In war on terror, Trump plays two roles
agents. He would wave papers saying that he had a list of communist agents serving in the State Department, but never actually showed the list to anyone. He also charged, after the election, that George C. Marshall, who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II and then secretary of defense and state, was himself a communist agent. McCarthy had a huge following. The apparent failure of the United States had to be explained. The Korean War wasn’t going well, casualties mounted and by the time of the election, it was a stalemate. Using nuclear weapons had been rejected. The Soviets had set up puppet regimes in eastern Europe and there were large communist parties in France and Italy, while communist-driven civil wars had been fought in Greece and Turkey. In addition, there was a wave of strikes in the United States. In one strike, Truman drafted all railway men into the Army to keep the trains running – a move that some perceived as having communist overtones. Given the tensions, the case that communists had influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt when he met with the leaders of the U.K. and Soviet Union in Yalta and had weakened the United States everywhere was persuasive.
McCarthy’s opponents saw him as a fascist and believed he was trying to drive liberals out of government and into prison. Some of his opponents also believed that there was no communist threat and that it had been manufactured by McCarthy’s ambition to impose a reign of terror in the United States. The fact that the Soviet Union was ruled by Josef Stalin did not give them pause. McCarthy made it all up, they asserted. And McCarthy used the criticism to demonstrate that his critics were communists.
This was the framework in which the 1952 election took place, and lest you believe I am exaggerating, the reality was ten times as intense. The United States was being torn apart between the fear that the U.S. had fallen under the control of the communists and the left’s view that McCarthy was part of a fascist plot. Eisenhower and Stevenson were nominated at a time when primaries didn’t dominate the landscape, so the party bosses picked two candidates who were relatively moderate. But the country was likely more divided then than today, kept in check by centrist and credible candidates.
The country was even more divided in 1968. The leading candidate of the Democratic Party, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated on the night he won the California primary. This happened two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The tensions over the Vietnam War had reached a boiling point. The Democratic convention was held in Chicago with 10,000 demonstrators as well as police and national guards in the streets. There were over a thousand injuries, and police raided the offices of Eugene McCarthy, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, and arrested his staff.
The anti-war movement was powerful, but it went beyond being an anti-war movement. A large part of it morphed into a movement arguing that the Vietnam War was not only an imperialist war but a war fought to generate cash and support the economy. Others went further, claiming that the United States was utterly corrupt and a revolution was needed to redeem it. Had this been simply an anti-war movement, it might have won over the public. But it became an attack on American life – or else appeared to be.
Richard Nixon cast himself as the spokesman for the silent majority, as he put it. The demonstrators did not represent America, he claimed. Rather than defend the war, he cast the demonstrators as opposed to all things American – and the extremes of the movement played into his hands. He made the election about American values.
In the war on terrorism, Donald Trump plays two roles. He argues it was a mistake to go into Iraq and wants to leave. He simultaneously argues that we are losing the real war on Islamist terrorism, and blames Barack Obama and Clinton for the U.S.’ weakness. It is not altogether clear what role Clinton plays at this point, but the entire war has not yet sorted itself out as the others did.
There are always other issues, such as the economy in 1952 and 2016, or opposition to the “Great Society” programmes introduced by Johnson. None of these are simple. But the fact is that the United States has had elections that were seen at the time as a total breakdown of a coherent order. All are different. But they have two things in common: they are all seen as unprecedented (and in a sense they are) and all three came at a point where everyone was frustrated by a war that couldn’t be won.
What is noteworthy about both 1952 and 1968 was that the more extreme elements were defeated. McCarthy was crushed, and Eisenhower governed for those who were neither McCarthyites nor insensitive to the communist threat. The anti-war movement was also crushed. In 1972, when pro-war Nixon faced anti-war George McGovern, Nixon devastated the anti-war movement. Those who recall the anti-war movement as forcing an end to the Vietnam War tend to forget the election. Later, Nixon was destroyed by Watergate. Gerald Ford formed a government that neither sided with the counterculture, as it was called, nor tolerated Nixon-style government.
Healthy societies have a tendency to reset themselves after imbalances appear. During turbulent times, it is difficult to imagine the country finding its balance again. However, it is remarkable how quickly after McCarthy was crushed and the anti-war movement scattered, the third force – those enraged at the other two factions – reasserted itself. From 1953, when Eisenhower was sworn in, until the middle of Johnson’s campaign, there was a period of relative stability. From 1974, when Nixon resigned, until now, there was another period in which there was enough consensus that the election of either candidate did not arouse fears of disaster.
American politics are rough, but the sense that the current situation is unprecedented comes from Americans’ failure to remember their own history. To this point, the 2016 election has not broken any records. It is interesting to look at the aftermath of 1952 and 1968 to get a sense of where the United States goes from here.
I might add that the foreigners, who really don’t begin to understand the United States, would also be well served to remember what followed the self-destructive phases the U.S. puts itself through. As it recovered from each, it reasserted itself and forgot what came before. Having no sense of history sometimes is beneficial.