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Opinion

Op-Ed: Heinous, ideological enemy? The U.S. has been there before

Roy Cohn & Joseph McCarthy

U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds both hands over microphones as he speaks to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington on April 22, 1954.

(Byron Rollins / Associated Press)

“I’ve never felt more uncomfortable than I do today,” ex-CIA official Jack Devine remarked recently in a radio interview. “We’re all vulnerable.” He isn’t the only one worried about some great Islamic menace at work in America. A school board in Tennessee made headlines after arguing that “the impressionable nature” of middle school kids makes it unwise to teach the history of the Islamic world up to AD 1500. A recent poll discovered nearly half of Americans are “worried that they or someone in their family will be victims of terrorism.”

The resulting picture is of America under assault from a hostile ideology — one that is spreading, brutal, a threat and unprecedented.

As a native son of the Soviet Union — the Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan called it — I am, frankly, offended.

As the red banner of communism marched across the globe ... America not only faced down this ideological adversary, but also eventually rejected the concomitant paranoia.
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Spreading influence? The U.S.S.R. covered an area the size of North America. But that was just home base. When I was in second grade I wrote down a list of countries that were “our friends.” We had communist regimes in China, Cuba, Angola, North Korea and South Yemen. We had puppet governments in Eastern Europe, client states in Africa and Southeast Asia, rebel armies in Latin America, and Communism Lite socialists in India and Chile. We had a lot of friends. I wanted to collect a coin from each.

Brutality? The Cambodian despot Pol Pot executed people for wearing eyeglasses, part of his extermination of a quarter of the country’s population. One could teach a graduate course just on communist war crimes.

Threat to American civilians? In 1983, the Soviet high command thought a NATO war exercise in Europe was cover for a nuclear missile attack and came perilously close to launching a preemptive strike of its own. If you are an American over age 33, you came within minutes of being wiped off the map. How’s that for uncomfortable?

And yet, as the red banner of communism marched across the globe and the threat of domestic collaborators gripped the nation, America not only faced down this ideological adversary, but also eventually rejected the concomitant paranoia. That’s worth remembering.

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The Red scare of the 1950s had everything going for it. It had a war in Korea keeping the nation on edge. It had the evidence of communist takeovers in China and growing movements in Vietnam and Cuba. It had the new medium of television beaming maps of falling dominoes and footage of marching armies into American living rooms. It had Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s allegations, lists and hearings bringing the U.S. to the brink of hysteria. Above all, it had an entire population grappling with their safety and future in a newly nuclear world.

Long after it was over, Americans would marvel at how such an un-American movement had convulsed the land. The remarkable thing about the Red scare, however, is not how far it reached, but how short-lived it was.

It collapsed in dramatic fashion. In 1954, McCarthy was eviscerated on live television by chief counsel for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, who famously asked: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy slinked off into obscurity, and the nation shook off its paranoia and moved on, determined, defiant and calm.

It’s hard to overstate the implications of America’s triumph over the Red scare. At its core lay a terrifying premise: The communist ideology was so insidious and toxic that no one — not your neighbors, not your children, not even yourself in your own mind — was immune. McCarthyism told the nation that it was besieged by an unstoppable evil. In finally rejecting that premise; America rejected defeatism.

That uniquely American decision played out repeatedly during the harrowing grind of the Cold War. Each decade — from the Cuban missile crisis, through the horrors of Vietnam, through the arms race and proxy wars of the early 1980s — American society was forced to again reject paralyzing paranoia.

Suddenly, communism suffered a stunning, worldwide collapse; seemingly overnight, the greatest threat to America’s national welfare went from thermonuclear warheads to Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes. And then, for the first time in 40 years, a generation grew up without an existential threat — but thus also without the mind-set necessary to confront an ideological enemy without descending into panic.

That’s my generation. My family escaped the U.S.S.R. shortly after I tallied up all those communist friends, and I’m now a naturalized U.S. citizen. As America’s political and military leaders are engaging a new, brutal ideological enemy, I draw on the history of my adopted land to remind myself: America beat back hysteria before and can do it again.

Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” He lives in New Jersey.

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