Gone Crazy:

Senator Pat McCarran and
The Great American Communist Hunt

Michael J. Ybarra

Part I
Paranoia is a powerful and underappreciated force for defining and enforcing group norms. A paranoid world is one of strong contrasts, with a few points of light --- certainly not a thousand --- and much threatening shadow.

Group paranoia members get a twofer: a shared worldview and a "reason" for every setback --- and small groups have many. The power and resourcefulness of one's enemies testify to your own importance.

One way to justify the abuse of power is to claim victimhood --- not a stretch for the paranoiac. The New Testament stories of Christian persecution and injustice offer Westerners a vivid script that elevates prosaic disagreements into cosmic battles for the soul of man and the fate of the universe.

Recently, for example, some particularly clueless Christians claimed to suffer persecution for their faith, as shopkeepers wished them an ecumenical "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Proof, they said, of a conspiracy by liberals, atheists and Jews to eviscerate the republic's core Christian beliefs, such as democracy (invented by pagans well before the time of Jesus) and freedom of religion: the only logical response to the horrors of the "Christian on Christian" Thirty Years War.

The shared vision of a secret unholy cabal of great power battling selfless and beleaguered Christians encapsulates and defines true believers, while giving cosmic significance to pedantic rants against shopkeepers. By contrast, numerically much less successful Judaism, which has suffered continual persecution for over 3,000 years, has not abandoned itself to such paranoia. Perhaps differentiating real threats from imagined threats has survival value for a militarily weak people.

As with early Christians, the young America also fought a great power that threatened destruction to its true believers and chief actors. Some bold plots were hatched against the young country, up to and including treason. Disagreements over whether a strong central government should be empowered to respond to these and other threats divided the founders and led to the rise of faction and then parties. Over time America grew stronger and became the centerpiece of the world's power structure. But the paranoia engendered by our early history and our national penchant for credulity still play an important role in our national mythology.

Today America is the world's only superpower. It may be difficult to imagine the post-WWII world in which a virtually unscathed America felt deeply threatened by a few thousand Communist zealots and their overseas supporters.

It was a time when far-rightists called Dwight D. Eisenhower a Communist, when a sitting wartime President faced vicious right-wing smears of his patriotism and motives, when an arch-conservative senator would lead a witch hunt that paralyzed the nation through intimidation and fear ... while the nation's media either cheered him on or simply failed to call him to account.

It was, finally, a time when the US Congress passed, and the President signed, a bill establishing a chain of detention camps in expectation of mass arrests of subversives, saboteurs and enemy aliens.

This sounds like McCarthyism, but it wasn't.

Go on to Part II

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