Sunday, 30 December 2007

How 'Political' is Crisis Management?

According to Gelber and Vromen the “political is not only what is done by governments…it is also about the way power is distributed, negotiated and contested in all parts of our lives” (Gelber & Vromen 2005: 317). Drawing some impetus from this observation, if we accept that the division of state and society is an artificial construct, an argument can be readily constructed that crisis and disaster management is an inherently ‘political’ activity. However, this reductionist argument does not provide sufficient explanation of the ‘political’ nature of crisis and disaster management. In the interest therefore of securing a more expansive definition this paper will argue that there are three dominant paradigms that seek to define crisis and disaster management as a form of social construction.

The first paradigm is the dominant functionalist one of crisis and disaster management that presents it as a challenging part of effective governance. The second paradigm is that of the conspiracy theory. The third paradigm is that of the progressive. A critical examination of these paradigms will reveal that they all share a conception of crisis and disaster management being ‘political’, but differ markedly in the repercussions arising from this for the exercise of power. The assassination of President Kennedy, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina will prove of crucial importance in clarifying the respective differential focus of each of the paradigms I have identified.

Turning then to the functionalist paradigm for crisis and disaster management, what is at stake is the identification of ‘political’ activity that must be satisfactorily addressed in order to achieve sound governance. Although the exact definition of crisis and disaster management remains contested in the academy, there remains a broad agreement with respect to the latter that the field is defined by governmental and societal responses to ‘natural’ disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes (Boin 2005: 154). Crisis scholars have a broader field of interest encompassing the identification and official response to the belief that “the core values of a system…have come under threat. It is often assumed that such a threat requires the urgent reaction of leaders” (Boin 2006: 86). Scholars in this field recognise crisis and disaster management to be ‘political’. Boin et al assert “crises are political at heart” (Boin et al 2005: ix).

It can be inferred from Boin et al that this paradigm has a somewhat functionalist character in its emphasis upon system stability (Marshall 1998: 241). Accordingly the normative viewpoint adopted is that of the government and the strategies available to it in order to successfully manage crises and disasters. A key objective is for the state to avoid what Habermas terms a ‘legitimation crisis’, arising from the failure of governmental crisis management (Habermas 1973: 69). As I shall argue, this prioritisation of the reproduction of political power can be fruitfully contrasted with the emphasis on social change entailed by the other paradigms.

The normative character of the functionalist paradigm can be illustrated through consideration of pertinent operational examples. On 22 November 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. This event was experienced as a severe national trauma with international repercussions (Brinkley 1999: 1033) requiring urgent and effective crisis management. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was swiftly installed as the new President. In order to minimise perceptions of Cuban or Soviet involvement in the assassination, which may have heightened international tensions, Johnson appointed a federal commission chaired by Chief Justice Warren to report on the assassination. The commission eventually concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible. By individualising the threat to the American state in the form of a lone assassin, the functionalist paradigm could claim by its criterion to have averted a ‘legitimation crisis’ (Dallek 2004: 699).

Another traumatic event for the US was the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 resulting in the deaths of 3,000 people. Part of the governmental crisis management strategy was to request a report from a bipartisan national commission on the question of “how did this happen?”. The 9/11 Commission Report of 2004 detailed the intelligence and security failures that help make the attacks possible, and made extensive recommendations for policy changes aimed at preventing future attacks, notably in administrative, border and immigration policy. The report also attributed responsibility for the attacks to a plot amongst foreign Islamic terrorists (Wikipedia 2006). Under the terms of this paradigm, the commission report could be counted a successful governmental crisis response: witness the widespread acclaim with which it was greeted by not only sectional interests, such as politicians and the media (Boin et al 2005: 114), but also the general public. Many of its recommendations were adopted (Boin et al 2005: 115). It is not surprising then that much of the academic discourse on 9/11 has been framed in terms of the reporting of the commission.

Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in September 2005, was reported as the biggest ‘natural’ disaster in US history, resulting in more than 1500 deaths and nearly 1 million people being made homeless. However, unlike the assassination of President Kennedy and terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US governmental crisis management proved to be, as admitted by President Bush, “inadequate” (Gawenda 2006: 12). Katrina resulted in an ongoing ‘legitimation crisis’ for the Bush administration, with its competence being widely questioned. Consequentially, there has been a sharp decline in Bush’s popular approval. In terms of this disaster the functionalist paradigm has steadfastly focused on the failed emergency response and instrumentalist means for improving it in future (Gawenda 2006: 12).

Regarding the functionalist paradigm as seeking only to preserve its own interests at the expense of the greater good, its more populist opponents have chosen to disregard the imputed categorical separation between crisis and disaster (Smith, Denis 2006: 8). Attempting to indicate the conceptual incoherence that can result from this critical move, journalist Christopher Hitchens has characterised the conspiracy theory paradigm as “the white noise which moves in to fill the vacuity of the official version” (Hitchens 1993: 14 cited in Fenster 1999: xiv). By the same token, Hitchens would concede the possible identification of one overarching component: populist conspiracism is concerned with what it regards as the power of ruling elites over all aspects of political and social life. Hence, for conspiracy theorists the true nature of power (ie those controlling government) is hidden and only discernible by those aware of the conspiracy. Which is to say, power is most commonly explained by conspiracy theorists in terms of the secret control exercised by various social, ethnic or even supernatural elites in pursuit of their own nefarious ends (Fenster 1999: xiv). Conspiracism is critical of the existing political order and yearns for a new order based on (largely undefined) transparency and goodness (Fenster 1999: 225). In this regard, it might be said, along with Hitchens, that the paradigm fails to articulate an agenda for moving from plot detection to transformative political movement (Fenster 1999: 226).

It is demonstrably the case that under the conspiracy theory paradigm crisis and disaster management is a very different type of ‘political’ activity to that conceptualised in the functionalist paradigm. Typically crises and disasters are interpreted by conspiracy theorists for their ‘secret’ meaning, ie, what machinations of the power elite they reveal. Hence the representative examples selected for the functionalist paradigm serve equally well to illustrate that of the conspiracy theory.

Consider how speculation about the Kennedy assassination has come to embody the conspiracy theory paradigm in light of the fact that the majority of the American people have rejected the findings of the Warren Commission as demonstrated in opinion polling (Dallek 2004: 698). Conspiracy theories have nominated disparate elements from international (Cuba, Vietnam, the USSR) to the domestic (mafia, military industrial complex, Lyndon Johnson) as being behind the assassination (Dallek 2004: 699). Each of these theories have conceptualised the assassination as a ‘political’ act that involved the hidden play of power.

In spite of the wider credibility of the 9/11 Commission Report, conspiracy theories have vigorously sought to challenge its findings. In a complete inversion of the official enquiry, some conspiracists have maintained that the attacks were ‘facilitated’ by the Bush administration and government agencies. In some versions of this theory the ‘facilitation’ took the form of a deliberate failure by the administration to prevent them. In others the ‘facilitation’ involved the Bush administration actually planning and executing the attacks to further its own agenda (Griffin 2005: 5).

Amongst the African-American communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the governmental crisis disaster management response was conceptualised in far more sinister terms than “inadequate”. Conspiracy theories have gained wide currency by appealing to the sense of neglect and victimhood common to those most affected by this tragedy. They allege that government officials, in order to flood out black and poor neighbourhoods, deliberately smashed the levees. Lack of government progress in rebuilding these neighbourhoods is considered to be indicative of the continuing nature of the conspiracy (Gawenda 2006: 12).

The progressive paradigm articulates a radically differing version of crisis and disaster management as a ‘political’ activity to that offered by its populist relative. It does share with the conspiracy theory paradigm a critical attitude to the existing political order and a yearning for a better one. This paradigm also shares the critical attitude that crisis and disaster management is reflective of the interests of the power elites behind the state. However, what differentiates it from the conspiracy paradigm are three constitutive features. Firstly, its political analytical focus is upon institutional, structural or systemic phenomena, rather than the secretive machinations of elite individuals or groups (Fenster 1999: 57). Secondly, its epistemological approach is more rigorously scholarly in drawing upon verifiable documentation of the impact of institutional structures on political activity. Finally, its analysis is intended to lead to progressive political activity to deal with structural inequality, whereas conspiracy theorists engage in disempowering scapegoating of individuals (Fenster 1999: 58). How this paradigm differs from the other two is made apparent through consideration of its interpretation of the Kennedy assassination, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Conspiracy theories linking the assassination of President Kennedy with his perceived desire to pull out of Vietnam have been critically analysed by the dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky. Chomsky couches his argument in the terms of the progressive paradigm here identified:

“The available facts, as usual, lead us to seek the institutional sources of policy decisions and their stability…People who wish to understand and change the world will do well…to pay attention to it, not to engage in groundless speculation as to what one or another leader might have done” (Chomsky 1993: 38 cited in Fenster 1999: 57).

Chomsky points out that the foreign policy of the Kennedy administration was consistent with the Cold War policy pursued by his predecessors and successors (Chomsky 1993: 38 cited in Fenster 1999: 58). Under this paradigm the assassination of Kennedy was a ‘political’ act but effective systemic crisis and disaster management ensured it did not lead to radical systemic change.

Likewise Chomsky deploys a progressive argument concerning the events of 9/11: “A terrible atrocity, but unless you’re in Europe or the United States…you know it’s nothing new. That’s the way the imperial powers have treated the rest of the world for hundreds of years….If you’re interested in preventing them, of course you’ll pay attention to the reasons” (Chomsky 2003: 15). By this logic, effective crisis and disaster management would entail progressive, fundamental, change to American foreign policy and the interests it serves rather than what is proposed under either the functionalist or conspiracy theory paradigms.

The incompetence of the crisis and disaster management response to Katrina has been widely acknowledged. Under the functionalist paradigm this has tended to focus on criticism of the Bush administration and local authorities; criticism that for conspiracy theorists must be extended to include examination of ulterior motivations. Neil Smith distinguishes himself by articulating a progressive interpretation: “It is not a radical conclusion that the dimensions of the Katrina disaster owe in large part not just to the actions of this or that local or federal administration but the operation of a capitalist market more broadly, especially in its neo-liberal garb” (Smith, Neil 2006). He proposes that the victims should decide how ‘reconstruction’ proceeds in New Orleans and that the billions raised for disaster relief also rightfully belongs to them (Smith, Neil 2006). Systemic change to benefit the victims is central to this vision of crisis and disaster management as a ‘political’ activity.

Although crisis and disaster management can be understood as ‘political’ activity under each of the interpretive paradigms analysed here, I have argued in this paper that it is necessary to highlight the substantive political activity. Political activity is framed under the functionalist paradigm as a technical matter, in terms of what strategies are available to government and civil society to deal with systemic disruptions. The other two paradigms present an even more ‘political’ conception of crisis and disaster management in their focus upon the fundamental nature of power it reveals to them. The similarities though are somewhat deceptive. Whereas the conspiracy theory fails to articulate a sound critical strategy for analaysis or ultimate political action, the progressive perspective provides the most ‘political’ characterisation by insisting that crisis and disaster management has to be based upon critical, scholarly, structural analysis. Of paramount importance to a progressive perspective is finding ways of reconstructing the systemic inequities that lie behind crises and disasters. These differences should by now be apparent in light of the differing interpretations of the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina favoured by each of the three paradigms in question.


Boin, A., t’Hart, P., Stern, E. & Sundelius, B. (2005), The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boin, A. (2006), ‘Organizations and Crisis: The Emergence of a Research Paradigm’, in D. Elliott and D. Smith (eds.) Key Readings in Crisis Management: Systems and Structures for Prevention and Recovery, Basingstoke: Routledge (2006).

Brinkley, A. (1999), American History A Survey Volume II: Since 1865, New York: McGraw-Hill College.

Chomsky, N. (1993), Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture, Boston: South End Press.

Chomsky, N. (2003), Power and Terror: Post-9/11 Talks and Interviews, New York: Seven Stories Press.

Dallek, R. (2004), John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, London: Penguin.

Fenster, M. (1999), Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis: The University of Minneapolis Press.

Gawenda, M. (2006), ‘Katrina Goes To Washington’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 2006, p.12.

Gelber, K. & Vromen, A. (2005), Powerscape: Contemporary Australian Political Practice, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Griffin, D. R. (2005), The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions, Northampton: Olive Branch Press.

Habermans, J. (1973), Legitimation Crisis, Boston: Beacon Press.

Hitchens, C. (1993), For the Sake of Argument, London: Verso.

Marshall, G. (1998), Dictionary of Sociology (second edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, D. (2006), ‘Crisis Management – Practice in Search of a Paradigm’, in D. Elliott and D. Smith (eds.) Key Readings in Crisis Management: Systems and Structures for Prevention and Recovery, Basingstoke: Routledge (2006).

Smith, N. (2005), ‘There’s No Such Thing As A Natural Disaster’, Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social
Sciences, , accessed 28 October, 2006.

Wikipedia (2006), ‘The 9/11 Commission Report’, Wikipedia online encyclopedia,, accessed 27 October, 2006.

Assesssing the 1993 Waco Siege

This paper seeks to assess the effectiveness of the crisis response by the US federal government at Waco. Waco was the greatest disaster in the history of US federal law enforcement (Lynch 2001). It resulted in the largest number of deaths of federal law enforcement officers in an official operation, and the greatest number of civilian deaths resulting from such an operation (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 16). The failure of the crisis response to achieve its operational goals is attributable to faulty sense and decision making. The poor quality of the sense and decision making will be explained via reference to Rodney King syndrome, groupthink, organizational identity and high reliability organisations. The only positive aspect of the crisis response was the double-loop learning it induced amongst federal law enforcement. Operational examples will be integral to this assessment which reveal it to be part of a chain of interdependent events.

On February 28, 1993, 100 agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) arrived at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, with a warrant to search for illegal guns and to arrest the Davidians’ leader David Koresh. A 45-minute gun battle ensued resulting in the deaths of four ATF agents and five Davidians with sixteen agents injured as well as a number of the Davidians (McCarthy 1993: 17). Subsequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assumed operational responsibility from the BATF at Waco. The FBI then maintained a 51-day siege of the Davidians, which ended on April 19, 1993, when they stormed the compound building lobbing tear gas canisters in and bulldozing it. A fire broke out which consumed the building. Eighty-nine Davidians were killed, including Koresh and twenty-five children (Blumenthal 2003: 54). There were only nine survivors (Clinton 2004: 499).

In terms of its law enforcement objectives the government crisis response has to be classified as a failure. The BATF brief was to execute a modest warrant to arrest Koresh and search the Davidian premises for illegal guns. There were viable non-violent options available for achieving this, which the BATF chose to ignore. Koresh could have been arrested outside the property as he visited an auto repair shop, junkyard and on a weekly basis a local diner during February 1993 (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 80). Koresh also had a history of complying with requests from government officials. In 1987 he had peacefully submitted to arrest and seizure of his guns (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 91) and he had allowed an official of the Texas Department of Child Protective Services to search the Davidian property on two occasions – without a warrant in 1992 (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 92).

Instead of pursuing the non-violent options of seeking to arrest Koresh outside the compound or to enlist his co-operation, the BATF and FBI both opted for military-style raids resulting in much loss of life. The BATF raid of 28 February, 1993, created an operational crisis. The FBI raid on April 19, 1993, brought this operational crisis to an end, but created a political crisis in the process owing to the further tragic loss of life involved. The political crisis dragged on for years and included official investigations and legal proceedings (Boin et al 2005: 98). It wasn’t until July 2000, when John Danforth (a former Republican senator), acting in his capacity of special counsel for the Department of Justice, issued an investigatory report, in which the government was exonerated of all charges of responsibility for the deaths at Waco (Blumenthal 2003: 54). Attorney General Reno, who authorised the FBI raid, admitted in 1994, “Obviously, I saw what happened, and knowing what had happened, I wouldn’t do it again” (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 292). President Clinton confessed in 2000 to having made a “terrible mistake” in allowing the FBI raid to proceed and that he felt “personally responsible for what happened” (Herbeck & Michel 2004: 380).

The ineffective crisis response needs to be understood as a failure of sense and decision making. This will be explained via reference to the conceptual tools of Rodney King syndrome, groupthink, organizational identity and high reliability organisations.

Vance McLaughlin and Steve Smith offer one explanation for this erroneous sense and decision making. They use Waco to illustrate what they term Rodney King syndrome: law enforcement officials always desiring to be in control of any situation. When they fail to bring an unusual suspect under control using approved tactics and techniques officials tend to become frustrated, angry, and ultimately violent. One justified the FBI raid on the basis that, “These people had thumbed their noses at law enforcement” (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 165). Part of the justification given for the planned raid by Reno to Clinton was that, “the FBI was tired of waiting” (Clinton 2004: 498). They had mounted a 51-day siege which they feared left them appearing ineffective and not in control of the situation (Gibbs 1993: 41). The FBI also wanted a redemptive “victory” over the Davidians to avenge the deaths of the four BATF agents (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 211).

Groupthink refers to extreme agreement seeking amongst members of elite groups. Groups afflicted by this tendency generally have unrealistic expectations as to their ability to prevail in a crisis (Boin et al 2005: 47). In t’Hart’s opinion, groupthink is notably prevalent in “the repressive and military parts of the state apparatus” (t’Hart 1990: 156). Another characteristic of groupthink noted by t’Hart is, “the tendency to become entrapped in a spiral of ineffective policies.” (t’Hart 1990: 280) as groupthink often leads the members of the elite group to value their group above everything else. Elite groups also tend to ignore risks, which affect only the stereotyped outgroup (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 211). All of these groupthink characteristics were present amongst the federal law enforcement officials at Waco and helps to explain their “ineffective policies”. For example, the FBI held much false optimism regarding the chances of success of their planned high-risk paramilitary raid, in spite of the disastrous failure of the BATF raid. Groupthinking was also apparent in the BATF indifference to the risks their raid would pose to the ‘stereotyped outgroup’, ie, the Davidians. The 1993 internal Treasury investigation into BATF conduct at Waco found that in planning the raid the BATF showed little or no concern about the likelihood of civilian casualties. In fact, one official memo revealed that BATF recognized that “casualties are probable” (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 81).

Mitroff and Pauchant in their study of the crisis management capacity of healthy and unhealthy companies, concluded that the fundamental difference between such companies lay in their organizational identity. Unhealthy companies are labelled ‘self-inflated corporations’ and are characterised by their narcissistic nature (Mitroff & Pauchant 2006: 138). They consider a crisis to be something that happens primarily to them (Mitroff & Pauchant 2006: 139) rather than to clients or the environment. ‘Positive self-regard corporations’ are exactly the opposite. The characteristics of the ‘self-inflated corporation’ are readily identifiable in the policy decisions of the BATF and FBI during the Waco crisis. For example, in the reasons offered by the FBI to Reno to justify the raid (which she had to authorise) the FBI appeared to be overly concerned with the impact of the crisis on their own organisation. These included “the FBI was tired of waiting; that the standoff was costing the government a million dollars a week and tying up law-enforcement resources needed elsewhere” (Clinton 2004: 498). It is also apparent in the BATF determination to go ahead with their raid despite the fact “casualties are probable” (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 81).

Boin, McConnell, and t’Hart argue that: “high reliability organisations (HROs) have a particularly well-developed capacity for lesson-drawing…Their systems and cultures are ingrained with the pre-emption of errors, systematic adjustments, learning in the event of tragedy, and a deeper ‘deutero’ learning i.e. learning how to learn…” (Boin, McConnell & t’Hart 2006: 16). Unfortunately, the BATF and FBI in 1993 did not qualify as HROs. They had not learnt from previous tragedies of a comparable nature to Waco, which occurred in Philadelphia, Arkansas and Ruby Ridge.

On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police bombed the communal home of the MOVE sect after an earlier attempt by a large group of police to serve arrest warrants there resulted in a gun battle. Eleven members of the cult died as a result of the bombing; there were only two survivors. An official city investigation into the incident concluded, “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable” (Wikipedia 2006) $32 million in compensation has been paid to the victims’ families (Wikipedia 2006).

During Clinton’s tenure as governor of Arkansas a right-wing extremist group had established an well-armed and secure compound in the mountainous north of the state. Amongst the residents were two murder suspects. The FBI asked Governor Clinton for permission to storm the compound. He refused permission after obtaining a situational assessment from a Vietnam veteran who informed him that at least fifty agents would be killed in such a raid. Instead Clinton ordered the compound be put under a state of siege and blockade to prevent anyone leaving or supplies getting in. The group (including the murder suspects) ultimately surrendered with no loss of life. To Clinton’s later regret, he allowed himself to be persuaded by the FBI arguments for their planned Waco raid, rather than insist they adopt a policy of action based on the example of Arkansas (Clinton 2004: 498).

The most egregious example of federal law-enforcement failure to engage in lesson-drawing is provided by the 1992 incident at a cabin in Ruby Ridge, northern Idaho. Randall Weaver was a white supremacist who had been indicted for selling illegal shotguns. After failing to appear in court he holed up with his family at his home. On 21 August 1992, three federal marshals surveying the Weaver property ran into Weaver’s son Samuel and friend Kevin Harris. A gunfight ensued which left one marshal and Samuel Weaver dead. The FBI then laid siege to the Weaver cabin for the next 10 days. An FBI sniper shot and killed Randy’s wife and wounded Randy and Harris. Harris, Weaver and his three daughters finally surrendered after talking with an independent negotiator (Tharp 1993: 33). Weaver and Harris were ultimately acquitted of murder and conspiracy and the Weaver family was paid $3.1 million in compensation by the federal Justice Department (Walter 1995: 453). Richard Rogers, FBI tactical commander at Waco, also served at Ruby Ridge, as did senior FBI officials Larry Potts, Danny Coulson and Michael Kahoe who acted as advisers to Reno on Waco (Lynch 2001). It seems that Rogers, Potts, Coulson, and Kahoe had all failed to take any lesson-drawing from the botched operation at Ruby Ridge.

According to Miglani et al “Crises are composed of many loosely coupled interdependent events often taking place in geographically dispersed locations and at different times. Each event sets the stage for others to occur in a chain reaction that proliferates the crisis” (Miglani et al 2006: 36). This critical insight is of assistance in achieving contextual understanding of the crisis response at Waco. Waco needs to be understood as the culmination of the violent, military style of law enforcement all too often favoured as a crisis response by the American authorities; particularly the FBI. This was apparent in Philadelphia, Arkansas and Ruby Ridge leading up to Waco.

The failure of law enforcement to engage in lesson-drawing resulted in another tragic interdependent event at Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, the federal building there was blown up with the loss of one hundred and sixty eight lives. Timothy McVeigh, the principal bomber, justified his actions in writing to Gore Vidal: “Foremost, the bombing was a retaliatory strike: a counter-attack, for the cumulative raids (and subsequent violence and damage) that federal agents had participated in over the preceding years (including, but not limited to, Waco)” (Vidal 2002: 290).

The failed operational response at Waco had a “paradigm-shattering” quality (Boin et al 2005: 121) which finally stimulated double-loop learning in federal law enforcement. This involved setting “new priorities and weightings of norms, or by restructuring the norms themselves together with associated strategies and assumptions (Boin et al 2005: 121). The learning process began at the top and continued down to middle-level and street-level bureaucrats.

In July 1993, for example, President Clinton dismissed the director of the FBI, William Sessions because of dissatisfaction with his performance, particularly at Waco (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 237). When Clinton interviewed Louis Freeh for the job he asked him what he thought of the FBI claim that they had to proceed with the raid because it was “wrong” to keep so many resources invested in the one operation over a prolonged period. Freeh replied “They get paid to wait” (Clinton 2004: 530). Clinton subsequently appointed Freeh. Richard Rogers, FBI tactical commander at both Waco and Ruby Ridge, was also replaced in late 1993 (Blackman & Kopel 1997: 236).

The profundity and success of the learning experience was shown by how the FBI next handled a situation similar to Waco. In 1996 the FBI laid siege to a militia group, the Montana Freemen, at their compound in Jordan, Montana, who were wanted over tax fraud and harassment charges. The siege lasted eighty-one days and ended peacefully with the negotiated surrender of the Freemen. The estimated cost for the operation was $50 million and although a significant drain on FBI resources for nearly three months, priority was given to avoiding loss of life, unlike at Waco. No requests were submitted for permission to storm the compound. FBI behaviour was more befitting a ‘positive self-regard corporation’ than a ‘self-inflated corporation’.

Crucially, the learning process extended to the middle-level and street-level bureaucrats whose behaviour determines the outcome of law enforcement policies (Boin et al 2005: 126). They were aware that TV images of BATF and FBI agents storming the Davidian compound at Waco had led to negative perceptions of them; the National Rifle Association had labelled them “jack-booted government thugs” (Fenster 1999: 34). These perceptions had culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing (Herbeck & Michel 2001: 379). Instead of wearing the Kevlar helmets and black uniforms of Waco that were befitting of “the repressive and military parts of the state apparatus” (t’Hart 1990: 156), at Jordan the FBI were wearing casual clothes. Government armoured vehicles were noticeable by their absence. At Waco FBI agents had to endure the 51-day siege without relief. In Jordan agents were rotated after no more than two weeks (Jakes, Jakes & Richmond 1998: 259). The FBI offered repeated assurances through the media that no assault would be made on the compound. Due care was taken to avoid provocation of the Freemen (Jakes, Jakes & Richmond 1998: 266).

The crisis response of federal law enforcement agencies at Waco cannot be considered effective. The modest operational objective was to execute a warrant to search for illegal guns and to arrest the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. He had a history of co-operation with law enforcement officials and left the Davidian compound on a number of occasions in February 1993. Nonetheless, the BATF chose to attempt a military-style raid, which failed. After a seven-week siege, the FBI decided to repeat the earlier mistaken strategy of the BATF, and again raid the compound. This resulted in even greater loss of life and the creation of a political crisis. Understanding this ineffective crisis response requires application of the conceptual tools of Rodney King syndrome, groupthink, organizational identity and high reliability organisations. This reveals that the worst features of these concepts were present amongst the law enforcement officials at Waco and serves to explain their very poor sense and decision making during the crisis. Indeed, Waco must be understood as part of a chain of interdependent events such as the disastrous raid at Ruby Ridge, which resulted from the same sort of sub-optimal sense and decision making processes which, in turn, helped foster further crises, in particular, the bombing at Oklahoma City.

These connections eventually came to be recognised by federal agencies, prompting them to undertake a process of double loop learning. As such, the only positive that can be derived from the Waco crisis response is that it did ultimately lead to the adoption of improved response policies and practices as revealed in the successful avoidance of any repeat of Waco. A pertinent operational example is provided by the peaceful resolution of a similar crisis to Waco that occurred three years later at Jordan, Montana.


Blackman, P. H. & Kopel, D. B. (1997), No More Wacos: What’s Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It, Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Blumenthal, S. (2003), The Clinton Wars: An Insider’s Account of the White House Years, Melbourne: Viking.

Boin, A., t’Hart, P., Stern, E. & Sundelius, B. (2005), The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boin, A., McConnell, A., & t’Hart, P. (2006), ‘Crisis Politics: How It Affects Public Leaders, Policies and Institutions’, work in progress posted on Paul t’Hart ANU website,, accessed 11 September 2006.

Clinton, B. (2004), My Life, London: Hutchinson Books.

Fenster, M. (1999), Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis: The University of Minneapolis Press.

Gibbs, N. (1993), ‘Fire Storm in Waco’, Time, 3 May 1993, pp.22-41.

Herbeck, D. & Michel, L. (2001), American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & the Oklahoma City Bombing, New York: HarperCollins.

Jakes, C., Jakes, D. & Richmond, C. (1998), False Prophets: The Firsthand Account of a Husband-Wife Team Working for the FBI and Living in Deepest Cover with the Montana Freemen, Los Angeles: Dove Books.

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McCarthy, P. (1993), ‘Apocalypse Vow’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1993, p.17.

Migliani, A., Miller, D., Mitroff, I. I. & Shrivastava, P. (2006), ‘Understanding Industrial Crises’, in D. Elliott and D. Smith (eds.) Key Readings in Crisis Management: Systems and Structures for Prevention and Recovery, Basingstoke: Routledge (2006).

Mitroff, I. I. & Pauchant, T. C. (2006), ‘Crisis Prone Versus Crisis Avoiding Organizations: Is Your Company’s Culture Its Own Worst Enemy In Creating Crises?’, in D. Elliott and D. Smith (eds.) Key Readings in Crisis Management: Systems and Structures for Prevention and Recovery, Basingstoke: Routledge (2006).

t’Hart, P. (1990), Groupthink in Government: A Study of Small Groups and Policy Failure, Amsterdam: Swets and Zeitlinger.

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The meaning of the Oklahoma City Bombing

On April 19, 1995, the worst act of terrorist violence ever perpetrated by American citizens in their own country took place. At 9.02 A. M., the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was devastated by the explosion of an oil-and-fertiliser bomb located in a Ryder truck parked outside. The explosion killed one hundred and sixty eight people and injured more than five hundred people (Herbeck and Michel 2001: xi). Denis Smith considers that crises can be the product of a terrorist attack (Smith 2006: 6) and the Oklahoma City bombing will be treated as such. There have been conflicting attempts to frame the meaning of this crisis. Its portrayal by the American media changed with developments in the crisis. Despite cautionary pleas from the government the media initially chose to portray the crisis as being brought about by foreign, Islamic terrorists. Ultimately the media coverage came to be dominated by the counter-frame presented by the government leader President Clinton. This can be largely attributed to his public communication ability.

Boin et al have opined that in ambiguous crisis situations people’s expectations colour what they perceive to be happening. They point out that in the confused immediate aftermath of the bombing many people erroneously assumed that a conspiracy of Islamic terrorists were behind it (Boin et al. 2005: 31). This was reflected in the mainstream media coverage of the crisis. It was commonly asserted in the media that the bombing had been carried out by Muslim terrorists. Editorials called for military action. The Boston Herald editorial of 20 April, 1995, called for “a bombing campaign of such ferocity that the guilty country is rendered militarily helpless” (Linenthal 2001: 244). On the day of the bombing TV host Connie Chung claimed that “U.S. government sources told CBS news that it has Middle East terrorism written all over it” (Linenthal 2001: 18). Various terrorism “experts” were quoted in the media offering similar opinions such as the former CIA director William Webster. Talk radio shows were highly inflammatory in their language concerning the threat posed by Muslims. For example, the Bob Grant Show declared “we’re going to have more bombings, and we can’t stop it, because these people…it’s a violent religion” (Linenthal 2001: 18). There were a number of violent incidents directed against Muslim Americans around the country in the first few days after the bombing including physical assaults and vandalising of mosques (Linenthal 2001: 18).

Initially the government engaged in the form of impression management that Boin et al term “masking” (Boin et al. 2005: 87), ie, they were not revealing all operational details whilst they tried to ascertain the perpetrators. The only counter-frame offered was to warn that it was too early to blame Islamic terrorists. President Clinton (Clinton 2004: 651) and Oklahoma governor Frank Keating both issued public statements to this effect. These did little to dampen media enthusiasm for framing the crisis as the product of Islamic terrorism (Linenthal 2001: 19).

The framing debate around the crisis dramatically changed on 21 April, 1995, with the FBI arrest and charging of two white Americans (Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols) in connection with the bombing. The media then changed their framing of the crisis from it being the result of a conspiracy between Islamic terrorists to it arising from a conspiracy amongst the right-wing domestic militia movement (Fenster 1999: 228). McVeigh and Nichols were portrayed as reactionary terrorists operating in collusion with the militias who were considered to constitute a “post-Vietnam American Freikorps” (Linenthal 2001: 24). The Omaha World Herald claimed that the militias were “dark forces on the far edges of society….A tiny minority, still a lunatic fringe group” (Linenthal 2001: 24) Vogue characterised militia membership thus “In the best case scenario these guys vote for David Duke or buy ‘the truth about Waco’ videos at militia meetings: in the worst (Linenthal 2001: 24), you get guys holed up in the Ozarks with tanks plotting to overthrow the government and kill all the Jews” (Linenthal 2001: 25). Time magazine of 8 May, 1995, opined that the bombing happened at the “delusional margins” (Linenthal 2001: 20).

Statements from representatives of the movement assisted negative media framing of the militia movement. Although they strongly denied involvement in the bombing they damaged their credibility by also claiming that a governmental conspiracy was actually behind the bombing (Linenthal 2001: 25). Linda Thompson, of the Disorganized Militia of the U.S.A., stated, “I definitely believe the government did the bombing. I mean who’s got a track record of killing children?” (Hamilton 1996: 44) Frank Smith of the Georgia Militia commented “We expected them to do something drastic. We didn’t expect it to be that drastic” (Hamilton 1996: 44). Even more bizarrely Norm Olson, “Commander” of the Michigan Militia (the nation’s largest), asserted that the Japanese government had carried out the bombing in revenge for the American government carrying out the poison gas attack in Tokyo on March 20, 1995 (Fenster 1999: 28).

The revised media framing enhanced the crisis credibility of President Clinton. Credibility is recognised as a crucial factor in crisis communication (Boin et al 2005: 78). Clinton had enhanced his by offering a different message to the media coverage. He had warned that Muslim terrorists were not necessarily responsible at a time the media was framing them as the culprits. The subsequent arrest of McVeigh and Nicholls vindicated his counter-frame.

President Clinton’s adroit handling of crisis communication enabled him to transform his political fortunes. They were at their lowest ebb when the crisis hit. The 1994 congressional elections had led to the opposition conservative Republican party establishing firm majorities in both houses of the US Congress which left the Democratic President Clinton beleaguered and unpopular (Brinkley 1999: 1134). Rituals are a vital part of crisis communication (Boin et al 2005: 84) particularly for an American president. For example, Ronald Reagan’s presidential stature increased after his impressive handling of the role of “mourner-in-chief” (Walker 1996: 338) for the Challenger crew. When Clinton successfully assumed the same role at the national day of mourning in Oklahoma City on 23 April, 1995, his presidential stature was also enhanced (Walker 1996: 338). His subsequent public speeches and appearances were credited with offering further solace to a nation profoundly disturbed by the crisis (Clarke 2004: 97).

Having further bolstered his credibility by impressively carrying out his “sacerdotal duty” (Walker 1996: 338) Clinton was in a position to transform the framing into a “agenda-setting” crisis with a “frame-breaking” aspect (Boin et al 2005: 96). U.S. political dialogue had come to be dominated by right-wing anti-government rhetoric, much of it directed at Clinton. In its most virulent form it came from popular radio talkshow hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. Post-Oklahoma City much of this rhetoric now carried an ugly resonance. Republicans now found themselves wary of being associated with the radical right in the same way that Democrats had been concerned about the radical left in the 1970s (Walker 1996: 338). Clinton sought to expand his counter-frame in order to exploit this political opportunity. Notably, this would allow him to take the high moral ground in criticising his most fervent media opponents. In his words, “For the next few weeks, in addition to hammering away at those who condoned violence, I asked all Americans, including radio talk-show hosts, to weigh their words more carefully, to make sure they did not encourage violence…” (Clinton 2004: 654).

He succeeded in influencing the mainstream media. Harper’s posited that mainstream conservatism helped “legitimate the world view of the Oklahoma City bombers” (Linenthal 2001: 35). The New Yorker mused on 8 May, 1995, “The point…isn’t that Limbaugh or…caused the killing. It is that they never seemed to have given a moment’s thought, as they addressed their audiences, to the consequences of stuffing so much flammable resentment into such tiny bottles” (Linenthal 2001: 35). Later Clinton reflected with satisfaction, “The haters and extremists didn’t go away, but they were on the defensive and…would never quite regain the position they had enjoyed before Timothy McVeigh” (Clinton 2004: 654). Clinton’s skilled handling of the Oklahoma City crisis began his political comeback, which culminated in his landslide reelection victory in 1996 (Walker 1996: 338).

The “agenda-setting” crisis with a “frame-breaking” quality also had a legislative aspect. In March 1995 Clinton had submitted to Congress anti-terrorism legislation that included provision for one thousand additional federal staff, a new FBI counterterrorism operational centre, and legal approval for military experts to be involved in handling domestic terrorism issues (Clinton 2004: 651). It was designed as a government response to the World Trade Centre bombing of 1993. The legislation was controversial because it expanded federal surveillance powers and it generated intense debate (Linenthal 2001: 30). The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was signed into law on 24 April, 1996, by Clinton. Its successful passage into law can be attributed to Oklahoma City serving as a symbol or risk and the need to combat the nation’s perceived vulnerability to terrorism. It had stalled in Congress up until that time and had looked unlikely to pass (Fenster 1999: 36).

The Oklahoma City bombing serves as an instructive example of crisis framing. In the confused, immediate aftermath of the attack erroneous expectations of the involvement of Islamic terrorists defined the frame of the event presented by domestic media. The modest counter-frame presented by government leaders, President Clinton and Governor Keating, questioning this assumption did not unduly influence media coverage. However, the subsequent arrest of McVeigh and Nicholls two days after the bombing fundamentally altered the framing of the crisis. The media framing changed to blaming American right-wing extremists. The framing of the government leader President Clinton also changed. With his credibility enhanced by his cautionary initial counter-frame and his performance as “mourner-in-chief” Clinton was able to reframe the crisis to criticise his political opponents and call for greater government resources to combat terrorism. The success of this strategy is reflected in much of the media adopting this approach and the Congressional passage of Clinton’s antiterrorism legislation. The ultimate
lesson of Oklahoma City seems to be that a crisis brought on by a terrorist event presents great political opportunities for leaders with the communication skills to frame it in accordance with their own agenda.


Boin, A., t’Hart, P., Stern, E. and Sundelius, B. (2005), The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brinkley, A. (1999), American History: A Survey, Volume II: Since 1865, (tenth ed.), New York: McGraw-Hill College.

Clarke, R. (2004), Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, New York: Free Press.

Clinton, B. (2004), My Life, London: Hutchinson Books.

Fenster, M. (1999), Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis: The University of Minneapolis Press.

Hamilton, N. A. (1996), Militias in America: A Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc.

Herbeck, D. and Michel, L. (2001), American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & The Oklahoma City Bombing, New York: Regan Books.

Linenthal, E. T. (2001), The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, D. (2006), ‘Crisis Management – Practice in Search of a Paradigm’, in D. Elliott and D. Smith (eds.) Key Readings in Crisis Management: Systems and Structures for Prevention and Recovery, Basingstoke: Routledge (2006).

Walker, M. (1996), Clinton: The President They Deserve, London: Fourth Estate Limited.

What is an ‘un-American’ activity?

Achieving an academic analysis of heterogeneous self-perception amongst the American people is dependent upon analysis of the implications of un-American activities. American self-perception is distinguished by the extent to which it is based upon liberal ideology with its emphasis upon individualism. Liberalism has come to define debate in America as to what being an American means. In other western nations heterogeneous self-perception has been deeply influenced by important societal alternatives to liberalism in the form of right-wing classical conservatism and the major left-wing ideologies of socialism, communism and anarchism. These ideologies stress communal rather than individual interests. In understanding why these important ideologies have made such little impact upon shaping the American character necessitates reference to the history of un-American activities. This history reveals that massive violence and repression have played an integral role in preventing ideological and societal alternatives from being adopted. Key events to be examined in this context include the American Revolutionary War, the Nativist movement, Populist movement, conflict between the interests of labor and capital in the late nineteenth century, the Red Scare, and McCarthyism and its aftermath.

In order to establish an analytical framework, definitions of the major ideologies must first be established. The relevant ideologies are the American creed, liberalism, conservatism and socialism, communism and anarchism. The American creed constitutes a somewhat vague ideology that has been subject to ongoing debate since the earliest writings on this topic by Alexis De Tocqueville and Hector St John de Crevecoeur. At the onset of the twenty-first century the following definition would be accepted in most mainstream American circles. In political institutional terms Americanism is embodied in the written Constitution, representative/federalist democracy and individual freedom and opportunity. Economically it stands for laissez-faire style free markets. The civic version represents pragmatism, personal activism and most importantly egalitarian individualism. 1

1. B.S.Turner, Religion and Social Theory, London, 1991, p.55.

By contrasting Americanism with liberalism the parallels become readily apparent. Classical liberalism took shape in the eighteenth century and has always been based around the ideal of freedom. This ideal has encompassed individual civil freedom, free and democratic political institutions, freedom of religion and worship, and a laissez-faire style free-market economy. Contemporary liberalism stresses the rights and entitlements due to religious and racial minorities, civil liberties and a dual commitment to a free economy and government intervention to reduce poverty and social disadvantage. 2 Americanism and liberalism therefore both clearly share an emphasis on individualism and freedom.

The other major ideologies, during the life of the American republic, of conservatism and the left-wing ideologies differ markedly from Americanism and liberalism. Conservatism embodies a preference for stability in the political and social order of any society; profound societal change is disapproved of. By tradition it supports deference and an acceptance of inequality and property. State intervention is only considered justifiable at the margins and is kept to a minimum. 3 As contemporary political discourse in America is largely framed in terms of conservative (represented by the Republican Party) versus liberal (personified by the Democratic Party) it would invite ridicule from many Americans to suggest that their creed had not been significantly influenced by conservatism. Comparison of the central ideological tenets of conservatism and liberalism reveals some similarities such as stressing the need for law and order and considering the free market the best economic model. It also confirms that American conservatives are best understood as classical liberals rather than true conservatives given their emphasis upon freedom, particularly economic, rather than deference and the need to maintain the established order. American conservatives have never embraced the traditional conservative concept of noblesse oblige. Indeed the modern Republican Party is distinguished by representing the most anti-statist and anti-welfare mainstream western democratic party in existence. 4

2. A.Bullock & O.Stallybrass (ed.), The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London, 1977, p.347.
3. ibid., p.132.
4. S.M.Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, New York, 1997, p.289.

The influence on Americanism of left-wing ideologies is not readily apparent. Socialism is best understood as proposing a model of society based upon communal ownership of the means of production and distribution. 5 This objective is also shared by communism but without the emphasis on democratic values and without differing between communal and state property. 6 Anarchism advocates the abolition of all government authority to be replaced by voluntary association between individuals and groups. 7 Communal ownership of property is not an ideal echoed in the American creed. The anti-statist character of Americanism may sound somewhat similar to anarchism but is in reality better understood as derivative of classical liberalism.

This view of the distinctive character of heterogeneous self-perception amongst the American people has been championed by an influential group of historians and social scientists writing in the second half of the twentieth century. Most notable amongst them has been Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset. American exceptionalism has been the focus of their major works stressing the unique character of the national creed with its liberal, middle-class orientation favouring individualism, equality of opportunity and liberty. For example, Louis Hartz has argued that America is distinguished by “The moral unanimity of a liberal society….” 8 They have expressed concern about paranoid and anti-intellectual populist tendencies (most famously in Richard Hofstadter’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and his book “The Age of Reform” with its negative assessment of the Populism movement), manifested most notably in the hysteria of McCarthyism. Ultimately, they have found reassurance in the belief that the quest for individual material advancement and the diverse character of American society serve to effectively retard resentment-based politics. 9 Richard Hofstadter believes that, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” 10

5. Bullock & Stallybrass, op.cit., p.589
6. ibid., p.117.
7. ibid., p.22.
8. L.Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution, Chicago, 1955, p.10.
9. J.A.Hall & C.Lindholm, Is America Breaking Apart?, Princeton, 1999, p.152.
10. Lipset, op.cit., p.18.

However, there are problematic aspects to their analysis. It fails to acknowledge adequately that American ideology serves to conceal the class system and injustice because of its emphasis on egalitarian individualism, which assumes that wealth is the result of character rather than class. 11 The American creed was not a predetermined ideology or purely the result of benign historical development; alternative ideologies and societal models were characterised as un-American and violently repressed. Furthermore, in light of recent scholarship it is also clear that this violence and repression can largely be attributed to the machinations of political elites rather than irrational populist movements. 12

Prior to the Revolutionary War the states that were to form the basis of the American republic were colonies of Great Britain.They were outposts of Britain and as such were part of a Constitutional Monarchy system of government. Society was based on a traditional conservative model with great deference being paid to the monarch and respect for the inherited aristocracy and the upper classes. The nature of American society was to change dramatically as a result of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. The Revolutionary War between the colonists and Great Britain was a remarkably brutal affair with casualties amongst the Americans approaching 5,000; a high figure during this period. 13 This violent war enabled America to claim its independence from Great Britain and discredited the traditional conservatism embodied in the British State. In the aftermath of the war up to 100,000 conservative loyalists fled America. 14

11. Hall & Lindholm, op.cit., p.153.
12. ibid., p.152.
13. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 1: To 1877, New York, 1999, p.151.
14. ibid., p.169.

In the process of creating their constitution and federal system of government there was much disagreement and debate amongst Americans. However, all were agreed that their governments must be republican in character with power being derived from the people rather than any supreme authority placed above the people such as a monarch. 15 Another vital part of the American creed that emerged at this time was the notion of equality. This has been eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” 16 (brinkley p.175 vol 1) In this concept America’s radical departure from the traditional conservatism practised by European societies of the period is made apparent. European societies of this period were distinguished by their rigid class systems into which people were born with little prospect of upward mobility. By contrast the new citizenry of America considered that they were living in a society where people were born into a position of equality with their fellow Americans. Their individual ability and energy rather than the situation they were born into would determine their position in society. Social disparities were to be expected but people would have to earn their higher positions. Equality of condition was not envisioned but full equality of opportunity was considered a birth right. Gordon S. Wood explains, “Far from remaining monarchial, hierarchy-ridden subjects on the margin of civilization, Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world.” 17

America had been formed out of a bloody revolutionary war and the revolutionary ideas that fuelled it became the basis of the American creed; ideals clearly related to eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism. In other countries heterogenous self-perception and national identity had been based upon the common history of the people. European nationality was related to community ties. Given this basis in common history and community ties dating back centuries it is impossible to become un-French or un-English. As America was forged by a group of short-term colonists who claimed their nationhood through a revolutionary war a lengthy common history and long-term community ties could not constitute the basis for an American identity. To become an American was to make an ideological commitment to the values of the new republic. 18

15. Brinkley, op.cit., p.174.
16. ibid., p.175.
17. G.S.Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, New York, 1993, p.7.
18. Lipset, op.cit., p.31.

The nature of the ideological commitment was articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943, “The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart. Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.” 19

Commensurately, those who reject the values of the American creed are by definition alien and un-American. 20 This attitude had first begun to emerge even during the Revolutionary War and the nascent stages of American nationalism. Thomas Paine’s January 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” urged his fellow citizens to break with an English kingdom and its monarch who was deemed to be morally and ideologically unfit to rule America. 21 The Declaration of Independence, approved by Congress on July 4 1776, listed all the crimes allegedly committed by the king with the assistance of the British Parliament. These had the effect of violating the king’s “contract” with the American colonists thus rendering him unworthy of their loyalty. 22 Thus the moral and ideological impurity of Great Britain, considered to be alien and offensive to the colonists, served as justification for the severing of historical and community ties with Britain and the forming of a republican state with its basis in different values.

The American creed established at the creation of the new nation has proved itself to be open enough to interpretation to allow ongoing debate as to its properties and limits during the history of the republic; a debate characterised by violence and opponents being labelled un-American. This history reveals that in the majority of cases political elites utilise violent repression and a narrow definition of the meaning of Americanism to destroy ideological opponents inimical to their interests. There is an important populist exception to this provided by the ongoing immigration debate in America.

19. A.M.Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, New York, p.37.
20. W.Preston, Jr., Aliens & Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933, (second ed.), Chicago, p.282.
21. Brinkley, op.cit., p.152.
22. ibid., p.156.

The liberal tone of the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution was also reflected in the constitutions adopted by most states. 23 This tolerant attitude was reflected in early immigration policy. The rhetoric of Emma Lazarus engraved on the Statue of Liberty was indicative of policy during this epoch, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” 24

For most of its history America’s political elite has supported immigration as a necessary stimulus to the nation’s economy. The country’s first president, George Washington, declared that, “The bosom of America is open…to the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.” 25 This tolerant attitude has not always been shared by the general population who have occasionally violently challenged the right of immigrant ethnic and religious minorities to be considered true Americans worthy of the creed.

The original populist challenge to immigrants arose in the first half of the nineteenth century. Wars in Europe had kept immigration to America at minimal levels for the first decades of the nineteenth century. 26 This changed dramatically in the 1830s with increasing opportunities in America occasioned by its industrial revolution and reduced transportation costs accompanied by deteriorating economic conditions in Europe. Immigration increased from a level of 41,000 during the period from 1821 to1825, to a net total of over 4 million between 1840 and1860. 27 This triggered off alarm amongst many Americans and the rise of nativism, a defense of native-born people and hostility to foreigners; particularly amongst workers concerned about losing their jobs to foreigners.

23. R.A.Billington, The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism, (third ed.), Chicago, 1964, p.24.
24. D.F.Crosby, God, Church, and Flag: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Catholic Church 1950-1957, Chapel Hill, 1978, p.250.
25. Schlesinger, op.cit., p.24.
26. Brinkley, op.cit., p.326.
27. Brinkley, op.cit., p.331.

The number of Catholics amongst the foreigners caused alarm amongst Protestant Americans. Anti-papal prejudice had strong roots in American society dating back to the original colonists who were largely Protestant and either escaping Catholic persecution or a Britain whose major enemies were the Catholic countries of France and Spain. Settlement ships containing Catholics had discriminatory head taxes levied upon them by the colonies. Those colonies offering inducements for immigrants to settle there carefully specified that these were not applicable to Catholics. 28 Full civil rights, including that of open worship, were not granted to Catholics until the American Revolution. 29 Catholicism appeared suspiciously un-American given its emphasis on central authority at the expense of individual freedom and because of its adherents loyalty to the, non-American, Pope based in Rome. 30 This engendered doubts about the capacity of Catholics to make the necessary ideological commitment to Americanism. There was a whole industry dedicated to anti-Catholic propaganda (societies, papers, magazines etc) that helped engender populist hatred 31 and lead to the rise of nativist groups such as the Sons of ’76, the Order of United American Mechanics, the American Brotherhood and most importantly the Know-Nothings.

Populist resentment against immigrants attained sufficient intensity to translate into violence. 1844 saw Philadelphia wracked by rioting, violence and property destruction including the burning of Catholic churches and nunneries. 32 Nativist sentiments peaked in the 1850s with many of the organised groups joining together in 1850 to form the Supreme Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Its policies included preventing the foreign-born from holding public office, and voting rights being made provisional upon literacy testing and tougher naturalization laws. 33 They did not advocate restrictions to immigration; they lobbied for the naturalization laws to be changed. During this period immigrants had to wait for five years before becoming eligible for citizenship. The nativist groups wanted the waiting period changed to twenty-one years to ensure sufficient time for immigrants to become Americanized before receiving the right to citizenship. 34 The Order adopted a password for use in its different lodges, of “I know nothing.” Consequently, the movement became known as the “Know-Nothings.”

28. D.M.Reimers, Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration, New York, 1998, p.6.
29. ibid., p.7.
30. J.Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, New Brunswick, 1955, p.6.
31. Billington, op.cit., p.220.
32. loc.cit.
33. Brinkley, op.cit., p.332.
34. Reimers, op.cit., p.11.

In 1852 they created their own political party; significantly the name chosen for it was the American Party. They enjoyed significant electoral success in the 1854 elections in the northeast of the country where immigrants were most heavily concentrated 35 but only modest support elsewhere. Their political campaigns attracted violence and disorder and led to their being labelled a party of drunken thugs by their opponents. 36 Millard Fillmore, a former president, agreed to run as their candidate in the 1856 presidential election. 37 He finished behind the Democratic and Republican candidates but still attracted a respectable 871,371 votes; 21.6% of the popular vote. 38 After this election the Know-Nothings quickly faded from view as the nation turned its attention to the sectional divisions that would ultimately result in the Civil War. 39

The historical importance of the Know-Nothings needs to be emphasised. Their story provides a blueprint for the fate of all the subsequent nativist movements. They provided a populist challenge to the notion that new immigrants and minorities should be accorded the rights and opportunities accorded to Americans in the national creed. Their driving motivation was reactionary sentiment produced by a sense of displacement of power and status; they held immigrants to be responsible. 40 In popularity they peaked during a time of profound societal change, the first stage of its industrial revolution. 41 Ultimately, they failed in their quest to change the concept of Americanism in large part due to much of the public finding their rowdiness and violence unsavoury, and because of their failure to attract the vital support of the country’s political elite. The disdain they were viewed with by much of the elite is illustrated by Abraham Lincoln’s 1850s comment that, “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’” 42 This pattern is clearly repeated with the nativist movements that appeared after the Know-Nothings.

35. McAvoy, op.cit., p.2.
36. Brinkley, op.cit., p.333.
37. Higham, op.cit., p.29.
38. Brinkley, op.cit., p.A-25.
39. Billington, op.cit., p.430.
40. S.M.Lipset & E.Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970, London, 1971, p.3.
41. ibid., p.30.
42. Schlesinger, op.cit., p.30.

Historically the best know and most influential of the nativist groups has been the Ku Klux Klan. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest formed the Klan in 1866 as a secret society dedicated to subverting the Reconstruction regimes imposed on the southern states after the Civil War and restoring the old order with African-Americans being forcibly returned to their former position in society. It was the largest of the southern paramilitary organizations that wreaked havoc over the next five years. They killed approximately a thousand white republicans and African-Americans. 43 Casualties included an Arkansas member of Congress and three representatives from the South Carolina legislature. 44 The Klan enjoyed significant support amongst white southerners who considered them to represent a military force battling against northern occupation. The debilitating impact on the Reconstruction regimes of the Klan’s violent resistance is illustrated by Congress passing two Enforcement Acts, in 1870 and 1871, which became known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts and President Grant sending in federal troops to occupy nine counties in South Carolina in October 1871. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested by Federal troops and the Klan went into recess. However, their violent tactics had proved successful in helping to ensure that Reconstruction was largely a failure in its efforts to change a racist southern society in which the American creed was only considered to be applicable to white southerners. 45

The Klan was revived in 1915 and attained national, as opposed to merely southern, prominence in the 1920s with its brand of Americanism. Post-war America underwent radical flux as it started to transform itself into a consumer-based, urban and industrial society. In the first twenty years of the twentieth century immigration had reached record levels with over 14,500,000 migrants being admitted. 46 With traditional small-town America and its morality being eroded by these enormous social changes and the cities being flooded with immigrants many white native-born Americans became concerned about the direction the country was moving in. The Klan exploited skillfully resurgent nativist fears of foreigners, Catholics, African-Americans and Jews and declining traditional morality. Membership of the Klan expanded rapidly on a national basis from the rural south to urban areas of the Midwest and North. Membership numbered 3 million by 1923; by 1924 it had risen to a peak of 4 million.

43. D.M.Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan 1865-1965, Garden City, 1965, p.2.
44. Brinkley, op.cit., p.523.
45. ibid., p.533.
46. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, New York, 1999, p.741.

The political elite and business community had traditionally stood firm against nativist immigration demands. However, the strength of populist nativist sentiment, clearly illustrated by the prominence of the Klan, was such that Congress responded to it by slashing immigration levels. The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 cut the approved annual immigration level from 800,000 to 300,000. This was followed by the National Origins Act of 1924, which reduced European immigration and banned outright any immigrants from East Asia. In 1929 a rigid annual total of 150,000 was set as the allowable number of immigrants. 47

By the end of the 1920s the Klan had waned to the point that it only had 100,000 members due to their corrupt leadership and vigilante violence attracting public revulsion and it never regained the popularity it had enjoyed in the early part of this decade.48 They had helped to cow the political establishment into only allowing approximately 7,700,000 immigrants for the forty year period from 1920 to 1960. 49 Only 528,000 immigrants were allowed in during the 1930s when the liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. 50 During World War Two the Roosevelt administration declined the opportunity to offer asylum to hundreds of thousands of Jews who subsequently perished in the Nazi holocaust out of fear of domestic anti-Semitism. 110,000 Japanese immigrants and their native-born children were interned in camps for the duration of the war as it was not felt that their commitment to American could be relied upon. 51

This victory of nativist sentiment did not signify a permanent reshaping of the American creed. In the aftermath of World War Two the national economy boomed fostering a more tolerant attitude regarding foreigners and other minorities such as Jews and Catholics. Business wanted immigration increased, as did the government, which adopted new immigration policies increasing the intake levels. For the late 1940s the average intake was about 250,000, by the 1950s it was 325,000 and had escalated to 600,000 in the 1980s. A new record was set in 1991 with 1,800,000 and the average intake was 900,000 in the rest of the decade. 52 By the 1980s Europeans amounted to only 10% of immigrant numbers. Mexicans and people from Caribbean nations constituted 50% of the intake and Asians the other 40%. 53

47. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.828.
48. Chalmers, op.cit., p.4
49. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.828.
50. Reimers, op.cit., p.22.
51. ibid., p.24.
52. ibid., p.27
53. ibid., p.28.

With the slowdown in the economy in the 1970s anti-immigration feelings again began to rise. The leading group that emerged at this time was the Federation for American Immigration Reform in 1979 which serves as a representative model of a mainstream anti-immigration group in recent times. This group was formed by law-abiding environmentalists and argues for immigration levels to be reduced dramatically. Their criticism of current immigration policy is based on it causing damage to the environment and economy, the inefficiency of the system, and cultural change. Whilst there is a hint of nativism in the cultural concerns expressed, FAIR and other anti-immigration groups scrupulously avoid racist and religious denunciations. 54 These days only fringe extreme right-wing groups, despised by the general public, denounce immigration with the violent rhetoric employed by the Know-Nothings and the Klan in the past. Undeniably, a degree of nativist sentiment still exists amongst the community. For example, African-Americans became increasingly concerned about levels of immigration fearing that the new immigrants were taking from them jobs and economic opportunities. Asian run stores in black neighbourhoods particularly aroused tensions. In the L.A. riots following the Rodney King case Korean stores were targeted; 700 were destroyed. 55 Realistically nativist attitudes will always exist in America given its highly individualised and competitive nature invariably producing tensions between different groups. Despite lingering elements of racism and nativism the challenge to the inclusive character of the American creed has undeniably failed. Populist Nativist groups like the Know-Nothings and the Klan have won past victories but never succeeded in reshaping the American creed to only embrace native-born white Americans. A 1997 Knight-Ridder poll showed that Americans were equally divided between those who considered current immigration to be positive as opposed to negative in terms of the country’s interests. Two-thirds reported that they were not “at all worried” or “little worried” by the numbers of Asian and Hispanic immigrants or the demographic forecast that eventually Americans of European descent would constitute a minority of the population. 56

Left-wing ideologies and movements have also provided a significant challenge to the liberal ideals of the American creed. The key to their failure to fundamentally alter the core American values can be found in the massive violence and repression directed against them by the political and business elite. This is a recurring pattern in American history and is clearly illustrated by examining the labor and populist movements in the nineteenth century and the events of the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the twentieth century.

54. Reimers, op.cit., p.1.
55. ibid., p.37.
56. ibid., p.148.

The initial rise of left-wing movements in America was related to profound changes to the national economy. At the start of the nineteenth century an industrial manufacturing economy began to develop which was firmly in place by the Civil War. The development of this industry accelerated after the war; by the end of the century the nature of the national economy had been transformed into being based on industrial manufacturing. This transformation created vast wealth, which was enjoyed by industrial moguls and an expanding middle-class. Individualism, an essential element of the American creed, served as the ideological justification for this modern form of capitalism. Supporters asserted that it expanded opportunities for individuals and gave every American the chance to make a fortune. There was not much truth in these claims. Millionaires were almost unknown prior to the Civil War but by 1892 they numbered more than 4,000. A few of them were actually “self-made men”, which almost all millionaires purported to be, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockerfeller. Most tycoons, however, had come from wealthy backgrounds. Their success owed a great deal to ruthlessness, arrogance and even corruption. They made enormous contributions, and occasionally bribes, to the political elite in exchange for favourable treatment. The attitude of most successful tycoons was neatly encapsulated in William Vanderbilt’s remark, “The public be damned.” 57

Industrial workers and farmers found it more difficult to adjust to the changes and did not enjoy the same material benefits from this transformation. 58 Many industrial workers, including women and children, suffered from appalling and dangerous workplace conditions. The American accident rate was the highest of any first-world country. 59

Given their poor conditions, contrasting strongly with the wealth of the tycoons, workers were understandably motivated to challenge the essential notions of the national creed that individualism and equal of opportunity were producing a decent society. Their challenge initially came through trade unions, which advocated socialist values and policies. Business and government immediately responded with violence and repressive measures. The first major strike, the great railroad strike of 1877, set the pattern for what was to follow. After the eastern railroads announced a ten per cent wage cut their workers went out on strike disrupting rail services and rioting in several cities. State militias were deployed against the strikers and President Hayes ordered federal troops to suppress the strikers in West Virginia. In Philadelphia, the Maryland state militia fired upon workers and their families killing twenty. Overall at least 100 people were killed before the strike collapsed. 60

57. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.605.
58. ibid., p.595.
59. ibid., p.614.
60. ibid., p.615.

This pattern was repeated with the Homestead and the Pullman strikes. The Homestead strike of 1892 involved the steel industry owned by Andrew Carnegie and America’s then most powerful union the Amalgamated Association of Iron and SteelWorkers. Carnegie decided to destroy the union. After a series of massive pay cuts the union finally called a strike in July 1892. The company employed 300 guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, notorious strikebreakers; to break up the strikers fortified in the Homestead plant. After a pitched battle the strikers repelled them. At this point the Governor of Pennsylvania sent in 8,000 of the state’s National Guardsmen who successfully expelled the strikers and re-opened the plant with non-union workers. Four months later the union gave up and lost most of its disillusioned membership. 61

By considering the level of violence in its international context a historical evaluation of it can be made. From 1872 until 1914 seven workers died violently in Great Britain, sixteen in Germany, and thirty-five in France. During this period in America between five and eight hundred workers died violently. 62 Clearly then massive violence was deployed against the union movement by a powerful capitalist class supported by government and courts which frequently ruled that union activity constituted an illegal trade restraint. The encoding of property rights in the Constitution gave the tycoons a strong legal position. 63 Using the charge that union activities were un-American also helped the position of big business. This was repeated in the popular press, much of it owned by wealthy tycoons, and helped generate support amongst the middle-class. It also allowed the tycoons to deflect the terms of the debate away from the economic issues, which would have caused greater sympathy for the unionists. 64

61. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.618.
62. Hall & Lindholm, op.cit., p.55.
63. ibid., p.56.
64. E.Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, Princeton, 1998, p.49.

In response to this violence a key element of the industrial working class quickly abandoned socialism for a more pragmatic approach. In 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was created under the leadership of Samuel Gompers and quickly became the most powerful labor organisation in the country. It represented skilled workers and was not inclined to recruit the unskilled. Unlike the socialist Knights of Labor, previously the dominant national labor organisation, the AFL rejected socialism. Gompers thought that socialism could not hope to succeed in America and that capitalism should be accepted. For him the job of the AFL was to secure better wages and conditions for its members rather than propose radical change; a policy consistently maintained by the AFL, which helped to undermine socialism in America. Business interests were more willing to tolerate the AFL given its ability to deliver binding agreements. The AFL was to have some success in delivering benefits to its skilled members; the price was abandoning any challenge to Americanism. 65

The nineteenth-century union movement challenge to Americanism might have been more successful if industrial workers had succeeded in making cross-class alliances. Repressive governmental and legal measures against them when combined with negative press coverage ensured that much of the middle class considered them to be dangerously un-American radicals rather than reformers deserving of their support. 66 Their logical allies would have been the small farmers of the Populist movement who, although not explicitly identifying themselves as socialists, advocated some genuinely left-wing radical policies such as calling for the railroad system to be nationalised and questioned the value of political democracy without economic democracy. 67 This coalition failed to transpire largely due to the failure to reconcile the economic interests of the farmers with the workers. By contrast, a successful peasant-worker alliance in Scandinavia had formed the basis for their social democracy. 68 The Populist movement had disintegrated by the end of the century due in part too violent resistance. In the South Populists were attacked for seeking to join forces with African-Americans. 69 In 1893 the Populists believed they had won control of the state legislature in Kansas. Republican representatives disputed the election outcome and subsequently armed themselves and seized control of the state government. 70 The Populists finally disintegrated after their backing of the unsuccessful Democrat candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election.

65. Hall & Lindholm, op.cit., p.57.
66. ibid., p.54.
67. N.Pollack (ed.), The Populist Mind, New York, 1967, p.xxviii.
68. Hall & Lindholm, op.cit., p.54.
69. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.676.
70. ibid., p.677.

Thus the nineteenth century closed with left-wing challenges to Americanism, in the form of the trade union movement and the Populists, having been violently defeated. The Populists disappeared from the national scene and the unions were terribly weakened. Unionists would have to wait until the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the right to collective bargaining to be granted in The National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This was of decisive importance in America’s history. Never again would leftist forces (socialist, communist or anarchist) have the same opportunity to coalesce into a popular movement and mainstream political party capable of winning government and reforming the meaning of Americanism. 71

The essential weakness of the radical left after the brutal setbacks of the nineteenth century is confirmed by considering the fate of the Socialist Party of America in electoral terms. During the progressive era from 1900 to 1914 the Socialist Party of America was a notable minor party without ever seriously threatening to usurp the dominance of the Democrats or Republicans. Socialist candidates managed to win elections for over 1,000 local and state offices but their limited support is put into perspective by considering presidential elections. Between 1904 and 1932 the Socialist Party fielded a candidate in seven of the eight presidential elections. In proportional terms the most successful election for the Socialist Party came in 1912 when their candidate Eugene V. Debs attracted 6% of the popular vote. This level of electoral support has been exceeded by a number of Independent candidates. Prominent examples include Theodore Roosevelt (27.4% of the popular vote in 1912), Robert M. LaFollette (16.6% in 1924), George Wallace (13.5% in 1968), John B.Anderson (6.6% in 1980), and Ross Perot (19% in 1992 and 8.4% in 1996). 72 The Socialists did not bother to field a presidential candidate again after Norman Thomas only attracted 2.2% of the popular vote in 1932. 73(brinkley P.A-26)

Despite the modest level of popular support enjoyed by the radical left in the first half of the twentieth century they continued to be violently repressed and damned as un-American. Two important examples to be considered are the Red Scare and McCarthyism which reveal clearly the determination of vested business and political interests to resist any challenge to the tenets of the American creed. However, these reactionary forces failed to prevent American values being challenged and modified by the values of contemporary liberalism represented by the New Deal.

71. Hall & Lindholm, op.cit., p.57.
72. Lipset, op.cit., p.86.
73. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.P.A.-26.

The greatest contribution to the Red Scare came from the political elite and their powerful allies in the corporate sector. The groundwork was laid with America’s entry into World War One. President Wilson’s administration demanded unquestioning loyalty and support of the war effort. During a public address on June 14, 1917 President Wilson asserted, “Woe to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution.” 74 Wilson went on to sign draconian legislation including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which dramatically curtailed civil liberties. Extraordinary repressive measures were taken against socialists and anarchists who had the audacity to oppose America’s involvement in the war. Their newspapers were banned and more than a thousand of them were convicted and sent to jail under the espionage and sedition acts including Eugene Debs the four-time Socialist candidate for the presidency. 75

Repression and anxiety had characterised America during its involvement in the Great War leaving it susceptible to further hysteria immediately after the war. In 1919 the Soviets announced their plans to export revolution around the world and in the same year the American Communist Party was formed to stand alongside the modest number of left-wing radicals in the country. 76 Also in 1919 there were a series of bombings, presumed to be the work of radicals, and a wave of national strikes by unions seeking wage increases to counterbalance the escalating inflation of the period. The political elite exploited these circumstances and big business that blew them out of proportion to suggest the country was under threat of a violent left-wing revolt. During a major strike Seattle mayor Ole Hansen, demanded of his citizens, “The time has come for the people in Seattle to show their Americanism…” 77 Federal troops, summoned at Hansen’s request, subsequently crushed the strike and the press hailed Hansen as a patriotic hero. This was but one example of the patriotic furore propagated by the press. In response to the bombings the Buffalo Evening News ventured that, “…the time has come to teach these foreigners a little Americanism.” 78(avrich p.165)

74. P.Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Princeton, 1991, p.5.
75. ibid., p.94.
76. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.800.
77. Avrich, op.cit., 140.
78. ibid., p.165.

The federal government heightened the scare with the Palmer raids. These occurred on New Year’s Day 1920 when the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his aide J.Edgar Hoover launched a series of raids across the country that rounded up suspected radicals. 6,000 people were arrested most of whom were eventually released. Not so fortunate were 500 of them who were not American citizens; they were deported. 79

The success of the government and press in arousing public opinion was testified to by the vigilante action inspired by the scare. Random violence included a mob in Washington forcibly removing an IWW activist from jail and then castrating him before hanging him off a bridge. Many community libraries had supposedly radical books removed from their shelves by concerned citizens. In 1920 two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were convicted of murder in an atmosphere of presumed guilt because they were anarchists and foreigners. Despite the questionable evidence and trial the two were ultimately executed in 1927. 80

The scare though short-lived was ferocious and had important consequences. The labor movement was devastated again, the position of the business community greatly enhanced and any reformist impulse challenging the tenets of Americanism was subdued. Anarchism as a notable underground political movement was effectively eradicated; it never achieved prominence in American society again. 81 The Red Scare brought into the public arena a reductionist version of the American creed called 100 Percent Americanism. As explained by William Preston, Jr. 100 Percent Americanism demanded, “…national unity, conformity, homogeneity, uncritical loyalty, and an acceptance of the status quo….” 82 Anyone not meeting this definition could be labelled as un-American and thus alien and dangerous; a tactic to be deployed again during McCarthyism.

79. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.801.
80. ibid., p.801.
81. R.K.Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920, St.Paul, 1955, p.17.
82. Preston, op.cit., p.4.

The magnitude of the social impact of the Great Depression finally led to a significant re-evaluation of American values. The commencement of the Great Depression in 1929 marked an economic downturn unprecedented in American history with a terrible social impact. 25 percent of the American workforce was unemployed by 1932. In the industrial Northeast and Midwest rates of unemployment were extraordinarily high. Cleveland had a rate of 50 percent and Akron boasted 60 percent. 83 Rural areas were also devastated with farm income falling by 60 percent during the three-year period from 1929 to 1932 and a third of farmers were forced to give up their land. 84 Many Americans had to turn to private, local and state government relief organisations. This relief system was unable to cope with the demand and in many areas the system collapsed. 85 Given the gross inadequacy of the relief system to cope with the crisis major changes were called for.

These changes came with the election of President Roosevelt in 1932 and his experimental series of programs known as the New Deal. His administration was influenced by contemporary liberal theories and recognised that the traditional American belief in the individual and equality of opportunity were not sufficient to cope with social inequities. Up until this time the federal government had largely avoided relief programs for the disadvantaged. Roosevelt’s New Deal decisively broke with this tradition and created the basis for a modern welfare state with relief programs and a national Social Security system. 86 He greatly expanded the powers of the presidency and federal government. An important consequence of this was an essential component of Americanism being revised. Equality of opportunity traditionally was presumed to be the birthright of every American; with the coming of the Great Depression and the New Deal a majority of Americans finally accepted that this was not necessarily true. Consequently, the American public was willing to support a great expansion in governmental powers to help create greater equality of opportunity.

It is important to clarify that the New Deal did not indicate that Americanism was now embracing the ideals of the radical left. Individualism and the free-market remained the basis of American ideology. President Roosevelt certainly was not a radical; rather he was a contemporary liberal. He conceived his mission to be saving American capitalism rather than destroying it. The welfare policies of the New Deal had been based on those introduced in Britain and Germany by two conservative statesmen, Disraeli and Bismarck, some fifty years previously. 87

83. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.846.
84. ibid., p.847.
85. ibid., p.846.
86. ibid., p.901.
87. Lipset, op.cit., p.21.

Mainstream political debate in America has traditionally been a contest as to which group of policies more effectively embodies the ideals of Americanism; the nature of this debate changed decisively with the New Deal. Ever since the New Deal the debate has been formulated in terms of classical liberal ideals versus those of contemporary liberalism. Classical liberalism has its basis in individualistic, antistatist ideals. Modern liberalism has its origins in a deliberate repudiation of the antistatist classical approach. Contemporary liberalism advocates an activist and powerful state while still supporting individual rights and capitalism. Ever since the New Deal “conservative” arguments have largely been based on the antistatist classical liberal tradition; the arguments of “liberals” have reflected the ideals of the contemporary liberal tradition.

Many right-wing Americans were horrified by the New Deal and by Democrats appropriating the term “liberal’. For example, Herbert Hoover condemned the New Deal as having nothing to do with liberalism. He argued the New Deal represented, “a vast shift from the American concept of human rights, which even the government may not infringe to those social philosophies where men are wholly subjective to the state. It is a vast casualty to Liberty if it shall be continued.” 88

Alarm amongst America’s conservatives was heightened by the prominence of the radical left, most notably the American Communist Party, during the New Deal. In the mid 1930s the Popular Front was created; this was a coalition of antifascist left-wing groups. The most prominent was the American Communist Party. In 1935 Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, had issued instructions for the party to adopt a more positive attitude towards Roosevelt and the New Deal. Subsequently the party began to praise the New Deal and adopted the slogan; “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism”. The Popular Front enhanced the standing of the party as recognition increased of the threat posed by Hitler’s Germany. The party was also active with regard to social issues. It was active in organising the unemployed, black sharecroppers, unions, and the Abraham Lincoln brigade that fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and staged a massive hunger march in Washington. 89 The Socialist Party of America was also active at this time. It sought popular support for its policies and attempted to mobilise, unsuccessfully, the rural poor through the Southern Tenants Farmers Union. 90

88. A.Brinkley, Liberalism and its Discontents, Cambridge, 1998, p.283.
89. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.863.
90. ibid., p.864.

Antiradicalism continued amongst the political elite and business interests during the 1930s who remained concerned about the perceived threat to their interests and the tenets of the American creed. In a preview of McCarthyism tactics congressional committees headed by Hamilton Fish and Martin Dies investigated the allegedly subversive influence of the communists. However, antiradicalism at this time was relatively restrained. The threat of war with Germany and Japan posed a greater danger. The tolerant attitude of the Roosevelt administration also restrained the antiradicals. 91

For all their activism and an unusual degree of official toleration during this period the socialists and communists never threatened to generate the popular support necessary for them to seriously challenge the values of Americanism. American Communist Party membership peaked at 100,000 in the mid 1930s. The Socialist Party’s membership had actually fallen below 20,000 by 1936 never to recover. 92

The Great Depression and World War Two had provided the historical circumstances in which the federal government with popular support had substantially increased its power and in the process led the people to accept a substantial amendment to American ideology. Government was now accepted as having a legitimate role to play in ensuring equality of opportunity; finally this could be considered American as opposed to un-American and alien. Naturally, this caused resentment amongst conservatives and helped fuel a massive backlash and anticommunist witch-hunt that came to be known as McCarthyism.

McCarthyism was a complex; multistranded form of political repression involving thousands of individuals and institutions that was the result of agitation by influential elements of the political elite rather than the general community. 93 To help analyse its significance for Americanism it is necessary to first consider a chronological history of events. McCarthyism effectively began with Republicans attaining control of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1946. Liberal Democrats had dominated the national agenda since the election of Roosevelt in 1932 much to the frustration of Republicans appalled by their policies and reform of the American ideology. The Republicans decided that communism represented the best issue with which to attack the Democrats. HUAC began the offensive in 1947 by announcing investigations to verify that the Democrat administration of President Harry S. Truman was tolerating ongoing communist subversion.

91. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.864.
92. ibid., p.863.
93. Schrecker, op.cit., xvii.

The initial target was Hollywood with alleged communists began called to testify before HUAC. The “Hollywood Ten” who refused to testify were subsequently jailed for contempt and the studios started to blacklist anyone suspected of being a communist. Its next target was a distinguished young diplomat with the State Department, Alger Hiss, who was accused, of passing classified State Department documents to the Soviet Union. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury and imprisoned which helped lend credibility to the HUAC campaign. 94

With public concern mounting President Truman announced in 1947 a loyalty program for federal employees. This program led to 2,000 employees resigning by 1951 and 212 being sacked. The program, as with earlier loyalty programs, failed to provide a clear definition of loyalty; this enhanced the arbitrary and unfair nature of its use. It failed to defuse the issue. 95

Anticommunist sentiments were intensified by the Soviets for the first time successfully detonating a nuclear weapon in 1949. It was widely assumed that this had come about because communists within America had passed nuclear secrets on to the Soviets. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York couple who were members of the American Communist Party, were convicted of espionage concerning nuclear secrets in 1951 and executed in 1953. The “fall” of China in 1949 and the onset of the Korean War with communist North Korea and China also increased Anticommunist feelings. Across the nation institutions sought to purge themselves of communists as fear spread. 96

The Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, skilfully exploited these fears. McCarthy attained national prominence with a speech in 1950 alleging that he had a list of 205 communists who were working in the State Department. He subsequently expanded on these charges against government agencies. In 1952 the Republicans won control of the Senate and McCarthy was appointed the chairman of a special subcommittee charged with investigating communist subversion of government. This gave him free rein conduct his investigations at the expense of government officials whom he frequently slandered as communists without producing supporting evidence. 97 Republicans echoed his claims that the Democrats had been responsible for “twenty years of treason.”98

94. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.982.
95. H.M.Hyman, To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History, Berkeley, 1960, p.343.
96. Brinkley, op.cit., p.983.
97. D.M.Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, New York, 1983, p.507.
98. Brinkley, op.cit., p.986.

McCarthyism and its anticommunist furore finally began to recede in 1954 as shown by the political demise of Senator McCarthy. Following allegations made by McCarthy against the armed forces in January 1954 congressional hearings were arranged to investigate them. The Army-McCarthy hearings were nationally televised and helped discredit McCarthy due to his bullying and reckless style of presentation, which the public found offensive. A December 1954 Senate motion that McCarthy was guilty of “conduct unbecoming a senator” was passed by a large majority. McCarthyism had faded away by the time of McCarthy’s death in 1957. 99

The justification used for the political repression of the McCarthy era was communist espionage. Contemporary scholarship has revealed that HUAC, McCarthy, and his supporters exaggerated the threat of communist espionage. Information recently released from the KGB archives confirms that most American communists charged with illegally transmitting classified information to the USSR during the 1930s and World War Two had actually committed these offences. However, the KGB archives also reveal that this came to an end in 1945 due to FBI security procedures eliminating the KGB’s underground network within the federal government. From this point on the Soviets paid people for classified information rather than recruiting from amongst the ranks of the American Communist Party. By 1947 when the HUAC investigations commenced American communists did not represent an internal security threat to the American State. 100

Exaggerated fears of un-American activities in the form of communist espionage provided the cover for a right-wing counteroffensive against the progressive gains of the New Deal these had re-shaped the American ideology. Under the guise of combating domestic communism a powerful coalition of politicians (predominantly conservative but including liberals who were terrified of being branded soft on communism), bureaucrats (most notably F.B.I. boss J.Edgar Hoover) and activists launched a devastating attack on the American left. They were aided by the willingness of the men who ran the country’s major institutions to overlook civil liberties and sack employees accused of association with the communists. 101

As shown in the chronological history McCarthyism differed from earlier episodes of repression in American history because massive violence was not utilised as a tactic. Only the unfortunate Rosenbergs were killed, a few hundred were jailed and approximately ten to twelve thousand people were dismissed from their jobs. 102

99. A.Brinkley, American History A Survey Volume 2: From 1865, p.1020.
100. Schrecker, op.cit., p.x.
101. ibid., p.xiii.
102. ibid., p.xv.

Despite the comparative mildness of these repressive measures the fear of unemployment was undeniably effective in destroying the challenge posed to Americanism by the radical left. The communists were effectively destroyed even though the party continued to exist. Communists had formed a vital part of the influential Popular Front movement that had helped encourage the New Deal reforms but their influence was now extinguished. The socialists were also eliminated from the American political spectrum. Thus McCarthyism decisively narrowed the range of political options available to the American public.103 Political debate from this time onwards was to be dominated by the contemporary liberal ideals of the Democrats versus the classical liberal beliefs of the Republicans.

McCarthyism also served to decisively weaken the position of the contemporary liberals who dominated the Democratic Party. With the disappearance of the communists and socialists they now found themselves positioned on the left of the political spectrum instead of in the centre where they considered themselves to belong. 104

Progressive liberal reform continued in the 1960s with Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society programs but these programs did not constitute a further challenge to the meaning of the American creed. McCarthyism deeply scarred the Democrats who afterwards strove to avoid appearing un-American by limiting the policy options they would consider and avoiding any challenge to the values of the American creed. Lyndon Johnson told Doris Kearns Goodwin, “…I knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate-a mean and destructive debate-that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy.” 105 Fear of a revival of McCarthyism had clearly influenced Johnson’s Vietnam policy.

103. Schrecker, op.cit. p.369.
104. Schrecker, op.cit. p.412.
105. D.K.Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, New York, 1991, p.252.

Since the late 1960s popular support for contemporary liberal reform has dropped markedly. The success of McCarthyism in destroying the radical left enabled the Republicans to portray the Democrats as a left-wing party rather than a moderate, centrist party. This made the Democrats more vulnerable to charges of radicalism and has aided Republican Party electoral fortunes. The assassination of President Kennedy, Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Monica Lewinsky scandal have all fuelled public scepticism as to the integrity of an activist federal government. The booming post-war economy and the associated consumer culture have also reinforced individualism at the expense of collective concerns. 106 This has all helped to create a political climate in which the Democratic Party has sought to distance itself from the contemporary liberal values that it offered from the New Deal to the Great Society. The Democrats have supported the Republicans in recent years in reducing the scope of the welfare state; indeed it has been a Democrat President, Bill Clinton, who announced that “the era of big government is over.”

Analysis of the history of un-American activities reveals important truths about what it means to be an American. The American creed has been the site of ongoing contestation by different groups within society contrary to the views of some academic proponents of American exceptionalism who prefer to emphasise ideological consensus. There has been intense debate in the American republic since its inception as to the right of the foreign-born and minorities to be considered American. Opponents have normally used the term un-American in their arguments. Only in recent years has there been general acceptance of what the political and business elite have generally argued that being foreign-born does not preclude people from becoming American. Current immigration debate is distinguished by its emphasis on numbers rather than nativist fears.

106. Lipset, op.cit., p.22.

American ideology in its original form was strongly influenced by classical liberal theories. Challenges from other ideologies to reformulate the meaning of the tenets of the American creed have always been violently repressed by powerful segments in the business and political elites who have always sought to emphasise the un-American nature of these ideologies. Traditional conservatism was expelled from the country with the defeat of the British and their loyalist allies in the Revolutionary War. The challenges by the left-wing ideologies have been forcefully repressed as shown by the labour and populist movements in the nineteenth-century and the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the twentieth-century. The labelling of left-wingers as un-American helped enable the reactionary elements in the business and political elite a way to legitimate their opposition without having to debate economic issues. The only successful challenge came with the New Deal that benefited from the Great Depression and World War Two preventing more vigorous opposition to it. The New Deal resulted in an important reformulation of the national creed, in line with contemporary liberalism, to expand the meaning of equality of opportunity to allow for a significant government role in ensuring it.

Un-American is the ultimate derogatory term and concept that has been used by Americans against their domestic opponents to emphasis their alien nature and the fact that they are not entitled to the rights and benefits of being an American. The history of activities labelled as un-American reveals that what constitutes an American has been a matter of ongoing debate. America remains a dynamic society in a rapidly changing world. It is reasonable to expect that there will be future challenges to the nature of American heterogeneous self-perception. It is also reasonable to expect that much of the debate over these challenges will concern whether they are un-American.



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