A Culture of Fear
[An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Keith Hocker, is available for download.]
Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet foreign spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov warned the United States, "We have done the most terrible thing to you that we could possibly have done. We have deprived you of an enemy."
For nearly half a century, the elusive threat posed by the Soviet Union formed the basis of American foreign and domestic policy. Much of the United States' political and economic development was in fact a product of the government's exploitation of a supposed Soviet menace. Gerasimov recognized that the fall of communist Russia denied the American government the ability to exploit the fear of Marxism to its own benefit. It was as if the American government had lost its reason for being.
The United States has a long history of exploiting fear for the purpose of legitimizing its growth. The current generations of American citizens are direct witnesses to over eight decades of such exploitation. In the Great Depression, the government used the fear of capitalism to legitimize previously unforeseen growth in the size of the federal bureaucracy. As the Depression wore on, the state's inability to spend its way into prosperity led to public skepticism. Thus, the government quickly shifted its focus to the threat posed by Japan, Germany, and their allies. Perhaps most relevant to current Americans was the fear of communism perpetuated through the Cold War. No less than two wars were justified by this anticommunism, as were political repression and a radical expansion of bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex.
As Gerasimov suggested, the fall of the Soviet Union left the US government without a justification for its existence. The state no longer enjoyed an overbearing threat with which to distract the masses while it grew in size.
Unfortunately, this situation did not last long. Indeed, the past decade witnessed the development of an overwhelming American fear of terrorism. Americans have apathetically allowed the repression of their freedoms in the name of some greater cause (a cause, ironically, justified as a mission to preserve American freedoms).
While support of American imperialism, otherwise termed "counterterrorism," has recently waned, the government is now reinforcing its legitimacy by once again intervening on behalf of the common man against the capitalist system. By this means the United States' bureaucracy continues to grow virtually unhampered, and individual freedom has necessarily decreased.
Our government's authority is based on the notion that only the state can protect the American people from the vices of greed and opposing ideologies. The state thrives off the creation of a false dichotomy between stateless ruin and state-induced prosperity. The actual relationship is quite clear, however: the state itself is actually the people's greatest threat.
The Great Depression and World War II
The Great Depression witnessed one of the earliest large-scale increases in federal power in 20th-century American history. The state, looking to find a scapegoat for the disaster, was quick to demonize capitalism and greedy irrationalism as the culprits behind the dramatic depreciation of the general standard of living. The solution was benign government intervention, guaranteeing the laborer a living wage and promising progress and growth through central management. The fear of economic collapse, poverty, and misery led the American people to largely ignore, or even allow and accept, the growth of bureaucracy.
Uninterested in having any opposition, the state either bought off differing politicians or purged those who stood in the system's way, most through the use of the newly created Internal Revenue Service. While pointing at the ills caused by free and unfettered businessmen, Hoover became the largest peacetime spender in the history of the country; Roosevelt later shamed Hoover with even greater fiscal expenditure. Despite large spending programs and rampant bureaucratic growth, neither president successfully ended the depression.
Failing to stimulate the United States out of the depression, the American government desperately needed a new enemy to distract the country's attention with. The rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe and the growing threat of Japanese imperialism in the Pacific provided Roosevelt with the perfect target. Intervention in Europe was justified not merely on account of helping the British or opposing German fascism. The government instead built a culture of fear.
Propaganda posters depicting German jackboots crushing small-town American churches, or Germanic invasion forces converging on New York City, were distributed throughout America's cities. Another such poster depicted the Germans and Japanese looming ominously over the United States, one with a pistol and the other with a bloody dagger, reading, "Our homes are in danger now!" The Roosevelt administration made it clear that the intentions of the Axis powers were to threaten the freedoms of Americans proper.
Creating a threat was necessary if Roosevelt was to persuade the noninterventionist doves, many of whom still peppered the bureaucracy. Indeed, after the First World War only a direct threat could justify American involvement in a new European war. To this end, Roosevelt's administration managed not only to run a considerably large propaganda campaign, but also to coax the Japanese into a clear provocation.
The Roosevelt administration's campaign of escalation toward war culminated with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a number of other American territorial assets in the Pacific Ocean. A direct attack on the United States provided all the justification necessary to intervene both in the Pacific and in Europe. The result was a two-theater war, costing the United States nearly 300,000 lives (and many more wounded), and leaving Europe and Japan almost completely shattered. All the while, the American state continued to grow in size, power, and capability.
Anticommunism and the Cold War
After the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union replaced the defeated Axis Powers as the greatest threat to the United States' freedom. Soviet Russia was no less than the heart and origin of global communism. It infected much of East Asia, including North Korea, China, and Vietnam. The Red Army posed a direct menace to free and capitalist Western Europe and, indeed, to the free world in general. The perceived Soviet threat provided the rationalization for the Cold War, which ensued between 1946 and 1991. In the period between 1946 and 1991 Americans saw quite possibly the greatest expansion of bureaucracy in the US government — ironic for a country purportedly focused on fighting communism.
Fear of communism validated American involvement in two major wars: Korea and Vietnam. Justified or not, both wars held great implications regarding the growth of the state.
The first of these two major wars was fought in Korea, between 1950 and 1953. The Korean War spelled the end of the anti-interventionist movement in the US government. The post–World War demobilization proved excessive for a country intending to challenge global Marxism. The North Korean invasion of southern Korea in mid-1950 caught the United States, in the midst of said demobilization, severely unprepared for a new war. The US government was determined to never be caught off guard again, and the years following the end of the Korean War witnessed the development of the American military-industrial complex and the foundation of a permanent wartime military.
The Korean War confirmed a new age of militarism, where the United States was ready and willing to intervene in the name of anticommunism (or, at least, behind the veil of anticommunism). Forming powerful alliance blocs across the world, both the United States and the Soviet Union prepared for their inevitable confrontation — the "Third World War."
Fear of inevitable war, and the consequent exploitation of such fear by the state, led to the creation of a soon-sprawling military-industrial complex. A growing military required armaments, encouraging the enlargement of a permanent war-materiel industry. Given the public-private nature of this particular market, it is unsurprising that it soon devolved into a system in which companies would directly lobby government for contracts, and where the company with the most friends in government usually won. The establishment of a network of favoritism led directly to a situation in which politicians readily justified different military programs just to necessitate the continued production of war supplies. As the military-industrial complex grew in size, it became so important that politicians only needed to point to the vast amount of workers it employed in order to justify its existence. This, in fact, is the form in which the military-industrial complex exists to this very day. It is a relic of the Cold War.
The government consistently exploited the fear of communism to meet the needs of individual bureaucrats. Most well known is the case of McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy ingeniously used the fear of communism to discredit his political opponents and protect himself from criticism. As a method of censorship, he had hundreds of individuals, most related to the entertainment industry, blacklisted. While Senator McCarthy's purge represented an extreme case, which ended by the late-1950s, fervent state-sponsored anticommunism did not recede.
The roots of the United States' second major anticommunist war, the Vietnam War, were firmly planted in the mid-1950s, with the dissolution of French Indochina into two independent Vietnams. While the North fell under communist rule, the South consolidated under the brutal leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. The South, firmly anticommunist, was promptly buttressed by the fiscal and military support of the Eisenhower administration.
The Diem regime's brutal method of governance, including enslavement and execution, triggered the beginning of the Viet Minh insurgency. The United States responded by declaring unwavering support for the South (lest the United States lose even more face, given the debacle at the Bay of Pigs and the erection of the Berlin Wall in Germany). By 1963, 16,000 American personnel were deployed in Vietnam. This rose to a couple hundred thousand within the next two years.
While the Vietnam War proved to be an absolute disaster, its most lasting legacy was not the cultural antistate revolution that it sparked in the United States. Rather, despite the mounting opposition to the war, it managed to finally solidify the bureaucracy's ability to wage war without a congressional declaration (despite the War Powers Resolution, which was supposedly meant to reverse the extreme powers granted to the presidency by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution). This made future war efforts much easier to organize, leading to a number of military operations during the 1980s, including Grenada and Panama.
In retrospect, especially for those who have no recollection of the era, it is rather difficult to understand the culture of fear imposed by the state. Through the exploitation of the public's fear of communism, the United States legitimized the military-industrial complex, instigated short anticommunist purges, launched two major wars (and many smaller ones), and supported several brutal dictatorships throughout the world. Ultimately, the Soviet Union fell without a single shot fired in anger between it and the United States. No world war materialized. Communism fell not by the sword, but by its own internal inconsistencies.
Ironically, the Cold War's losers were the citizens of the "free world," who, by turning a blind eye to rampant government growth were enslaved by their own "protectors." Soviet foreign spokesman Gerasimov warned the American government of the great harm the Soviets had inflicted by collapsing. Government-sponsored slavery suddenly lost its principal justification.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the new centerpiece of government's fearmongering soon emerged. A series of minor bombings in the 1990s and finally the ghastly attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, confirmed the Soviet Union's replacement — global terrorism.
The nation was swept with terror frenzy. Like communism before it, the elusive threat of terrorism justified two wars and numerous infringements on the individual rights of American citizens. The Bush administration launched two military invasions within two years of each other — Afghanistan and Iraq. Both wars were supposedly fought to protect Americans from the suspect threat of global terrorism.
It was argued, and is argued to this day, that terrorism posed a threat to American individual freedoms. Yet, the greatest threat to American freedom proved to be, not the terrorists, but the very government that purportedly protects Americans. Indeed, in the years following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration managed to perpetrate some of the most severe infringements on individual rights since the Roosevelt administration. All the while, Al-Qaeda has yet to seriously threaten the United States.
Furthermore, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan left Al-Qaeda virtually untouched. While Afghanistan supposedly harbored Al-Qaeda figurehead Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda was already widely dispersed throughout other countries. And of course Iraq had no meaningful relationship with Al-Qaeda.
New Tools of Repression
Unsurprisingly, the two wars in the Middle East have taken their toll on the people's trust in the state. Support for continued interventionism abroad continues to wane, as it becomes clear that neither of the wars has much to do with global terrorism or the protection of American freedoms. However, the state has once again shifted policy to cope with the change in public opinion.
The fear of terrorism has by and large been replaced by the alleged threat of capitalism and animal spirits. The threat once again becomes greed, and as usual, there is only one solution — embracing the state. Naturally, the masses have once again fallen for this appeal to fear. Without government intervention, alleges the regime, the country will fall into a spiral of poverty and misfortune. The people, otherwise free, will find themselves the downtrodden slaves of the free market.
The government thrives on creating these false dichotomies: war or invasion, militant anticommunism or a global communist revolution, war or terrorism, economic interventionism or economic misery. It offers the masses two choices, utopia or hell. The one, it claims, can only be provided by the state, while the other is the product of an unprotected and anarchic society. These illogical fears have tended to win over reason, and the government continues to grow unchecked.
A century of war, corruption, interventionism, and inflation have failed to dissuade the public from apathetically accepting government growth. This phenomenon can perhaps be explained by noting the collective rejection of reason and logic, spread through the system by the ranks of intellectuals and academics who willingly accept this transition to irrationalism. For whatever reason, bureaucratic expansion has been left virtually unopposed.
Fortunately, the recent dismantling, by means of the Internet, of the state's monopoly on education has allowed for the formation of pockets of resistance. These represent the development of a liberal counterrevolution to the now mainstream culture of statolatry — a return of reason. Before such a movement can set in, however, the culture of fear created by government must be dispelled. Man must not allow himself to fall prey to the state's exploitation of his emotions. Man must, once again, recognize the fallibility of the state and the availability of other options.
[bio] See [AuthorName]'s [AuthorArchive].
You can subscribe to future articles by [AuthorName] via this [RSSfeed].
 Burton Folsom Jr. (2008), New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America (New York City, New York: Threshold Editions), pp. 146–167.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.