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Who’s Afraid of Communism?

Americans have largely forgotten the anti-Communist sentiment from decades past.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

With the Berlin Wall barely a memory and Airbnb in Havana, American anti-communism is probably at its historical nadir. Bernie Sanders has proven the word “socialism” doesn’t scare the next generation; a lot of us even seem to like the idea. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, remembers a different time, when griping about the Reds was an American hobby. She writes fondly about it in her memoir Living History: “We sometimes ice-skated on the Des Plaines River while our fathers warmed themselves over a fire and talked about how the spread of communism was threatening our way of life.” 

During the April Democratic primary debate, the candidates were asked about NATO, and a curious thing happened. Donald Trump had called for European nations to contribute more to the organization’s budget; Bernie Sanders more or less agreed. But when it came her turn, Hillary Clinton praised NATO, calling it “the most successful military alliance in probably human history.” Neither the moderators or Sanders pressed her on this point, but it’s a bizarre assertion, on par with some of Trump’s goofier statements. In its 67-year history, NATO has conducted a handful of major military operations, all centered on the breakup of Yugoslavia or the (disastrous) American-led War on Terror. The most powerful? Maybe. The most successful? Not a chance.

The only way anyone could possibly think of NATO as among the most successful military alliances in human history is if they thought NATO won World War II. But NATO was formed in 1949, and World War II ended in 1945. Still, weren’t the Allies a sort of proto-NATO? For millennials in particular, that makes a lot of sense: Forged in the victory over Nazi Germany, the story goes, a group of Western democracies (led by the U.S., U.K., and France) formed a mutual-defense pact to prevent the same thing from happening again. World War I gave us the UN, and its sequel gave us NATO. But anyone over 35 should know this story’s wrong; there’s a character missing.

The Soviet Union didn’t just help win World War II; they were, by most metrics, the most important player. They lost the most people, 50 times as many as America did. But even in formerly occupied territory, the memory of the USSR’s role seems to be fading along with its monuments. In a post about this particular lapse in historical recollection at Vox—tellingly titled “The successful 70-year campaign to convince people the USA and not the USSR beat Hitler”—Dylan Matthews cites the French blogger Olivier Berruyer’s analysis of poll data. Asked to choose from the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR, 58 percent of French citizens credited America with doing the most to defeat Germany, while 20 percent picked the Soviets. In 1945, with the liberation just complete, those numbers were reversed.

I imagine that if you asked the average young American what army liberated Auschwitz, they would say ours. Which is wrong, but it’s hard to blame them: Capitalism won, and we’ve moved on to new bogeymen. If you don’t need to warn innocent children away from Soviet seduction, there isn’t much need to tell them about communism at all. We can fill the gaps in the history books with patriotism. 

Ignoring history, however, won’t make it go away. Without the Soviet threat, the anti-communist barricades are a little understaffed. And with faulty censors, who will stop the culture industry from making communism seem cool? The two most famous Soviets right now are probably Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, the KGB spy stars of the critically acclaimed F/X show The Americans. Despite having been created by a former CIA agent and set in the 1980s, Elizabeth and Philip aren’t the bad guys. They’re the good ones. In Nicaragua, in El Salvador, in South Africa, in Afghanistan, the American government’s policies are portrayed as worth fighting against by any means necessary. It’s a more honest description of the history than Clinton’s, in her memoir. “In the past,” she writes of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere, “American policy in the region led to the funneling of foreign aid to military juntas that opposed communism and socialism but sometimes repressed their own citizens.”

Anti-communism has been a powerful force within American politics and culture for over 150 years. In their book The American Slave Coast, Ned and Constance Sublette date its inauguration to the 1850 Nashville convention on Southern secession, when Langdon Cheves, former Speaker of the House and South Carolina congressman, denounced abolitionists as communists:

What we call the rights of man, or the admission of great masses to the power of self-government, has brought into action the minds of persons utterly unqualified to judge of the subject practically, who have generated the wildest theories…. This agitation has recently reached the United States…, and has brought under its delusions the subject of African slavery in the Southern States. It is of the family of communism, it is the doctrine of Proudhon, that property is a crime.

Cheves’s speech, the Sublettes write, was no fluke: “Proslavery writers formulated the first generation of American anticommunist rhetoric.” Cheves and co. weren’t wrong: Communists (including Karl Marx) really did want to destroy slavery, but patriotic American history books don’t have room for left-wing internationalism. Anyone involved in creating one of those textbooks grew up in a time when Marxists were the Bad Guys and people who questioned that got in trouble.  

You might not know it from the history books, but American communism has always been racialized. When Jim Crow laws banned interracial organization, the Communist Party was the only group that dared to flout the rule. In 1932, when the Birmingham, Alabama police went to shut down a Party meeting, a present national guardsman wrote his superior: “The police played their only trump by enforcing a city ordinance for segregation which, of course, is contrary to Communist principles.” Now we tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement within liberal parameters, but everyone who fought for black liberation was called a communist at one time or another, and not always inaccurately. 

This legacy might be largely forgotten in the United States, but it isn’t gone. President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told The Atlantic that the rapprochement with Cuba began at the funeral for Nelson Mandela, where Obama shared the stage with Raul Castro: 

We had used the black-and-white version of history to justify Cuba policy that didn’t make much sense; that was far past its expiration date. I think that he had enough of an understanding of history to know that whatever we think about the Cuban government’s political system and human-rights practices that, in fact, when it came to the anti-apartheid movement, they had a place on that dais at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, and he was not going to, essentially, disrespect the legacy of Nelson Mandela by carrying forward that history and snubbing the Cuban president because of our bilateral relationship. 

Mandela, in addition to being a hero to American liberals, was most likely a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party. And while America was denying that NATO’s attention to the shipping lanes around the South Atlantic had anything to do with supporting apartheid, tiny Cuba was sending tens of thousands of soldiers to fight against white nationalism in Angola on principle. Many historians credit Cuban intervention with delivering the deathblow to apartheid; at the time, The New York Times Magazine called the Cuban mission “strange.” If Obama wanted to share the stage with Castro, he had to drop decades of American bullshit.

The story of communism’s struggle against fascism and white supremacy has been repressed for generations, but this grip on our collective memory is slipping fast. David Simon is planning a series about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—American leftists who fought against fascism in Spain. Steve McQueen is doing a Paul Robeson biopic, whose 1956 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee is already the most cinematic thing I’ve ever heard. When asked about his membership in the Party, he invoked the Fifth Amendment (“Loudly”), at great personal cost. “Wherever I’ve been in the world,” he told them, “the first to die in the struggle against fascism were the communists.” 

A new poll of adults under 30 found that 51 percent “do not support capitalism.” Zach Lustbader, a college senior involved in conducting the poll, told The Washington Post: “The word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t mean what it used to.” And if capitalism isn’t the Good Guy, young people might go looking for a more nuanced version of the Cold War narrative. Hollywood might even bring it to us first. Without the anti-communist lid, it’s hard to tell what we’ll find, and how the political landscape will change. 

Hillary Clinton’s shoddy but common recollection can’t withstand a tablespoon of earnest scrutiny. As a new generation of Americans starts digging through the records, we’re going to hear a lot more questions.