At the height of the depression, in May 1933, Franklin Roosevelt, during his inaugural address when being sworn in as President for the first time, uttered these now famous lines: “…there is nothing to fear but fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Indeed, the Depression itself resulted from unreasoning terror when people discovered that stock market prices were considerably inflated, and began a panic selling spree which caused the stock market to crash. As more terror and fear spread throughout the populace, people were rushing to withdraw their money from banks, which then led to hundreds of bank failures and further economic misery for millions of people. Anyone that has checking or savings accounts with a bank knows that the bank has only a tiny fraction of the cash on hand supporting those accounts. If all account holders show up at once, demanding withdrawal of their entire assets, the bank would go under in less than 2 hours, and that was exactly what was happening in the early phase of the Depression. Between the stock market crash and the multitude of bank failures, millions saw their life savings vanish almost overnight, only to be followed by a bleak future of economic poverty.
Sometimes fear is a good thing, in that it can motivate us to take life-saving actions. For example, if an intruder was attempting to break-in to your home, the accompanying fear one would feel could lead to self-defense actions that could save one’s life. Similarly, a life-threatening illness would certainly motivate one to seek necessary therapies. So fear can be a positive emotion, when the source of that fear is genuine, but it can be highly destructive when it’s fed by paranoia or irrationality. During the 1930s there was generally a lack of concern in this country that we would be dragged into the coming world war, even as Nazi and Japanese military machines were on the march in Europe and the Pacific. This lack of fear, if you will, fed by a false sense of security that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would protect us from becoming involved militarily, directly led to the disaster at Pearl Harbor, and our huge unpreparedness when we were forced to enter the war. After WWII, however, the fear factor relating to the rise of Communism swung completely in the opposite direction, as fear and paranoia came to rule of the day.
Shortly after the end of WWII, Communist Russia, then ruled by Josef Stalin, one of the greatest butchers in history, marched into Eastern Europe, and almost effortlessly, took over control of a slew of countries such as Poland, Hungry, Rumania, etc. About the same time, a Communist revolution in China, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, overthrew the existing Chinese government and took control of that country. Mao was also no stranger to the butchery of thousands of people he felt were opposed to his regime. When, in 1949, Russia detonated its first H-bomb, fear and panic swept through the U.S. like the bubonic plague. It seemed as if Communism was on the march everywhere, and would soon engulf the entire world, us included. Suddenly, everyone was suspicious of everyone else, including family members, friends, co-workers, Government employees and so on. Maybe they were secretly Reds, or Communist sympathizers, Russian spies, left-wing pinkos, the list just went on and on. Of course Congress soon took notice of this fear of Communism and started investigations into the so-called red-menace that supposedly was proliferating in this country. Nothing like a strong dose of paranoia to help further one’s political ambitions.
It thus came to pass that a little-known Senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy saw great opportunism and potential to further his political career by pushing the Communist scare. Tail-gunner Joe, as they called him because of his war service on a fighter-bomber, began by claiming there were hundreds of people working in the State Dept., or for the Army, or for other Government entities, that were secretly Communist traitors or spies covertly employed by the USSR to destroy America. After, there ensued years of Communist witch-hunting in hearing after hearing before McCarthy’s Senate committee where mostly innocent people were paraded forth and charged with being Communist traitors, causing their lives to be forever ruined. The House of Representatives, not to be outdone, established the House Un-American Activities Committee that investigated the so-called spread of Communism in Hollywood. Again, hundreds of innocent lives were dragged before that committee, and saw their lives ruined by innuendo or false accusations. Richard Nixon served on that committee, and gained the fame and notoriety that enabled him to eventually become President.
McCarthyism, as it subsequently become known as, was a classic example of irrational fear run rampant, and is a word in the dictionary to this day. Finally that all-consuming fear of Communist dominance began to somewhat subside in the late 1950s, but not until thousands of lives had been ruined by false accusations and the occurrence of several suicides. Around 1956, the US Army stood up to McCarthy and demanded hearings on McCarthy’s accusations that its ranks were being infiltrated by Communists. Until then, virtually everyone was too intimidated to take on Tail-gunner Joe’s false charges. Those hearings exposed McCarthyism for the evil that it was, and McCarthy himself was subsequently condemned by Congressional resolution. Being a near alcoholic, Joe McCarthy subsequently drank himself to death in the late 1950s. However the fear of Communism lived on until 1989, especially in right-wing quarters, until the old Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own cumbersome system.
Irrational fear and paranoia, however, the type that FDR spoke of, has never really disappeared from the American political scene. Today it lives on in the ranks of the right-wing tea party movement that would seek to turn the Government clock back to what it looked like in the 19th century. And they are within shouting distance of taking over both the Presidency and Congress in the coming election. Won’t life be fun then. We could all take our paranoia pills every morning, just popping them in like vitamins, and go tiptoeing thru the tulips without a care in the world.