Over the past few weeks, it feels like the world’s gone a bit insane. Russia is turning a blind eye to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Donald Trump is threatening harsh action, and even Britain is getting tangled in a war of words with Russia over the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
As my family and I watch each day reveal more jolting and alarming news, we each remember the babbling priest my dad sheltered for a night a few years ago. He was a middle-aged, Irish man who actually carried a Bible wherever he went. He warned us that when world war three begins, it will mean China and Russia, with assistance from North Korea, will be the ones to take over. We thought him mad, and though his prediction is still far off course, this twisted reality seems all the more possible.
Now with what feels like a new attitude towards the likes of Russia beginning to take shape, what is most worrying is not the actions that Russia will take on us, but how we might damage ourselves here in the west. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, has stood mostly alone in his views regarding how the current Conservative Party leaders like Theresa May and Boris Johnson are handling the issue — with Corbyn being one of the few who was against expelling Russian diplomats. Safe to say the labour leader received a lot of bad press from the media, his opposition and even his own party; some even called him a communist.
But whilst some might see a strong Britain standing up against tyranny and fighting against domestic pro-Russian forces, I see mostly evidence of a historic hostility towards Russia by the west — and the potentially disastrous consequences of this.
In Richard M. Fried’s book Nightmare In Red: The McCarthy Era In Perspective, Fried tells in great detail how the fear and attitudes towards Communism birthed a phenomenon that did more damage than Russia itself. If you aren’t aware of McCarthyism, imagine being summoned by a government panel, but in this case, you aren’t sure why you’re there. You’re aggressively questioned, asked about the weight of your loyalty to your country and asked to surrender your peers. If you don’t, you could be arrested for contempt, lose your job, and be blacklisted and labelled a communist forever. This was McCarthyism.
In the book, Fried follows the rise of McCarthyism, which ruined thousands of lives including those of politicians, actors, writers and even teachers. There was nobody who wasn’t at risk of being accused of being anti-American. If you centred towards leftist views, had family or friends who were multicultural, or if you opposed the views of the government in any way, you could be accused of being a communist and the consequences followed.
This fear led to the likes of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. He used the fear of communist Russia to attack anyone who opposed or differed in views, accusing the Democrats of being soft on Communism. He distorted and often made up information to back up his accusations. This kept evolving as journalists, politicians and even President Nixon backed the senator’s mission. The scourge of McCarthyism ran wild in the US and many wanted to speak out but were afraid that they would be accused. The result was a climate of accusations without evidence, co-workers turning on each other, and thousands of people turning a blind eye in the name of national security.
The heightened suspicion of domestic communism was not only a result of the Cold War, but was equally fuelled by the fear of Russia itself and that communist ideology would take over. This general anxiety was then abused and used as a manipulation device, leading to the longest period of political oppression in recent history. And this was in the west, where we pride ourselves on being a democracy.
Curiously, manipulation was also a tactic Putin had used when he was running for president. After the resignation of Boris Yeltsin many of the Russian people feared that the likes of America and Britain would attack, especially after NATO had moved so close to the border. Putin assured them that he would defend the country against an advancing west.
Looking back on the Cold War and McCarthyism in perspective, we see that the greatest enemy a country and its people can have is themselves. As we enter into this new period of hostility, unsure of what will happen next, it is worth remembering the past — or we are doomed to relive it.