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About the Myths of Absolute Freedom

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When Lord Tennyson wrote that, “freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent,” he gave full rein to poetic fancy that had no relation to human history. American history, for instance, shows that absolute freedom is a myth, in that freedom at any point of time is determined by the circumstances and the context in which it is exercised. The Cold War and the Red Scare affected American lives, from the American social and cultural life, to the civil rights movement and survivalism. The Cold War, which lasted from roughly 1946 to 1991, had similarities with the Red Scare which happened after World War I, particularly in limiting freedoms of speech and association. Although there are similarities and differences of the nature, laws, and justifications of these limitations for these two eras, it also explores the reactions of Americans during times of fear for the country’s freedom and individual rights.

The Cold War describes the period in the world history which was marked by extreme geopolitical, ideological, and economic strife between the United States of America and the formerly Soviet Union (USSR). It begun in 1947 soon after the World War II had ended. Both the USA and the USSR had fought alongside each other during the World Wars and emerged as the world superpowers. However, the desire to wield maximum control of the global affairs almost set the two nations into a war-path. In one hand the US sought to spread democracy while the USSR, on the other hand, sought to spread communism. This conflict ranged from mere subtle espionage across in major cities to combat action in places such as the Vietnam. The Cold War was thus pegged on communist fear that ended up curtailing the America’s freedom of speech, altered the foreign policies, and discouraged the voices of dissent.

The Cold War period remains one of the most repressive times in the history of the U.S. where the freedom of speech was significantly subjugated. In an effort to bring to light cases of espionage, root out disloyal citizens, and the threat of communist spreading across the world, the U.S. government rolled out a number of programs that instilled so much fear among the Americans. At the centre of the repressive policies was the anti communist Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was in charge of House Un-American Activities Committee whose role was to investigate acts of subversion that threatened the U.S. constitution (Gunther). This committee inadvertently began looking into suspicious cases of people within the federal government either directly or indirectly supporting communist’s agenda. Those holding public offices were thus required to take loyalty oaths as one of the measures to test or deter Communist sympathizers. The loyalty program later became part and parcel of Presidential Executive Orders (Athan). The end result was of this loyalty program is that many Americans became afraid or discouraged of raising their thoughts or debating outside what was regarded as normal. The Red Scare and fear of contradicting the normal made many Americans afraid of exercising their Freedom of speech as embodied in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The right to openly and publicly express one’s idea were significantly hampered as one could easily be mistaken or linked to communist sympathizer.

The assault on constitutional and civil liberties launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and the early 1950s in the name of fighting Communists within the United States was the worst, but by no means either the first or the only, aberration that Americans have had to endure. Abridgement of civil liberties had had to be resorted to by the United States administration even during the Civil War in the 1860s, and even later. Many Americans had initially resented deprivation, or curtailment, of their freedoms by Abraham Lincoln, but they got reconciled to it considering the imperatives of preserving the Union and abolishing slavery. But McCarthy went berserk in his self-assumed crusade against communists who, he believed till his death shortly after his disgrace, had sneaked into the United States government. Maybe he would have got away with it, or at least got off lightly, if he had not spread his net of suspicion wide enough to include writers, Hollywood celebrities, and even common people; and when McCarthy finally pointed an accusing finger at the United States Army, he met his Waterloo. But by then he had already done irreparable damage to America’s democratic institutions. Few wonder that even today McCarthyism is synonymous with crucification of innocent American citizens on the cross of unsubstantiated charges. There were many other limitations of freedom in America at one point during the Red Scare as well

During the first Red Scare of 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer directed raids to be conducted by federal agents at the offices of radical and labor organizations throughout America. His actions resulted in the arrests of over five thousand people including an immigrant radical, Emma Goldman. Most of the arrested people were obtained without warrants and held against their will without charging any of them. The arrests all were technically unconstitutional and caused an uprise from Americans questioning Palmer’s decisions overall and he received heavy criticism. However, this event also gave the citizens of America an appreciation for the importance of civil rights and freedoms that would continue to grow after the Red Scare ended. According to the textbook, this was an, “intense period of political intolerance inspired by the postwar strike wave and the social tensions and fears generated by the Russian Revolution,” (Foner 605).

The main similarities between the Cold War and the Red Scare are that they were both based on “fears” against the “leftist” other and they also led to reckless accusations and curtailment of freedoms of association and speech. The fear of communism both stimulated the Cold War and the Red Scare. It was during the Red Scare that the federal government exercised its full power against the labor and political left-wing parties. During the Red Scare, a national anti-radical hysteria ensued, because there were fears for a Bolshevik revolution in America. This Bolshevik revolution threatened to reshape the American way of life and basic social institutions, such as home and family. From 1916 to 917, the Industrial Workers conducted several strikes, which the media portrayed as leftist and anti-democratic. The government systematically arrested and detained people who were suspected as spies and among those affected were labor organizations, anti-war activists, members of different communist organizations, journalists and writers, African American activists, and other groups that fought for just wages, better benefits, and child labor laws. On January 2, 1920 alone, 10,000 people were arrested without warrants. The Congress, however, could not tolerate such wide-scale abuses of constitutional rights and by 1922, the Red Scare ended. The same wide-scale arrests and imprisonments also happened during the Cold War. Even Hollywood has been affected, as its radical writers and personalities were also arrested and imprisoned.

The main differences between the Cold War and Red Scare is that during the latter, the Congress did not support limitations placed on freedom, while the Congress of the Cold War times supported it, and the American public also reacted much more rapidly during the Red Scare. As mentioned, the Congress did not allow widespread arrests and detentions to continue during the Red Scare. The people were still shaken after World War I, but they were also fearful that their civil freedoms would be indefinitely terminated by the Red Scare. The leftist organizations were also very powerful during this time and they had the numbers and influence to affect the Congress’s reaction to the Red Scare’s government tactics. During the Cold War era, the government had been much more successful in intensifying the fear against Communism. It enacted several laws that directly affected freedoms of speech and association. The Congress enacted the 1950 Internal Security Act (McCarran Act) which mandated Communist Party members to register with the U.S. attorney general over the veto of President Harry Truman. The Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, under Senator Joseph McCarthy, harassed public personalities also during the 1950s, on the basis of their past and present behavior. During the Cold War, there was an increasing momentum coming from the Civil Rights movement. They also fought these limitations to freedoms, but the Congress during the Red Scare responded much more swiftly. The labor movement in the Progressive age, for instance, expanded the meaning of freedom of expression by promoting freedom of the press and freedom from private forms of oppression (Jimenez 75).

These limitations on civil liberties were never justified for both eras, because fear is not a logical rationale for curtailing freedoms. Fear only incites xenophobia instead of international communication and understanding. If there are genuine threats to national security, the Constitution and state laws are enough to pursue these threats in a systematic and lawful manner. There is no need to use the media and create laws that incite fear against leftist organizations. Instead, the government should have followed laws in determining potential criminals, instead of cracking down on indefinite numbers of suspected individuals.

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