Believe it or not but it's true: Moscow has always influenced US elections, at least since the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The election of 1920 was fought under the shadow of a Red Scare, with thousands of aliens detained and deported from the US on suspicion of a global communist conspiracy.
In 1952, the Republicans won a landslide victory having accused the incumbent Democrats of ineptitude and even treason in dealing with the "communist subversion."
In 1960, the Democrats returned the favor by accusing the Republicans that on their watch the Soviets had developed a major edge over US in nuclear missiles. John Kennedy turned to his advantage the perceived "missile gap" between the United States and Soviet Union.
In 1976, the Republican Gerald Ford, slightly ahead in the polls, played down the Soviet "threat" — and lost to the outsider Jimmy Carter, who then took the dubious credit for letting the jihadi genie out of the bottle by initiating a multi-billion dollar program of arming the Afghan mujahidin, in cahoots with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
To Win an Election
But the laurels of the "mother" of all anti-Russian hysteria during the US elections must go to the Second Red Scare of the 1950s, popularly known as McCarthyism, after Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The "anti-subversive" witch-hunt launched by him under Democratic president Harry Truman and peaking under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower, was a contest over who was the most devout and genuine Cold Warrior and anti-communist.
In February 1950, McCarthy made headlines with his claims that he had a list of names of some 205 communists in the State Department, which he did not reveal. It's an established fact that McCarthy's accusations were fantastic and unsupportable. Yet, according to opinion polls, most Americans believed McCarthy who fielded witnesses, many of whom had been on FBI's payroll for years. Many members of Congress, envious of his success, began to support his heavy-handed and abusive tactics for political purposes.
Both Truman and Eisenhower tried to undermine and destroy McCarthy but not because they were "in bed with Moscow" as McCarthy claimed, but because they didn't want a junior senator from Wisconsin to steel their own anti-communist thunder — and votes.
As one prominent Republican politician explained to columnist James Reston:
"The issue of subversion comes down to this: are we going to win an election or aren't we?"
During the 1948 campaign, Truman was criticized by the Republicans for his perceived failure to prevent the spread of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. In response Truman came up with a foreign policy doctrine designed, as one of his friends commented, "to scare the hell out of the American people."
In that he succeeded, with the Congress drafting more and more draconian legislation to investigate anyone suspected of "un-American" ideas, including "sexual perversion."
'Nail Your Neighbor'
In their zeal to stamp out all signs of "subversion" in the United States, professional and amateur anti-communists threatened to suppress civil liberties as well, as graphically documented at the time by a prominent editorial cartoonist, Herb Block.
"Say, what ever happened to 'freedom-from-fear'?", Herblock, 1951, published in the Washington Post pic.twitter.com/RTo1D8L2JN— Miranda Hale (@mirandachale) January 11, 2015
During the anti-communist campaign hundreds of elementary and high school teachers were investigated and lost their jobs, sometimes as a result of being "exposed" by self-appointed vigilante groups and individuals. Some individuals circulated their own blacklists, which were accepted by employers who feared being blacklisted themselves if they asked for proof. The motives of some self-serving or vindictive accusers were summed up by Herb Block in a phrase:
"If you can't crush the commies, you can nail a neighbor."
"Nailing neighbors" has become a favorite pastime on Capitol Hill. Truman wrote in his diary in November 1950, that new Congress had "more morons than patriots in it." He considered his opponents as "Stalin's helpers," though none could compare to McCarthy in their usefulness to Moscow. Truman labeled the senator "the greatest asset the Kremlin has."
The President complained to his brother:
"A pathological liar from Wisconsin (McCarthy) and a block-headed undertaker from Nebraska (Sen. Kenneth Wherry-R) are trying to ruin bipartisan foreign policy. Stalin never had two better allies in the Senate."
From the other side of bipartisan spectrum came a vote catching line of Eisenhower's presidential campaign of 1952 about the "mess in Washington" and Truman's failings in containing communists at home and abroad.
The irony of the McCarthy phenomenon was that the senator burst into national prominence with charges about spies and communists at the very moment when the threat of internal subversion in the executive branch was on the wane, if not entirely extinguished.
To keep himself in the headlines McCarthy accused General George Marshall of involvement in an "immense communist conspiracy." The allegation, made against "the greatest living American," in Truman's words, showed that the hysteria generated by politicians had taken root. Truman publicly chastised those who use "the big lie for personal public and partisan advantage, heedless of the damage they do to the country." The President went as far as to liken McCarthyism to "Hitlerism," calling it "a form of bacteriological warfare against the minds and souls of men."
However, Truman's own anti-communist crusade in the form of intrusive loyalty checks on government employees ruined the lives of many innocent people.
Truman tried to destroy McCarthy in a way that almost matched the senator in hypocrisy and self-serving partisanship, wrote Hugh Alexander Ambrose in his dissertation about the battle between Truman and McCarthy.
"Truman blamed his defeat on McCarthyism, which he defined as a mixture of national hysteria and evil partisanship."
In search of an explanation for the phenomenon of McCarthyism that has gripped the nation, the White House commissioned a "Study of 'Witch Hunting' and Mass Hysteria in America," which linked the frantic politics of McCarthyites to larger, cyclical trends in US history.
The same forces, the study claimed, had produced such unsavory periods in US history as the Alien and Seditions Acts of 1798 and the Salem Witch Trials in 1690s. According to the study, social change, economic downturns and international tension precipitated these periods of hysteria.
"Periods of national stress have come and gone before," said the study.
"Their departure has been hastened only when the people have been restored to their normal senses."
Let's hope that the end of the US election season will do just that — at least until the next one.