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.
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 in a “training manual” produced by “The international Communist organization” that he claimed had been “seized in Europe.” Without establishing a foundation for that remarkable claim, Kirkpatrick offered what he called a paraphrase of the stealth campaign to undermine the guardians of public order:
“First, make investigations and report on the activities of the police and security services.
Second, investigate and repress those security organizations which support the government”; prompted by a member of the panel, Kirkpatrick said that the targets would include the CIA, FBI and even the Internal Security Subcommittee itself.
Third, find ways to infiltrate into the police and security organizations and steal documents?—?particularly those recording their knowledge of Communism?—?and to destroy everything of value.”
By way of illustrating that campaign in action, Kirkpatrick offered a case study of “one of the major countries of the free world … this particular country has a long history of excellent police service and … until the Communist politicians started to create trouble in recent years there had never been an incident on record showing political interference with the administration of the police force.”
Significantly, this exemplary country?—?which Kirkpatrick thoughtfully declined to name?—?had a “national police force”?—?something not provided for in the US Constitution. The same Support Your Local Police movement that gave wide circulation to Kirkpatrick’s presentation would volubly condemn the nationalization of police in apparent ignorance of the fact that the CIA analyst they were citing supported such nationalization as an anti-Communist measure. In the case of this unnamed European country, Kirkpatrick told the subcommittee, breaking up the national police monopoly led to political control over law enforcement and the eventual loss of the country to Soviet control.
“In another country,” Kirkpatrick told the panel, “a Communist, under the label of another political party, became Minister of the Interior. He was the direct boss of the Director General of the Police?—?a career police official loyal to his country.” Only the diligent efforts of the head of the national police prevented the Communist assimilation of that nation’s centralized law enforcement system, at least as those events were recounted by the CIA operative.
Support Your Local Secret Police
Every effort to publicize police brutality and corruption, or to impose accountability on police, advanced the Communist design of “sap[ing] the morale of the force,” Kirkpatrick declared.
This is because “as a group, the police are among the most anti-Communist of the professional organizations in the free world.” If properly armed and equipped, and taught that “no organization, no group of people, and no individual can be disregarded as a possible Communist target or tool … the police of the free world can counter the Red threat and drive these outlaws from the free world.”
Achieving such a victory will mean providing police with “a capability of dealing with both the subversive and militant aspects of Communism. This requires an internal security mechanism which provides an investigative apparatus capable of identifying and developing information on subversive individuals and organizations and capable of neutralizing their activities. It is also necessary that this highly trained and specialized investigative apparatus be supported by a larger force which, in addition to performing routine police duties, must be capable of controlling demonstrations, riots, and other civil disorders.”
Viewed from our contemporary perspective, those words anticipate, by four decades, the post-9–11 Homeland Security State, with all-encompassing surveillance, collection and storage of immense volumes of intelligence in official databases; the identification of potential “subversives” for enrollment in No-Fly lists and similar categories; the use of undercover informants, provocateurs, and what US attorneys have called “terrorism facilitators” in sting and false-flag operations; and the proliferation of SWAT and other militarized special police units.
One of the chief missions of police counter-subversive boards, predictably, was to collect information on critics of the police
Kirkpatrick’s counter-subversion schematic called for the creation of a nationalized “internal security mechanism” that would collect and disseminate information on suspected subversives?—?that is, a secretive political police force.
Until the early 1970s, “red squads” operated by city police departments carried out a that function, gathering intelligence that was shared with the FBI. In defiance of constitutional limitations, this created what could honestly be described as a de facto national secret police organization. Hundreds of city police departments also pooled and shared intelligence through the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU), a nation-wide network created in 1956 by then-Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker because of a personal quarrel with FBI Director Hoover.
Like the Federal Reserve, the LEIU was a public-private partnership: As a “private” company, it was exempt from most forms of public accountability, yet it received federal subsidies to carry out its work. A successor organization using the same acronym exists today, carrying out a nearly identical mission.
Civilian Oversight as Red Treason
One of the chief missions of police counter-subversive boards, predictably, was to collect information on critics of the police?—?who were, as CIA analyst Kirkpatrick suggested, to be considered subversives by virtue of their critical perspective. This is particularly true of efforts to create citizen review boards and similar bodies to investigate reports of brutality and other misconduct.
Until the 1930s, citizen-initiated grand juries often conducted wide-ranging probes of official corruption, including police abuses. This reflects not only the republican concept of public accountability, but, in a sense, the idea of civilian oversight of the military. Following the establishment of the National Security State in 1947, however, the concept of “civilian” oversight of police departments was treated as a civic heresy inspired by the Communist Manifesto.
One of the chief popularizers of that view was the late Dr. Cleon Skousen, an FBI Special Agent who became Chief of Police in Salt Lake City, Utah and author of several books warning about Communism. Skousen reported that Dr. Bella Dodd, a defector from the National Committee of the Communist Party, told him that the idea of police review boards “was invented by the Community Party in the 1930s when it was felt that the country was ripe for revolution. The idea was to somehow get the police out from under the control of elected officials and subject the police to the discipline of a `civilian’ group which the Party could infiltrate and control”?—?thereby controlling the police.
A newsletter published by the National Fraternal Order of Police repackaged that complaint for the benefit of its members:
“No matter what names are used by the sponsors of the so-called “Police Review Boards” they exude the obnoxious order of Communism. This scheme is right out of the Communist handbook which states in part, `… police are the enemies of Communism, if we are to succeed we must do anything to weaken their work, to incapacitate them or make them a subject of ridicule.’”
During a July 1975 hearing of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond described criticism of police abuse as the product of “a concerted national drive by left-wing organizations?—?the Communist Part, the Maoists, the Trotskyists, and others?—?designed to inactivate or destroy police intelligence files on extremists across the country.”
The concept of a national “internal security” system would have been viewed with abhorrence by most of the Founding Generation.
According to Thurmond, “The drive against police intelligence activities involves the harassment and intimidation of police departments through legal suits, supported by a propaganda campaign and mass demonstrations.”
This subversive campaign, Thurmond maintained, threatened to destroy the FBI’s “cooperative working arrangement with police intelligence units in all of our major cities.” In this way, nominally local police acted as the eyes and ears of J. Edgar Hoover’s de facto national police agency, an apparatus Thurmond insisted was “essential to the internal security of our nation.”
How Far We’ve Fallen
The concept of a centralized, nationalized “internal security” system would have been viewed with abhorrence by most of the Founding Generation. The abuses committed following passage of the Alien and Sedition acts in the 1790s, although comparatively mild, were sufficient to generate a very strong backlash that included the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which were written by Jefferson and Madison, respectively. Those documents outlined the constitutional principles of interposition and nullification of federal police state measures, thereby placing individual liberty protected by law above “internal security” in the American hierarchy of values.
By the 1970s, conservatives who spoke reverently of the memory of Jefferson and Madison would just as routinely invoked the concept of “internal security” to justify the federalization and consolidation of police power, and efforts to immunize police from public accountability.
Just as Buckley decreed domestic totalitarianism to be preferable to a foreign import, Cold War conservatives insisted that Americans should countenance abuses committed by police in their own neighborhoods, rather than expressing criticism that would supposedly provide aid and comfort to a distant foreign enemy.