The Chronicle Review

Anger and Security

How the cold war ended the notion of public good

Getty Images

July 11, 2010

The first decade of the 21st century was marked by the events of September 11, 2001, and the military campaign against terrorism that followed. Since then, we have seen a major preoccupation with security that sparked a wide range of antidemocratic policies, from torture to the Patriot Act to Guantánamo. We have become accustomed to orange alerts, metal detectors, and taking off half our clothes at airports. But if we assume that all that started with 9/11, or that the trouble lies primarily with public policies, we miss the deeper roots of our national-security obsession, which began more than half a century ago, permeating not just public life but private life as well.

The preoccupation with security, and the anger at enemies unseen and the lack of faith in government to protect against them, emerged during the same decades that American democracy expanded to become more inclusive and more tolerant. As a result of what some have called the "rights revolution"—the civil-rights, feminist, gay-liberation, and disability-rights movements—America came much closer to reaching its full democratic promise.

Those two goals—one to expand democracy, the other to achieve security—need not be in conflict. Democracy and security depend upon each other. But when citizens retreat from public life, they are unable to achieve meaningful change on behalf of the common good. People are more likely to feel insecure and distrust each other; democracy withers, and fear and anger prevail.

In the United States since World War II, security and democracy have been on a collision course. Misguided ideas about security, along with an investment in private life at the expense of public life, have muted efforts to expand and strengthen democracy, resulting in a nation that is not as democratic, nor as secure, as it could be. The reasons for this clash reach back far into American history. Citizens have long been willing to compromise their basic democratic rights to achieve national security, especially during wartime. But since World War II, that willingness has become chronic.

The cold war ushered in an uneasy peacetime marked by heightened international tensions that periodically erupted into hot wars in places like Korea and Vietnam and that led to a perpetual state of insecurity. Antidemocratic policies, from the early cold-war purges of suspected communists and homosexuals, to the erosion of individual rights in the campaign against terrorism, have received extensive attention by scholars. Less studied are the ways in which citizens, in their private lives, have adopted and internalized the preoccupation with security.

The cold war laid the groundwork. Cold-war ideology wove together several strands of American political culture into a tough fabric to withstand the harsh postwar climate and protect the American way of life. Those strands included a belief in individual freedom, unfettered capitalism, the sanctity of the home, and a suspicion of outsiders. At the dawn of the atomic age, protection against external dangers took the form of a nuclear arsenal; protection against internal enemies took the form of a nuclear family. The two were profoundly connected. The United States vigorously opposed international control of nuclear weapons, insisting upon an accumulation of weapons that led to a spiraling nuclear-arms race.

A similar process unfolded at home. To avoid big-government programs that might resemble socialism, policy makers rejected large-scale public civil-defense efforts and instead encouraged citizens to plan for a possible attack by fortifying their homes. The news media did its part to keep citizens alert and insecure. For example, on July 26, 1950, the front page of the Los Angeles Times reported, "Experts Weighing A-Bomb Peril Here." To help readers figure out their own likelihood of being incinerated, the paper carried helpful illustrations. One map showed six hypothetical targets of atomic bombs dropped by the Soviet Union on Los Angeles; another showed concentric circles from a potential ground zero. Civil-defense officials, and enterprising businesses, offered homeowners tips on constructing basement shelters, backyard bunkers, or even the "all-concrete blast resistant house."

Very few homeowners actually constructed shelters. But the message was clear: The world was dangerous, and citizens were responsible for their own safety. Over time, a domestic arms race developed parallel to the nuclear arms race: Citizens fortified their homes and armed themselves. Soon Americans could boast that they had more missiles, and more pistols, than anyone else. The United States' nuclear stockpile consistently outnumbered that of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982. By the early 1990s, the percentage of American households with guns was far above that in most other industrialized countries.

There were good reasons to be worried. Atomic war was a real possibility. Domestic dangers were also real. By the late 1960s, crime was rising and inner cities were exploding. There were also good reasons to distrust the government. In its investigative zeal, it engaged in intrusive practices like wiretapping and surveillance. In a 1970 Herblock political cartoon from The Washington Post, reprinted in Time magazine, a house is labeled "individual security." Two criminals breaking into it are marked "crime increase," and two officials breaking into the house with them are marked "administration" and "no knock, wiretapping, and preventive detention." The caption reads, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em." By the time the Watergate scandal unfolded, a few years later, government officials had actually become thugs and burglars. Trust in government dropped from 75 percent in 1963 to 25 percent in 1979.

While dangers were real, Americans responded with exaggerated fear and distrust, much of it focused on crime. A 1974 study concluded, "The fear of crime in the U.S. is a fundamental social problem which has not yet received attention in proportion to its severity and which may well prove to be more difficult to treat than criminality itself."

So, how did this happen? I would suggest that the legacy of the cold war fed an irrational response to crime, encouraged citizens to retreat from public life, and worked against the democratizing momentum of the rights revolution. Although the cold war was not the sole cause of the fear and anger at government, its ideological premises shaped the response to it.

Long before crime filled the headlines and the airwaves, there was the alleged communist threat. Private enterprise did its part to whip up fear of communists. In 1953, a public-service ad in Newsweek for Norfolk and Western Railway pictured a frightened boy at home at night in a dark hallway, with the caption: "You needn't be ashamed of being afraid in the dark, son." It went on to say that darkness was "a hiding place for confusion, greed, conspiracy, treachery, socialism." Innocent children inside their homes appeared particularly vulnerable, and communists were not the only threat. The government was equally dangerous. A 1950 public-service announcement in U.S. News & World Report from the Electric Light and Power Companies warned of increasing government control and assured readers that the company was "battling this move toward a socialistic government."

Such advertisements raised fears that parents and their children were vulnerable. Companies called upon men to protect their families with do-it-yourself defense, and to trust private enterprise, not the government, to keep them secure. That message was nowhere more explicit than in ads for the insurance industry, promising "self-made security" for the "do-it-yourself American." Gradually the home shifted from the place that provides protection to the place that needs protection. One of the most outspoken advocates of privatized single-family dwellings was Elizabeth Gordon, editor-in-chief of House Beautiful. Railing against the International Style that she considered collectivist and un-American, she wrote in 1953 that the style "masses families together in one giant building so that relatively few, strategically placed, block leaders could check on all movements and conduct classes of ideological indoctrination."

By the early 1960s, domestic anticommunism was losing its sting. Crime began to replace communism as a threat to individual security. In 1968, The Ladies' Home Journal ran an article featuring several gadgets to make the home more secure against intruders. General Telephone & Electronics took out a two-page ad in Time magazine, promoting its new intercom system, asking: "Who's downstairs ringing your bell? A friend? Or the Boston Strangler?" The private-security business in the United States increased from $3.3-billion in 1970 to $52-billion in 1991.

The growing siege mentality wasn't just about crime. Although crime was increasing, even at its peak, in the last half of the 20th century, the rate of violent crime barely exceeded its highest point in the first half of the century. Throughout the 20th century, the murder rate remained below 11 murders per 100,000 population. But regardless of the slim likelihood of becoming a crime victim, crime came to stand in for the many upheavals at the time that disrupted the cold-war order, including political protests, urban riots, and the many challenges to status quo and authority. A backlash began immediately, attempting to put the status-quo order back together. Cold-war ideology, with its emphasis on privatization, self-defense, and suspicion of both government and outsiders, gave shape to the backlash.

Politicians were quick to respond with a call for law and order. That was a new campaign issue. In the early cold-war years, from 1948 until 1964, candidates warned of the communist menace and promised to be tough on organized crime. But there was no mention of street crime in any presidential candidate's acceptance speech or in any inaugural address. That changed in 1964, when the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, and Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic incumbent, vied over the greatest dangers facing citizens, and who offered the best protection. Goldwater said he would not rule out using tactical nuclear weapons in war; Johnson ran the famous ad of a little girl counting daisy petals in a field of flowers as a man's voice-over counted down to sounds of a blast and horrific scenes of a nuclear bomb exploding. Goldwater responded with his own fear-mongering, not about atomic war but about crime, political protest, and social chaos. One ad proclaimed: "Graft! Swindle! Juvenile Delinquency! Crime! Riots! Hear what Barry Goldwater has to say about our lack of moral leadership." Although Johnson easily won the election, Goldwater's message on social chaos set the tone for later campaigns.

The framing of the crime issue reveals the escalating clash between security and democracy. The 1960s marked a shift in the black-freedom struggle from civil rights to black power. While black people were not the only targets of racial profiling, news-media coverage of groups like the Black Panthers and television images of urban riots fed a backlash that emphasized a black/white binary. The rise of the feminist movement also intensified the reaction against women entering public life. Just at the time when African-Americans and women were asserting their rights, the news media fused the two issues by reviving the age-old trope that black men were dangerous and women—especially white women—were vulnerable. As early as 1963, U.S. News & World Report exhorted women, "First Scream, Then Scram." The Washington Post warned women not to "walk around alone at night." By 1970, Time pointed to "the universal fear of violent crime and vicious strangers." Who were these vicious strangers? According to Time, "the most crime-prone segment of the population—poor urban youths aged 15 to 24—will increase disproportionately at least until 1975. Sheer demography adds a racial factor: Half the nation's blacks are under 21."

The term "black militant" carried the most ominous weight, evoking power, violence, and danger. For example, Time quoted Julius W. Hobson, a critic of Washington, D.C.'s leadership, and identified him simply as "a local black militant." The magazine failed to mention that Hobson was a longtime civil-rights activist and World War II veteran who had attended Tuskegee, Columbia, and Howard Universities, held an M.A. in economics, was a member of the Washington school board, would soon be elected to the D.C. city council, and had taught at three colleges.

Such warnings twisted reality and exaggerated danger. The most likely victims of violent crime, then as now, were men of color. The least likely were white women. Moreover, women were much safer, statistically, on the city streets in the middle of the night than in their own homes, where most violence against women occurred. Messages intended to scare women back into the home also portrayed them as the cause of crime. As increasing numbers of women with children entered the work force, the news media began to blame working mothers, not only for leaving their homes unprotected, but also for leaving their children unsupervised and undisciplined.

Meanwhile, as the backlash against feminism and civil rights intensified, so did the panic over crime. Calls for law and order led to harsher punishment for offenders. Although increasing numbers of European countries abolished the death penalty, and the United States followed suit with a moratorium on capital punishment in 1972, it lasted only until 1976. Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and breathed new life into the cold war, calling for law and order, family values, and a "star wars" protective shield in outer space to keep the country safe.

By then fear of crime had taken on a life of its own that continued to escalate, independent of the crime rate. Hollywood did its part to foster fear and encourage angry citizens to take crime control into their own hands, vigilante-style. The very popular Death Wish films, starring Charles Bronson, began in 1974 and continued into the mid-1990s. Undoubtedly inspired by the notorious grisly murders committed by Charles Manson and his hippie-styled followers in 1969, a unique crime that nevertheless convinced many people that the counterculture had gone berserk, the five increasingly violent movies followed the protagonist, whose wife was murdered and daughter raped by a gang of thugs who broke into their home. The villains were portrayed as racial minorities and white hippies. The ineffectual police could do nothing. The main character, a New York City architect who had been a loving husband and father and a "bleeding-heart liberal," was transformed into a gun-toting vigilante out for revenge.

Vigilante justice was not confined to movie screens. In December 1984, Bernhard Goetz, a white subway passenger, shot four black youths when they tried to rob him—and quickly became a folk hero. Racialized fear-mongering intensified during the 1980s, reaching a new low in 1988 with the infamous "Willie Horton" ad by George H.W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, which featured a black man on parole who raped and murdered when released from prison under the watch of Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Dukakis responded with an ad of his own, featuring a Latino heroin dealer who, paroled from prison when Bush was in charge of fighting drugs, then raped and murdered a woman. The messages had an impact. One study found that for white viewers, fear of crime increased when criminals portrayed on television were minorities, but fear of crime did not increase when the criminals were white.

In the 1990s, the clash between security and democracy reached a crescendo. It was a decade of small government and big business. A Democratic president presided over the demise of welfare, a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor, and mergers of giant corporations into even more gigantic conglomerates with vast power. Citizens expressed distrust toward the government and one another. Although the crime rate declined in the 90s, fear continued to rise. Between 1989 and 1994, the percentage of those polled who said they were "truly desperate" about crime nearly doubled, from 32 percent to 62 percent. At the same time, the rate of violent crime declined. Because of a widespread belief that the police could not be trusted to protect Americans, private security companies began patrolling neighborhoods. From the 1970s on, expenditures for private security exceeded expenditures for public law enforcement. During the 1980s, the employment rate in the private security industry far outstripped the rate in law enforcement.

The cold war was over, but the war on drugs took its place. Bringing atomic-age fears full circle, in 1996 a TV ad for the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole began with the same footage of the little girl with a daisy, taken from the 1964 Johnson ad. The female narrator intoned, "Thirty years ago, the biggest threat to her was nuclear war. Today the threat is drugs."

In 1996, the Princeton University political scientist John DiIulio Jr. made a startling prediction. Looking at demographic trends, he asserted that by 2005, the number of 14- to 17-year-old males would increase by 23 percent, and that the rate would rise faster among black children than among white children. Assuming that black boys would necessarily become violent teenage criminals, he coined the term "superpredator." Critics who called DiIulio's warnings alarmist, racist, and inaccurate were correct. The crime wave he warned about never happened.

But false and frightening predictions like DiIulio's had an impact. Black people were incarcerated far out of proportion to their crimes. In the 1990s, white people constituted 70 percent of those arrested (in line with their percentage of the population), but only 30 percent of those who went to prison. The reverse was true for people of color, who constituted 30 percent of those arrested, but 70 percent of prison inmates.

By the late 20th century, not only criminals lived behind bars and walls. Increasing numbers of Americans locked themselves up in fortified homes. Nowhere has that bunker mentality been more obvious than in the rapid proliferation of gated communities. In the West, South, and Southeast, more than 40 percent of new residential developments are gated. Homeowners are paying significant fees for their infrastructure and security, which are independent of public support and oversight. Inside the gates and walls, as recent survey data demonstrate, there is little sense of community or concern for the common good.

Americans altered the way they live because of fear of crime. A study of eight major cities shows that nearly half of all Americans have changed their lifestyles to avoid crime, by not going out alone or at night, avoiding downtown areas of major cities, subways, and contact with people who look or seem dangerous. Many parents, dubbed "hel-icopter parents," are so worried about their children's safety that they hover over them, refusing to let them out of their sight. Cities spend millions on surveillance cameras, but there is not sufficient evidence that those devices make public spaces safer. Cameras might help to identify and prosecute criminals after a crime takes place, but they do not often deter crime.

The personal fear of crime mirrors the national response to the dangers of the atomic age: a heightening of alarm, a proliferation of arms, anger at perceived enemies, and a bunker mentality, rather than investment in the common good. The number of guns in the country has increased steadily, from 76 per 100 residents in 1994 to 90 per 100 residents in 2007. Forty states now allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. The U.S. Supreme Court just struck down a Chicago law banning guns, an interpretation of the Second Amendment that could allow firearms everywhere in the country.

The cold war was a factor in the obsession with security and the antidemocratic response to it that continued long after the war ended. There are many outstanding studies of the domestic culture of the cold war that point to several possible avenues for further exploration. We know that not all its aspects were antidemocratic. After all, in an effort to eradicate inequalities and showcase to the world that the United States could live up to its ideals, national policies supported civil rights, women's rights, and the expansion of the welfare state in the Great Society programs. It is worth further study to examine why those liberal cold-war impulses were not powerful enough to prevent the antidemocratic tendencies that fostered the security obsession. It is also worth exploring the extent to which exaggerated concerns about security may have pushed the American political center to the right.

The principles of individualism, unfettered capitalism, the sanctity of the home, and a suspicion of outsiders that gained salience in the early cold-war era has far outlived the conflict itself. Although Americans have largely accepted the gains of civil rights and feminism, the security obsession has limited those achievements from reaching their full potential.

Fear has made Americans feel less secure. And the fear that breeds anger, hostility to government, and lack of concern for the common good may have made the nation considerably less secure. While Americans were distracted by street crime that harms relatively few people, unregulated private enterprise fleeced the entire country. Locks on the doors did not protect families against losing their homes through mortgage foreclosure. Guns in their pockets did not prevent them from losing their shirts to Wall Street thugs.

And what about democracy? Democracy depends on citizens accepting their differences and trusting each other, at least to the extent that they understand themselves as belonging to a civic sphere as well as a private sphere. It requires investing in the common good, and holding the government accountable as the institution that represents, and acts on behalf of, the citizenry. If, in the name of security, Americans distrust one another and the government, and value private protection at the expense of the public good, then the basic social and political practices that ensure a healthy democracy cannot survive.

Elaine Tyler May is a professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Her most recent book is America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation (Basic Books). This essay is based on her 2010 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians. The full text will appear in The Journal of American History in March 2011.