The Long History of the Red Scare as an American Political Tactic

Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was red-baited by Nixon
Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was red-baited by Nixon
Image: AP

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Donald Trump said in his State of the Union speech, adding that, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

It was just the latest in a new swell of anti-socialist talk on the right. In October, the president’s Council of Economic Advisors released a report on “the opportunity cost of socialism.” In the months since the midterms, the right has grown increasingly obsessed with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her democratic socialism. It seems increasingly likely that the theme of the 2020 election will be a full-on red scare. 

There is a term for this, of course: red-baiting, a fixture of American politics for much of the 20th century. I spoke to Kathryn Olmstead, professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, about some of that history. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


JEZEBEL: This idea that socialism is coming for America. How long has that really been in use as a political tactic?

KATHRYN OLMSTEAD: You can trace it back to the 19th century, really, when there started to be socialist and communist parties in Europe. But it really gets going in the United States in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt’s opponents see political advantage in red-baiting him, in calling him a socialist or a communist. It’s a tactic that politicians use when they don’t want to talk about the merits of the reform proposals, and they distract attention from the substance of the reforms by indulging in these ad hominem attacks and calling the reformers socialists or communists.

This began in the 1930s, when Roosevelt started using the federal government’s power to help organized labor, because up to that point in time, conservatives had not necessarily been anti-government. They were happy to have the government have a lot of power when it was, say, in California, building the corporate growers big dams and irrigation canals, or when it was giving them big subsidies or when it was using federal troops to put down strikes. But they were not happy with the New Deal when the new labor laws started mandating minimum wage and maximum hours and outlawing child labor and, most important, protecting the right to join a union. At that point, conservatives started to see the federal government as an enemy, adopting anti-government rhetoric and calling people who were advocating these pro-labor reforms “socialists.”


Herbert Hoover, who was president from 1929 to 1933 then lost the 1932 election to Franklin Roosevelt, really tried to organize conservatives around this anti-government rhetoric, beginning in the 1930s. He kept denouncing the New Deal as regimentation and as socialism and as communism, and the idea was that if he could red-bait the Democrats this way, then the Republicans could help create a coalition of conservative voters who maybe supported some of Roosevelt’s economic plans but hated what they saw as the social and cultural implications of socialism. Because they saw socialism as foreign, as coming from the Soviet Union and as advocating for racial and gender equality and also as being atheist.

Historically when people have used this, like you said, as a way to condemn policies by channeling the discussion into this really inflammatory question of whether you’re a socialist or a communist—what do they actually mean when they say socialist? What are they actually saying about you?


That’s a really good question. The classic definition of socialism would be that the state owns the means of production. By that definition, there are really very few socialists in the United States now, and there never have been very many. Roosevelt certainly did not consider himself a socialist. He was trying to reform and regulate capitalism. When Lyndon Johnson led the Great Society in the 1960s, he was not a socialist. He was trying to, again, reform and regulate capitalism.

When Trump and his supporters say we’re not going “back” to socialism, I don’t know what they’re talking about, because there never was a time in American history when the United States was socialist. I guess now there is a broader definition, and some people are using it in ways to indicate that the New Deal or the Great Society was some sort of movement of democratic socialism, but I think that certainly President Johnson and President Roosevelt would have rejected that term at the time.


In the ’30s, in particular, there was a Socialist Party and it was far to the left of President Roosevelt. The leader was Norman Thomas, and he was often asked, “Well, isn’t Roosevelt carrying out your program?” And he would say, “Yes—on a stretcher.” Because he really thought that Roosevelt was ruining the Socialist program and was not going nearly far enough.

You mention this cultural dimension—when people red-bait, they’re not talking necessarily about an economic system; they’re talking about the leveling of racial and gender hierarchies, for instance. And as part of this, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become someone the right is really obsessed with. Could you talk about the gender dynamic here, and how anxieties about that have played out in red-baiting? Obviously, a great example of somebody who got red-baited out of politics was Helen Gahagan Douglas, one of Richard Nixon’s early opponents.


Nixon was one of the first politicians to really make red-baiting central to his political campaigns. He red-baited his first opponent when he ran for Congress in 1946—he ran against a guy named Jerry Voorhees, who was this mild-mannered former socialist. Nixon was able to equate this former socialism with current loyalty to the Soviet Union, supposedly. And so Voorhees really never knew what hit him in that election. Then in 1950, Nixon ran for the US Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was not a socialist, who was just sort of a classic liberal Democrat. But she was a Hollywood actress and she was one of a very few women in Congress at that time. She was a congresswoman representing Hollywood. And he again attacked her as an alleged Communist sympathizer and said that she was “pink right down to her underwear.”

That’s so lurid!

Yeah! Exactly. And he called her “the pink lady” and she called him “Tricky Dick.” That election was fought out during the Korean War, so he won with that combination of red-baiting and also ridiculing the idea of a woman representing California in the U.S. Senate.


That’s really interesting because I’m hearing several very big parallels, or even almost like reused scripts. When you talk about the context of the Korean War and linking somebody’s mild-mannered former socialism to Soviet communism, I’m hearing the attempt to link something like Obamacare and Venezuela. And I’m hearing about the talking about Helen Gahagan Douglas’s underwear and the “Hollywood values,” and that sounds very similar the ways that people have tried to smear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Are these just like scripts that are literally being reused? Has it evolved as it all, or is it the same as when Nixon was doing it?

I don’t know if they’re having these Republican war rooms where they’re reviewing Nixon’s old speeches and saying, “Oh, that worked really well, let’s use that again.” I think it’s more just the legacy of that rhetoric, and that the modern Republican party still adheres to a lot of the ideas and values that it had in the 1930s and the 1950s. And what Democrats present as mild reforms, the Republicans perceive them as these radical changes that threaten their very notion of America and their very idea of what America is supposed to be.


Hence it’s not a social program, it’s a radical plot to overthrow American freedom. Right?

Right, right. One of the classic red-baiting campaigns in American history was in 1934, in the California governor’s race, when Upton Sinclair ran for governor. He won the nomination, but he had been a socialist for a long time. He was the author of The Jungle and dozens of other books. So he was well known as a socialist, but he was running on a New Deal platform as the Democratic candidate. And he was just relentlessly red-baited by the California Republican party and by the state’s newspapers, which were conservative. They stated that he was not just going to ruin the economy of California, but that he was going to oppose the church, that he was going to destroy gender and racial hierarchies, that there was going to be social and cultural chaos, as well as economic chaos. And it was a very effective argument for them.


At that time, the Communist party was really unusual for the extent to which it allowed women to take leadership positions, and it was officially committed to gender equity, although in practice, it wasn’t always the case. But its rhetoric was committed to equality for women, and it was also fighting for civil rights. So for conservatives, who opposed civil rights and opposed women’s rights, the Communist party threatened their very cultural values and social values in addition to causing them to fear with the economic consequences would be.

One thing that is really interesting to me is that there is this term—we are able to look at something and say, that’s an instance of red-baiting. How effective has it been to push back by identifying it? Have people found that an effective defense when this happens, to say, “you’re red-baiting and it’s not true”? It seems like it’s always a defensive move. I’m curious whether anybody has ever gotten any traction with it.


Roosevelt was pretty good at fighting back. He would say, they call us socialists, they call us communists, they call us people in favor of regimentation, but in fact, we just want to provide democracy in the United States. I can’t remember his exact rhetoric. But he was determined to fight back. But that was in the 1930s. In the ’40s and ’50s, it was a lot harder for liberals and progressives because of the power of anti-Communism during the height of the Cold War. By the ’60s, though, there was this space that was opening up for people to attack red-baiting again.

But I think that Roosevelt showed that it’s really important to attack the very premises of red-baiting from the beginning.


I know that it’s tough to extrapolate out into the future. But what do you think are the implications of an era of more red scare talk? Based on your study of the 20th century, what do you think that it means that this is ratcheting up right now?

I think that the Republican party thinks that this is going to be effective, because it isn’t just Trump’s State of the Union address, but a number of his supporters that have been using this rhetoric. The word “socialism” came up dozens of times in his Council of Economic Advisors report in the Fall. So this is a tactic that they’ve decided is going to be effective. I wonder whether they’re going to be correct about that, though, because—how old would you have to be to find “socialism” to be a really scary word and a scary concept? I think you’d almost have to have been born before 1950.


I’m not sure it’s going to resonate with most of the electorate.

It sounds like the trend indicates that younger people are more comfortable with it, which is part of what’s driving the concern. The polling data is suggesting it’s maybe not gonna work the way that it did at the height of the ’50s!


Right. Well, the Cold War was over 30 years ago, so I think it’s really a mistake for them to try to start resurrecting this old boogeyman. But I’m a historian. I study the past, not the future. I could be completely wrong about that!

But over the course of the 20th century, it was a pretty effective political tactic.


For sure. And not only did it help the Republicans and the conservatives to get more votes, it really caused the liberals to limit the proposals that they made, because they didn’t want to get accused of just being socialists or communists. So conservatives were able to use red-baiting to discredit a lot of reform proposals for decades. We might have universal healthcare if the political consultants hired by the American Medical Association in 1948 hadn’t been able to discredit Truman’s healthcare proposal as “socialized medicine.”

I am curious about red-baiting has shaped the larger context of conservatism in American politics in the 20th century. What are some of the implications that we live with now because of this golden era of red-baiting in the midcentury?


I think that a lot of liberal reform proposals, a lot of ideas to soften the rough edges of capitalism, were discredited during those decades, and made it very difficult for political leaders to advocate for things like universal healthcare or stronger pro-union laws.

You could argue that Johnson felt that he had to escalate the war in Vietnam to show that he was a tough anti-communist at the same time as he was expanding the welfare state at home, and that’s a legacy of red-baiting. It really shaped his actions that way, where he would say, I really want the Great Society, but I’ve got to show I’m not a communist by implementing these welfare programs, so I’m going to fight the communists overseas.


It had such a broad and long-lasting impact on American politics that it’s just impossible to overstate.

Senior Editor, Attic Haunter, Jezebel

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I don’t know what they’re talking about

Lol, that can be said about everything that comes out of this administration.