In early 1947 President Harry Truman was hunting -- unsuccessfully -- for a way to persuade a war-weary Congress to give him $400 million in economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey. At a crucial White House meeting with congressional leaders, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson transformed the terms of debate: Only the United States could stop Soviet communism's drive to dominate the world, and Greece and Turkey were vital pieces of this grand strategy.
The powerful Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich., liked the argument, and told Truman that the president could get his aid program if he would "scare hell out of the country." Truman obliged with a fateful speech recasting world affairs into an endless global battle between freedom and tyranny, asserting American responsibility "to support free peoples" resisting "armed minorities" or "outside pressures" everywhere in the world. Two weeks after this announcement of the "Truman Doctrine," the administration instituted a loyalty program for federal employees. The Cold War was on in earnest.
The strategy worked. For decades, Congress, supported by public opinion, gave presidents everything they asked for, as long as it was labeled "defense" or "national security." And Americans learned to live in and with fear. Fear of communism, fear of nuclear war, fear of reducing military spending, fear of insurrections in small countries all over the globe, fear of China, fear of "aliens," fear of "subversives."
Take one particularly tragic example. The hugely popular President Lyndon Johnson, after trouncing Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, felt so afraid of being considered "soft on communism" that he kept the United States fighting in Vietnam even when he knew the war was a loser.
For many Americans, the Cold War meant a different kind of fear: fear of being put on a blacklist; fear of being investigated by the FBI; fear of having subscribed to certain magazines; fear of belonging to a union; fear of supporting racial integration; fear of being subpoenaed by a congressional committee; fear of being seen as opposing the government; fear of being fired for political beliefs.
Now, barely 15 years after the end of the Cold War, the fear is back. And our leaders seem energized by it. Just as presidents enjoy wars more than they admit -- the troops make such great photo ops -- those charged with "national security" get bigger budgets, more press, more respect, and more influence when fear is on the rise.
Look what's happening to us.
• Fearful officials in Miami spend millions to intimidate (read "scare") thousands of free-trade demonstrators -- and many more nondemonstrating residents -- in the name of "security," while elected leaders take a powder.
• Local police raid a high school in Goose Creek, S.C., for drugs, and with guns drawn, "scare hell" out of kids, and their parents, while the principal hides behind the cops.
• U.S. forces topple Saddam Hussein to increase American security, and Attorney General John Ashcroft defends the government right to examine records of the books you and I check out of the library.
• President Bush exults in the capture of Saddam Hussein, and our "terror alert" goes up.
• We enter the holidays, in which many traditions celebrate lighting candles against the long dark nights, and -- you guessed it -- the "terror alert" goes up.
• Christians are still celebrating the wonderful idea that truth and salvation could arrive in the form of a vulnerable child -- while our leaders, many of them professedly religious, insist that security comes from riot gear, weapons, wiretaps, investigations and secret detentions.
So, as the Romans asked, "Cui bono?" "Who benefits?" When asking uncomfortable questions is considered "unpatriotic"? When Code Orange convinces members of my wife's congregation to cancel their plans to visit grandchildren? When riot gear replaces debate? When towns lean on churches that open their doors to debate? When we're invited to report "suspicious activity" to the "authorities"?
The answer is breathtakingly simple: the people in charge of "security." They benefit from more authority, more money, and more deference whenever the terror alert goes up. These are the folks who don't want questions asked, who have yet to apologize for anything they've done since before 9/11.
Most of us need something different from our holidays, and from our leaders. We need an affirmation that real security comes from openness and vulnerability and a passion for truth and justice, not from being closed and protected and armed and secret. We light candles and string lights in the darkness because they promise more than all the Orange Alerts and bomb blasts and police lights in the world. Our leaders could see that, and stop trying to "scare hell" out of us.
Warren Goldstein, a summer fellow of the University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, is the author of "William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience," which will be published early next year.
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