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Long Reads

Red Scares, Then and Now

Russia’s interference in American and European elections constitutes a serious offense. But by treating Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies as an existential threat, Western leaders are playing directly into the Kremlin’s hands, and validating its false narrative about Russia’s place in the world.

MOSCOW/LONDON – The United States experienced its first “Red Scare” immediately after World War I. For three years, Russians were said to be inciting worker revolts and strikes as part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine American capitalism. Then, on April 29, 1920, US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer warned that two days hence, on May Day, American workers would rise up to topple the US government by force. It didn’t happen, and the Red Scare vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.

The US suffered another Red Scare following World War II. The Soviet Union’s development of its own atomic bomb, together with the “loss” of China to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists, fueled a febrile terror within the US that, in retrospect, hardly seems believable. American companies, particularly Hollywood film studios, created blacklists of suspected leftists, ruining countless lives.

In Washington, DC, proceedings in the US Congress indiscriminately labeled renowned figures from General George C. Marshall to Secretary of State Dean Acheson as communist stooges. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin – whose henchman, Roy Cohn, would later mentor Donald Trump – established such a lasting legacy of calumny that his methods still bear his name: McCarthyism. And yet, soon enough, congressional hearings and a television documentary exposed McCarthy as a liar and a demagogue. As in 1920, the Red Scare of the early 1950s faded almost as quickly as it had begun.

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