Segment from Red Dawn

Russian to Conclusions

Brian, Joanne, and Nathan discuss how fears of communism and other supposedly dangerous foreign ideologies have been used to discredit domestic political movements, from union organizing, to the civil rights movement.

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BRIAN: Joanne, Nathan, what strikes me, looking back on the past 100 years, is the way in which this idea that was connected with the Bolshevik Revolution was used in so many different ways to, in essence, disparage all kinds of very legitimate protests and, in fact, quests for basic American rights, the quest by African-Americans to be full citizens, the quest by organized labor to have the right to organize collectively. Please tell me this wasn’t the first time that foreign ideology was seen as threatening.

JOANNE: Of course, what immediately strikes me as something that’s parallel partly in its power is the impact of the French Revolution and the ideology that was fueling the French Revolution. Liberty, equality, fraternity, those ideas are threatening.

John Adams, who’s president, he actually referred to terrorism. We’re talking 1798, maybe 1797, that he’s pointing at that and saying, this is terrorism. We were blockading the doors. We didn’t know what these scary ideas were going to get the people to do. It’s not a word you expect to hear in the 18th century.

BRIAN: Yeah, and I suppose that legislation labeled alien and sedition suggested a certain degree of un-Americanness as well.

JOANNE: Right, so then you end up with this repressive legislation, the Alien Act, which basically wants French nationals to register, to show where they are, so that they could be kept track of. The Sedition Act, which is a way of basically clamping down on the press if it seems to be stating seditious ideas about the government. You get repressive legislation that is posed as being something that’s for the safety of the nation in the face of terrorism.

BRIAN: Well, fortunately, ideology does not rear its un-American head again until the 1950s, right, Nathan?


NATHAN: I mean, revolutions are funny, funny things, because there’s always this concern among those who are currently in power that whatever revolution that they see happening just off the national stage might wind up on their shores. I mean, they were looking with terror down in the Caribbean, right? The Haitian revolution kicks up in the 1790s, really in the founding of Haiti in 1804. I mean, you won’t find an un-nervous planter anywhere in the Americas.

BRIAN: And, Nathan, just to be clear, these planters weren’t worried about the new republic of Haiti attacking them. They were worried about these ideas–

JOANNE: Scary ideas.

BRIAN: –being embedded in their own enslaved people, right?

NATHAN: Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, it was undeniable that for Haiti to overthrow the French, which at the time was considered to be one of the world’s great empires, that it could possibly happen in the United States, that African-Americans could rise up on the plantations of the South and topple the country. I mean, that was a genuine concern for people, because it was unimaginable, frankly, prior to the 1790s that you could have an independent black republic or a slave revolution of that size and consequence.

JOANNE: And there were slave revolts.

NATHAN: Right.

JOANNE: 1800, 1802–

NATHAN: Absolutely.

JOANNE: I mean, there was an actual impact.

NATHAN: That’s right. But the other thing about this is even before the Russian Revolution happens, there are ideas that are circulating in the United States. You think about a socialist labor activist like Eugene Debs, who was able to be a pretty prominent American figure through the late 19th century, founding the International Workers of the World movement and really helping to pull together a labor sentiment that many considered to be totally American.

BRIAN: So, Nathan, was there something different about some of the ideas that Debs embraced, for instance, now being represented in a country the size of Russia?

NATHAN: It is true that to see a revolution happen and take over a country is a very different thing from having a socialist simply pounding his fist from the stage, as was often the case with Eugene Debs. And not to make light of the socialist movement, right? It was extraordinarily important, but the idea of a revolution is a very different thing. And I’ll say this as well.

What it does is it provides a profound justification for the law enforcement apparatus in this country to begin then basically using concerns about communism and socialism for any manner of discrediting of various movements.

One very concrete example– in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, there was yet another conflict between blacks and whites. You had the Red Summer of 1919, where there were a lot of race riots. And in this case, in 1921, in Tulsa, you had a number of whites who were working class, who were very concerned about African-American affluence and basically attacked a black financial district and burned down a number of homes and businesses.

Some 300 African-Americans were killed, thousands more driven away. And the response from the FBI and a young agent by the name of J. Edgar Hoover was to begin hunting for communists, folks from the outside, foreign interlocutors who were stirring things up in the city and providing a black eye for the nation, really for all the world to see.

BRIAN: And, Nathan, I’m old enough to remember from the 1960s that term, outside agitators.

NATHAN: Right.

BRIAN: It was used by people like Sheriff Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama, to disparage peaceful civil rights demonstrations, and it was used by conservative white mayors in the urban North to claim that these riots, or what many other people call rebellions, couldn’t possibly happen with cities exploding in the North in the late 1960s without the presence of these outside agitators, who came in to stir things up.

NATHAN: Right.

JOANNE: And you know, what’s dangerously ingenious about that sort of outsiders coming in way of looking at things is that on the one hand, you can be repressive in response to that. But you can totally frame it as though you’re being American and unifying, right? So it’s ingenious and dangerous for that very reason, just as a way of framing things.

BRIAN: So, Joanne, Nathan, help me out with something. I think you guys know that I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. And what I hear is an absolute conflation between communism and un-Americanism. I take your point, Nathan. It wasn’t always that way, but when did it change? And why has it become so pro forma?

We don’t have a Soviet Union anymore. We’re doing this show because it’s the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but that revolution lasted– I don’t know– let’s call it 70, 80 years. It’s history. Why this conflation of communism and un-Americanism?

NATHAN: Well, my sense, Brian, is that if you look at what the argument against socialism meant, it really was an effort to fight any form of government regulation or seeming, quote unquote, “intervention” in the marketplace. So landlords, bankers, people in the medical fields of various kinds, there was always this concern about dreaded socialism creeping in and regulating the way that the folks made their money.

So you could see how a term like socialism and communism can very easily collapse into this soup that we can invoke almost around anything.

JOANNE: I think it’s a pretty bland soup at the moment, though, because I think it’s been drained of so much of the meaning. I mean, I honestly think that right now, commie is just a word that means– as Brian just suggested– un-American, and that there’s not a lot of depth there. People don’t really know what that means. It just means un-American.

There was a radio program that I heard in which someone was talking about being in an argument with someone who called him a commie. And when he responded and said, well, actually, yeah, I guess I kind of am a communist, the argument stopped because the person who threw the insult, he didn’t know what it meant. It was just a word. You know? So I think that’s what it’s boiled down to at this point.


BRIAN: That’s going to do it for today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your burning history questions. You’ll find us at, or send an email to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio. And feel free to review the new show in the iTunes Store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

JOANNE: This episode of BackStory was produced by Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher. Additional help came from Robin [? Blue, ?] Emma Gregg, [? Angelique ?] [INAUDIBLE], Sequoia Carrillo, Courtney [? Spanya, ?] and [? Aaron ?] [INAUDIBLE]. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music in this episode came from [INAUDIBLE], Podington Bear, and Jahzazar.

BRIAN: Special thanks this week to Yuri Urbanovich and [? Sergey ?] [? Gordayev. ?] And thanks as always to the Johns Hopkins University Studio in Baltimore.

NATHAN: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We’re a proud member of the Panoply Podcast Network. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

JOANNE: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Panoply.