Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America

A call to arms about the government's use of scare tactics.

Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America, by Jay Feldman, Pantheon, 400 pp.

The United States was founded on the notion of being open to all, with malice toward none. At the same time, the U.S. has a history of being hostile to the “other,” be that racial, political, sexual or economic. Jay Feldman tracks that hostility from World War I to now, when disputes over immigration roil the country state by state. The picture he paints in Manufacturing Hysteria is dark.

Among the key agents of darkness: J. Edgar Hoover, from his time with FBI precursor the Bureau of Investigation to his discredited end; most presidents, particularly Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George W. Bush; and first among equals, GOP Senator Joe McCarthy, the heartland demagogue who inadvertently helped liberalism regain its voice.

Feldman launches his scapegoating inquiry with an anecdote about rural Illinois in April 1918, when the good folk of Collinsville lynched Robert Paul Prager, German immigrant, alleged Socialist and suspected spy. Prager's murder attests to the toxic patriotism of president-to-be Warren G. Harding, who said “the only place for Germany's 'miserable spies…is against the wall.'” (page xiii.)

Over the past 90-plus years, this attitude led to persecution of German, Mexican and Japanese, both native and second-generation. It first was crystallized in 1918 with passage of the Sedition Act, a law curtailing free speech that ultimately led to the demise of the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies.

World War I, writes Feldman, signaled “the birth of the surveillance state,” gave arms manufacturers “enormous influence in governmental affairs” and began to make “governmental secrecy” an “operational norm.” All paved the way for the “red scare,” culminating in the Palmer raids, which decimated the tiny U.S. Communist party and led to the deportation of those suspected of Bolshevik sympathies.

In the early '30s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were deported from Texas and California, and as the Depression deepened, “the notion that illegal aliens were occupying jobs that would otherwise go to American citizens took on increased currency,” Feldman writes. (page 138.) During the '40s, FDR, tipped by the FBI and the military to an imminent “fifth column,” issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing evacuation of more than 100,000 immigrant-generation Issei and American-born Nisei from the West Coast. In both cases, agricultural interests played a key role, assuming a racist nativist stance. “The evacuation and internment of the West Coast ethnic Japanese is a serious blot on Roosevelt's legacy, but it is in keeping with his often cavalier disregard for civil liberties,” he writes. (page 181).

The “red scare” of 1919 was revived in the early '50s when McCarthy ruled the political field, enabled far too long by politicians too timorous to challenge him--including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who issued an executive order of his own in 1953 mandating loyalty to the country. This led to nearly 1,000 employees in the state department losing their jobs because of “sex perversion”; meanwhile, Ike's Operation Wetback resurrected the Depression-era scapegoating of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. And Hoover launched the Counterintelligence Program-Communist Party USA, or COINTELPRO--without telling the administration.

Feldman spends little time on the administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, but touches on the Dubya years, when the Patriot Act was passed and the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, a sophisticated nationwide snitch operation, failed to gain purchase; apparently, Americans sometimes balk at the notion of spying on one another.

At the same time, increasing technological sophistication facilitates the systematization of political paranoia and makes it harder to detect. “Manufacturing Hysteria” is cautionary, liberalizing history--and a philosophical call to arms.

Carlo Wolff is a Monitor contributor.

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