Sunday, August 4, 2019

Teaching Red Scares

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Palmer Raids. In response to what the federal government believed to be a "radical threat," Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer led the arrest of over 4,000 suspected leftists and anarchists and the deportation of over 500 people between November 1919 and January 1920. Many people, as a result of their political beliefs, were arrested and detained without warrants. However, at the time, there was initial political and public support out of the fear of the spread of communism (this was only a couple years after the Russian Revolution and just after Red Summer, where there was widespread White-led race riots around the country). Today, the raids are generally viewed as unconstitutional, as they involved direct violations of the First and Fifth Amendments and arrests of many people simply for their political beliefs.


 
Above: A clip from the PBS American Experience film "The Bombing of Wall Street."

In many ways, this also marks the 100th anniversary of the United State's first "red scare." While there were minor red scares in the period after the Civil War, the Palmer Raids in 1919 started the nation's first major red scare. The next major "red scare" happened in the late 1940s led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (often referred to as McCarthyism). Ever since, every few years, small "red scares" continued to occur, often targeting leftist groups, workers unions, immigrants, and civil rights leaders. Here are just a few to consider: The Sacco and Vanzetti Trial, pro-segregation politicians and government officials attacks on civil rights leaders in the 50s and 60s, and attacks on Bill Clinton's health care reform plan in the 1990s as "socialism now or later."

Above: A billboard accusing Martin Luther King of being a communist. This has been part of a long history of depicting social justice leaders as "trouble-makers," being part of foreign governments' plots, or being un-American subversives within the United States.

Today, there appears to be a new red scare in the works, as fighting socialism and communism is a major talking point in the Republican Party's and Donald Trump's 2020 campaign strategy (although the later may not really know what communism or socialism are). Numerous writers have highlighted some of the similarities between past red scares and recent attacks on progressive and socialist politicians, the targeting of political leaders of color, and the use of federal law enforcement on refugees and migrants. In the context of past red scares, Donald Trump sees it as a good political tactic to target four congresswomen of color (including my representative, Ayanna Pressley) as troublemakers and socialists who are "incapable of loving this country" and should go back to the countries that they came from (which all four are American citizens; three were born here). Moreover, Lindsay Graham defended the president by calling the congresswomen "communists." Without learning about the use of communism and socialism in past political campaigns, it would be hard for students to fully understand its use by politicians today.

Above: (Left) A political cartoon by Sidney Greene in New York Evening Telegram in 1919. (Right) A 1960s comic book warning readers about the spread of communism.

So how should teachers approach these red scares in their classrooms? I would suggest three main ideas to keep in mind.

Connect Past Red Scares to More Recent Ones

First, it is important to teach red scares as part of a longer historical movement to target members of certain groups as un-American and to evoke fear of those groups. By having students learn about red scares, it not only offers a case study to help students understand how groups have been demonized for political reasons, but also allows them to critically analyze how politicians use language in the past. It helps students who did not grow up during the Cold War (where fear of communism was much more widespread) understand the history of anti-communism and anti-socialism (and potentially why it is still around today). To some degree politicians have used terms like communist or socialist as a "dirty word" or scare tactic. Teachers should consider asking students to connect red scares to other contemporary or historical examples where people in power use certain labels to alienate or cast doubts on their political opponents.

Show the Role of Race, Class, and Immigration Status in Red Scares

Second, it is important to show that class, race, and immigration status has long had a role in red scares. Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919, the poor and working classes, immigrants, and people of color were often accused of being "reds" or disloyal to the United States, especially when these groups demanded equality or protested their segregation, economic injustice, or other unfair treatment. For instance, both Martin Luther King and César Chávez were all accused of being communists, including being investigated by the FBI. Some have argued that leaders of color being called "communists" or "socialists" is often a veiled racial epithet (Barack Obama certainly faced these veiled epithets as president). It is important for students to see a connection between racism and xenophobia, and anti-communism or anti-socialism. Americans have long had an appetite for enemies, which has been exacerbated by the media often portraying international events as "good guys" (United States) vs. "bad guys" (any nation that has a dispute or disagreement with the United States). Moreover, the fear of communism and socialism is often associated with non-European nations (whether it be Cuba, North Korean, China, or Venezuela; despite being a predominately White nation, the Soviet Union seemed culturally foreign to most White Americans).

At the same time, it is important for students to understand that American communists and socialists are often "small d" democratic (meaning they do not support authoritarian regimes or anything that resembles the governments of the former Soviet Union or Venezuela). In fact, communists and socialists have often been at the forefront of expanding civil rights, civil liberties, and workers' rights in the United States. There were many important democratic communists and socialists who pushed the United States to become a more just nation, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Eugene V. Debs, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis (as well as contemporary politicians focused on social equity, such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

Help Students Understand the Differences Between Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism

Third, it is important for teachers to highlight the differences between the various economic and political philosophies. Americans know relatively little about the relationship between capitalism, socialism, and communism (and often conflate socialism and communism). It can been even more confusing for students, because socialism and communism are both economic and political ideas, and capitalism's emphasis on economic choice may led to false views that it is part of a democratic government (when it is not; many socialist nations have democracies (often called social democracies), like Sweden or Denmark; many capitalist states are authoritarian, like Turkey or Russia (For teachers and students, this maybe one of the better video economic system primers on the internet, and here is a good primer on modern-day democratic socialism).

It is also helpful to show students that some Americans have long questioned capitalism as an economic system. Especially, when many democratic nations around the world have socialist governments or maintain socialist policies (such as tuition-free or low-cost public schools and universities, government provided universal health care, restrictions on executive compensation, or state-controlled or highly regulated industries). In fact, in recent political polls, socialism has gained some increase support among Americans, especially younger Americans, seeing socialism as a better alternative to capitalism (possibly as a result of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign). This may have even led to the White House releasing a report in 2018 on the so-called dangers of socialism. While more Americans maybe considering socialist ideas, fear around a communist takeover of the United States maybe still relatively high (at least in certain polls and among a certain set of politicians think it may help reduce support for their opponents) despite few governments in the world still espouse to be communist. Helping students see that a communist take over has generally been a red herring, but also an effective political tool in history, which can help them develop a stronger understanding of the political and economic debates over the past century (and today).




Additional Teaching Materials

For more on red scares, below are several links to quality lesson plans and teaching materials related to the Palmer Raids and Red Scares across U.S. history.

Capitalism and Socialism (Crash Course)

Red Scare! The Palmer Raids and Civil Liberties (UCI Social Science Project)

Palmer Raids (Stanford History Education Group)

The Palmer Raids (UT Austin Immigration History)

The Bombing of Wall Street (PBS American Experience)

Postwar Red Scare (Gilder Lehrman Institute)

Smithsonian Magazine Article "Crackdown!" on the Palmer Raids

Library of Congress Resources on the Palmer Raids

FBI Resources on the Palmer Raids

McCarthyism (NEH Edsitement)

McCarthyism and Red Scare (C-SPAN)

McCarthyism (Zinn Education Project)