From Red Scares to Orange Alerts: How the Cold War Launched the Modern American Police State

Following World War II, there was no general demobilization in the United States?—?something that had never happened before in the nation’s history. In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, which created the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and created the framework for a permanent, globe-spanning military establishment under the aegis of what was now called the Department of Defense. Five years later, the National Security Agency, which originated as the US Army’s Cipher Bureau and Military Intelligence Branch in World War I, was given institutional permanence as well.

From Red Scares to Orange Alerts: How the Cold War Launched the Modern American Police StateBy focusing on counter-subversion rather than rolling back the state, Cold War conservatism laid the foundations for a domestic garrison state.

These initiatives grew out of the open-ended Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, which was described of a crisis of sufficient magnitude to justify putting the United States on a permanent war footing.

Speaking on behalf of the Founding Generation, James Madison had advised that “no nation could preserve its [liberty] in the midst of perpetual warfare,” which would strengthen the executive branch and undermine restraints on government power. Madison’s warning would be ironically validated by his own actions during the War of 1812. But his offenses against liberty would be insignificant compared to the totalitarian vision that gave birth to the Cold War National Security State, as memorably expressed by the  young conservative intellectual ?named William F. Buckley, Jr.

Fighting Totalitarianism by Embracing It

In an essay for Commonweal magazine entitled “The Party and the Deep Blue Sea,” Buckley laid out what he claimed was a libertarian-minded ideological framework for young Republican Party activists. While describing the State as the “domestic enemy” of Americans, Buckley insisted that it would be preferable to live under a domestic police state than under the variety offered as a Soviet export.

“The most important issue of the day, it is time to admit it, is survival,” Buckley wrote, insisting that survival was threatened by what he called the “thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union.” In the face of such an enemy, he continued, “we have got to accept Big Government for the duration?—?for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

For this reason, he elaborated, Americans “will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington?—?even with Truman at the reins of it all.”

The malign hand of the Soviets was discerned in every public demonstration taking place anywhere on the face of the globe.

In 1770, as the American Independence movement coalesced in Boston, a prominent physician named Mather Byles pointedly asked some of his neighbors: “Which is better?—?to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”

For Buckley and other authoritarian Cold War conservatives, the certainty of being suffocated by a domestic totalitarian bureaucracy was preferable to scaling down the domestic state in the face of a remote and dubious foreign threat: “… our chances of ultimate victory against an indigenous bureaucracy are far greater than they could ever be against one controlled from abroad, one that would be nourished and protected by a world-wide Communist monolith.”

That order of priorities was reflected in the efforts of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy to expose Soviet agents within the vast and ever-expanding federal bureaucracy?—?efforts energetically supported by Buckley. The objective was to sanitize the bureaucracy, on the assumption that regimentation and plunder would be tolerable as long as they were untainted by Soviet influence. Libertarian academic Frank Chodorov characteristically put the blade of his axe to the root of the problem, rather than pruning some of its diseased branches: If the problem was that Communists infested the bureaucracy, Chodorov suggested, the solution was to abolish the bureaucracy.

By focusing on counter-subversion rather than rolling back the state, Cold War conservatism consolidated the imperial military establishment and laid the foundations for a domestic garrison state. Until the Cold War, American law enforcement was decentralized, and police were seen as carrying out a function entirely separate from that of the military.

To Protect and Counter-Subvert

The advertised purpose of police was to protect property and persons by investigating and apprehending criminals. In substantive terms, that depiction was always inaccurate or dishonest?. Nonetheless, until the early years of the Cold War, police were seen primarily as defenders of property, rather than localized elements of a unitary apparatus devoted to a long twilight struggle against ideological subversion and foreign aggression.

The depiction of American police as a bulwark against subversion arguably began with a bloated, overwrought account of the Haymarket riot entitled Anarchy and Anarchists. Its author, Chicago Police Captain Michael J. Shaack, described police as self-sacrificing knights errant defending the state against wily and remorseless agents of a monolithic, foreign-controlled enemy. He and his comrades, Shaack wrote, were “bound by our oaths and by our loyalty to the State and to society to meet force with force, and cunning with cunning… We have a government worth fighting for, and even worth dying for….”

By the early 1960s, Shaack’s view had been updated and globalized. A version of it was presented in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Internal Security Subcommittee by CIA analyst Lyman Kirkpatrick in a presentation burdened with the melodramatic title “[A] Communist Plot against Free World Police,” in which the malign hand of the Soviets was discerned in every public demonstration taking place anywhere on the face of the globe.

“Many of us know what is back of the mob violence which we have been considering,” Kirkpatrick said to members of the Senate subcommittee. “It is probable, however, that few of the demonstrators realized that they are victims of a war that is being waged in the free world today. It is a life-and-death struggle between communism, which makes the people the slaves of the state, and free world democracy, in which the state carries out the will of the people.”

In defiance of constitutional limitations, this created a de facto national secret police organization.

A libertarian or classic liberal might object at this point that Kirkpatrick was framing that struggle between false alternatives, given that both the rulers of Communist slave states and western democracies insist that they are carrying out the will of the people?—?and that it is the state itself that should be considered the problem. But nobody involved in that 1961 Senate hearing was willing to raise that objection?—?so the CIA analyst continued without interruption.

“Our police are among the foremost guardians of freedom and thus a major target of the Communists,” Kirkpatrick insisted in an echo of Captain Shaack. “The better the force, the greater its efficiency, the higher its competence in preserving the peace, the more vital it is for the Communists to destroy it.”

This insidious process, Kirkpatrick insisted, was outlined

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