a legacy in the United States that would change the Republic in two fundamental ways. First, the ascendancy of the military-industrial complex gave arms manufacturers enormous influence in governmental affairs. Second, the birth of the surveillance state created a self-perpetuating infrastructure that enabled and encouraged spying on civilians; as a result, surveillance would quickly seep into the bedrock of American life, and governmental secrecy would increasingly become an operational norm.”

That the American people have not merely acquiesced in this but at times openly welcomed it should not come as a surprise, especially when one takes into account the incredible diversity that has characterized this country since the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a very thin line between the tolerance for difference that we proudly profess as essential to the national character and the inbred human fear and suspicion of the “other.” The point is being proved right now in Western Europe and Great Britain as immigration increases from the Middle East, Asia and Africa: Even the sturdiest society can founder on prejudice and anxiety.

Feldman is rather obviously a gentleman of the left, but that doesn’t unduly color his reportage and analysis. It was, after all, an ostensibly progressive administration that sponsored the propaganda campaigns of World War I, it was the New Deal that put Japanese Americans in internment camps, and it was Harry Truman who helped start the Red Scare of the postwar years. Neither the right nor the left has a monopoly on the politics of fear and hate.

MANUFACTURING HYSTERIA

A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America

By Jay Feldman

Pantheon. 378 pp. $28.95

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