WHILE FEAR OF COMMUNISM MAY BE PASSÉ
RECENT EVENTS LOOK LIKE A NEW COLD WAR
Reading books that are several decades past publication can provide great insight into people’s expectations at the time the works were written.
I’ve just finished James Michener’s epic novel, Poland, in which he offered a fictionalized survey of Polish history from the Thirteenth Century up to the early 1980s. That was the time when Polish workers had just organized the Solidarity labor movement which, with the encouragement of Pope John Paul II, was mounting a serious challenge to the Communist regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.
If you’re old enough, you probably recall his detached and unnerving, sunglassed stare — kind of like Vladimir Putin in Foster Grants — which threatened an uncertain future but proved to be the face of an era coming to an end. Of course, nobody but the Pope, and maybe Ronald Reagan, knew that it was ending then. So Michener wisely (and provocatively) closed his book on a note of pronounced uncertainty, with Soviet tanks parked and waiting at strategic points throughout the country.
I recently read the 1952 Cold War classic, I Led 3 Lives, which chronicled a nine-year infiltration of the American Communist Party by Boston advertising executive (and undercover FBI informant) Herbert Philbrick. It was like going back to my ’50s childhood, when the book was adapted as a popular TV series, starring Richard Carlson, which I watched each week with my parents.
Communism was the specter that loomed over those duck-and-cover years. It was the spirit animating great mushroom clouds that haunted the sleepless dreams of my generation. And it was not at all an abstract threat. Every adult in our lives had been touched by a global war fought to defeat one kind of totalitarianism. That we should now be facing another kind lent a certain fatalistic immediacy.
In those days, it was good to know there was a man like Herbert Philbrick, who had risked so much to foil the plotting of an enemy within. The Communist threat was real. It was serious. And even if it was a bit over-milked for melodrama on a weekly television show, people understood that there actually were bad guys in the world who had a very different vision of America’s future.
Not so today.
Since the ill-fated war in Vietnam, we’ve been fed a steady diet of reductive cynicism about the danger posed by Communists. The great East-West standoff has been presented basically as just a big misunderstanding, or else — seizing on Dwight Eisenhower’s famous phrase, “military industrial complex” — as the concoction of international money interests getting richer as both sides porked up their arms spending.
As late as the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was called a war-mongering madman for advancing his Strategic Defense Initiative. (Remember President Ray Gun?) Then, when the Soviet bloc crumbled so suddenly, this collapse was given as proof that the Red Menace was never anything more than an illusion…
“See? How could they ever have been a threat to us when they couldn’t even satisfy their own people?”
That assessment was often put forth by those who, not all that many years before, were touting Communism as the world’s inevitable destiny.
Nowadays, anti-Communism is seen as just one aspect of the great cliché which the 1950s have become: part “Happy Days,” part nuclear annihilation. There’s even a website devoted to nostalgic, knee-slapping yucks about the era of McCarthyism. The site is called Conelrad, a reference to the first national Civil Defense radio warning system. It includes some genuinely amusing material, but you have to slog through a lot of stupid, condescending fluff to find it. For instance, a review of a book about making the I Led 3 Lives TV series offers this telling observation…
“Week after week, the frequently panicked and hyperbolic Carlson-as-Philbrick channeled the national angst of the era. The absurd paranoia captured in the program is priceless and is as worthy of preservation as any other Cold War national treasure.”
Oh, so that’s how it was in those days between the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Absurd paranoia. Must have been a real hoot.
In his own book, Philbrick relates how his Communist unit (called a cell) would meet in members’ homes. To all appearances, they were just a bunch of friends getting together for coffee and good-natured discussion of current events. In reality, they were engaged in serious study of Marxist-Leninist Doctrine; making plans for recruitment, agitation, or any number of subversive activities; and review of the latest directives from Moscow.
He was often surprised to run into prominent figures from local businesses and community groups — even his own church — at these sessions or at higher-level Party functions. These were men and women who might be known for somewhat liberal views, but whom no one would ever suspect of harboring anti-American sentiments. Naturally, when such individuals would cross paths outside Communist circles, a knowing glance was the only acknowledgement of their shared secret commitment.
How much simpler life must be for the Communists of today. No need for all that sneaking around. I can well imagine cell meetings in the East Room of the White House. And of course, much of what was once called Marxist-Leninist Doctrine is now the Democratic Party platform.
Many of the attitudes that guide life and social interaction today were once taught as methods for shepherding society toward enlightened collectivist goals. I was quite surprised to learn, for instance, that the expression, “male chauvinism,” which entered the mainstream with late-1960s Feminism, was being used by Communists in the ’40s and early ’50s.
Philbrick cites Party teaching about gender equality back then…
“A growing girl can look forward to motherhood, but she should not be taught that this is her only function …. Boys who want to be modern have to include girls in their games when they play soldier….”[Remember, this was the immediate post-war period, and Communists had no objection to militarism in the cause of national liberation.]
“If we prepare our children for their vanguard role, we must not hem them in by the narrow restrictions of conventional middle-class sex patterns of behavior.”
Gee, those old Reds really were in the vanguard.
In 2014, all of this seems positively quaint. And yet what’s happening right now carries so many echoes of the Cold War. Russian tanks sit at the Ukraine frontier, even as James Michener described them waiting in 1980s Poland.
I pray that there are potential Herbert Philbricks among us now — and a potential Ronald Reagan, or perhaps even a clear-seeing Pope — dedicated individuals willing to do their part in what John Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” to defend freedom. Since, as it turns out, that struggle hasn’t ended, after all.
Of course, the Russians may be overplaying their hand in one respect. Associated Press reports that Pavel Durov, founder of Russia’s leading social media network, VKontakte (In Contact), has fled the country, as “cronies of President Vladimir Putin have made steady inroads into the company’s ownership.”
Talk about your Red Menace — that ought to get people’s attention. I mean, annexing Crimea is one thing. But gobbling up social media — that’s serious. This could threaten international online gaming.
We can only hope that, as America came through the first Cold War in decent shape, some future Conelrad-like humor website can look back on the second Cold War with sufficient smugness to demonstrate that freedom prevailed.
Meanwhile, duck and cover!
PHOTOS: (upper) Herbert Philbrick testifying at the trial of Communist Party leaders in 1949; (lower) Richard Carlson playing Herbert Philbrick in the TV series, “I Led 3 Lives.”
For those too young to understand the reference, “Duck and Cover!” was the instruction given to us kids during school air raid drills.
In the event of a nuclear blast, we were to duck under our desks or out in the hallway, and cover our heads and faces for protection against flying debris. Nowadays, that’s often seen as pointless and silly. But, your chances of surviving a nuclear explosion are entirely dependent on how far you are from the epicenter. So at a survivable distance, protecting head and face from flying debris makes a good deal of sense.
The Conelrad website pokes fun at such practices. But perusing it can provide some insights into the concerns of the Cold War period — as long as you don’t let its mocking tone obscure the very real dangers we faced at the time.
Here’s a link to the Associated Press report on Pavel Durov, founder of the social media network, VKontakte, “a wunderkind often described as Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg,” who has resigned his post as CEO and left the country…
I believe both James Michener’s Poland and Herbert Philbrick’s I Led 3 Lives are currently out of print, but both are well worth reading. Check your local library.