Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix II Segment 4/4
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Palmer was a liberal and progressive. His intention was "to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories." He was particularly impressed that "the result of the arrests of January 2, 1920, was that there was a marked cessation of radical activities in the United States. For many weeks following the arrests the radical press had nearly gone out of existence in so far as its communistic tendencies were concerned"; and, in general, the organizations "had been completely broken."17 Among the notable achievements of the period was the sentencing in March 1919 of presidential candidate Eugene Debs to ten years in prison for opposing the draft and "savage sentences for private expressions of criticism" of the war along with "suppression of public debate of the issues of the war and peace," as the ACLU was later to record.18

Palmer's belief that the state has the authority to prevent these seeds from germinating is within the general American tradition. The mass media, the schools, and the universities defend ideological orthodoxy in their own, generally successful, ways. When a threat to reigning doctrine is perceived, the state is entitled to act.

After World War I, labor militancy menaced established privilege. J. Edgar Hoover portrayed the 1919 steel strike as a "Red conspiracy." A subsequent miners' strike was described by President Wilson as "one of the gravest steps ever proposed in this country," "a grave moral and legal wrong." Meanwhile the press warned that the miners, "red-soaked in the doctrines of Bolshevism," were "starting a general revolution in America."19 The Red Scare, Murray Levin observes, "was promoted, in large part, by major business groups which feared their power was threatened by a leftward trend in the labor movement"; and they had "reason to rejoice" at its substantial success, namely, "to weaken and conservatize the labor movement, to dismantle radical parties, and to intimidate liberals." It "was an attempt -- largely successful -- to reaffirm the legitimacy of the power elites of capitalism and to further weaken workers' class consciousness." The Red Scare was strongly backed by the press and elites generally until they came to see that their own interests would be harmed as the right-wing frenzy got out of hand -- in particular, the anti-immigrant hysteria, which threatened the reserve of cheap labor.

The Red Scare also served to buttress an interventionist foreign policy. Diplomatic historian Foster Rhea Dulles observed that "governmental agencies made most of these fears and kept up a barrage of anti-Bolshevik propaganda throughout 1919 which was at least partially inspired by the need to justify the policy of intervention in both Archangel and Siberia." In line with his concept of self-defense, already discussed, John Lewis Gaddis puts the point a bit differently: "the Red Scare, with its suggestion that even the United States might not be immune from the bacillus of revolution," was one of the factors that engendered "American hostility toward Communism." The reasoning is instructive.20

The pattern then established has persisted in many ways, until today. In the 1960s, as the effect of post-World War II repression waned and a wide range of popular movements began to develop, the FBI launched one of its major programs of repression (COINTELPRO) to disrupt them by instigating violence in the ghetto, direct participation in the police assassination of a Black Panther organizer, burglaries and harassment of the Socialist Workers Party over many years, and other methods of defamation and disruption.21

These programs were exposed just at the time when the nation was scandalized by Nixon's Watergate capers and the press was hailed, or denounced, for its aggressiveness in pursuing his misdeeds, barely a tea party in comparison with the programs of the nation's leading subversive organization under the direction of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Once again, history was kind enough to contrive a controlled experiment to allow us to evaluate the reaction to Watergate. The conclusions are unequivocal. Attention was limited to the relatively minor infringement of the rights of people and organizations with power and influence; the far more serious crimes against the powerless were scantily reported, and never entered the congressional proceedings.22

The lesson of Watergate is stark and clear: the powerful are capable of defending themselves, and the press may offer them some assistance, to the applause of some, the dismay of others, depending on the degree of their commitment to the goverment's right to control the public. The decision to focus attention on Watergate, hailed by the media as their proudest moment, was yet another cynical exercise in the service of power.

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17 Davis, Powers, op. cit.

18 Robert J. Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America (Schenkman, 1978).

19 Levin, op. cit.

20 Dulles, The Road to Teheran (Princeton, 1945), cited by Levin, op. cit; Gaddis, The Long Peace, 37.

21 On the continuing FBI policies of subversion and repression, often they were allegedly terminated, see Ward Churchill and James Vander Wall Agents of Repression (South End, 1988) and Cointelpro Papers (South End, 1989).

22 The bombing of Cambodia did enter the proceedings, though not the final indictment, but in a specific form: not the murder of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of rural Cambodia, but the failure to notify Congress properly. Again, the prerogatives of the powerful are the criterion.