The U.S. has a lengthy tradition of paranoia and conspiracy theory dating from colonial times onwards, and it would not be difficult to cite many examples of that sad trend—times when Americans directed their suspicions toward such groups as Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. Today, that paranoid tradition is usually deployed against conservatives, with Trumpism presented as the latest manifestation of the American Paranoid Style.
Running alongside that, though, is an equally potent tradition of false accusations of paranoia: of using mockery and psychobabble to minimize quite genuine threats that the country faces. Yes, Sen. Joe McCarthy made wild and even ludicrous claims about communist subversion, but communists had in fact infiltrated U.S. industry and politics, a potentially lethal menace at a time when the U.S. and USSR stood on the verge of apocalyptic warfare. We were dealing with far more than a “Red Scare” or vulgar “McCarthyism.” And through the 1990s, anyone suggesting that al-Qaeda might pose a serious threat to New York or Washington was accused of succumbing to conspiracy nightmares about James Bond-style supervillains.
Sometimes, alleged menaces are bogus; but sometimes the monsters are real. Sometimes, they really are out to get you.
Next year, American paranoia will be much in the news when we commemorate the centennial of U.S. entry into the First World War. At that time, xenophobic and nativist passions unquestionably did rage against people derived from enemy nations, above all Germany. Vigilante mobs brutally attacked German individuals and properties, and a whole culture war raged against any manifestations of German language, literature, or music. Outrageous scare stories circulated about German plots, spies, and terrorists. When those stories are recounted in 2017, you can be certain that they will conclude with telling contemporary references about modern-day paranoia and xenophobia, especially directed against Muslims.
But how valid were those historic charges? Some years ago, I researched the extensive domestic security records of the state of Pennsylvania during the First World War era, at a time when this was one of the two or three leading industrial areas, critically significant to the war effort. Specifically, I looked at the internal records of the Pennsylvania State Police, an agency notorious in left-wing circles as a bastion of racism, reaction, and anti-labor violence. The agency was on the front lines of concerns about spies and terrorists, as the primary body to which citizens and local police would confide their suspicions about German plots.
What I found about those security efforts differed massively from the standard narrative. The first impression you get from those confidential documents is how extraordinarily sensible and restrained those police officers actually were. In the face of hundreds of complaints and denunciations, the agency’s normal response was to send in an undercover cop, who would investigate the alleged German traitor. On the vast majority of occasions, the officer would then submit a report explaining why Mr. Schmidt was in fact harmless. Yes, the officer might say, Schmidt has a big mouth, and cannot restrain himself from boasting about German victories over the Allies. He might on occasion have said something stupid about how the gutless Americans will never be able to stand up against the Kaiser’s veterans. On the whole, though, he is a windbag who should be left alone. Quite frequently, the reports might say, sympathetically, that Mr. Siegel is a harmless and decent individual whom the locals dislike because of his strong accent, and they really should stop persecuting him. Or that all the evidence against Mr. Müller was cooked up by hostile neighbors.
Overall, the internal security efforts in Pennsylvania at least impress by their sanity, decency, and restraint. That might be a tribute to the human qualities of the cops in question, although it is also true that enemy aliens were so abundant in Pennsylvania that nobody could feasibly have tried to jump on every misplaced word. But you look in vain for evidence of official paranoia. Ordinary people might have been “spy mad,” as a report noted, but the cops weren’t.
So innocuous were the general run of reports that I tended to believe those that did refer to sedition, which was no myth. A great many Germans or German sympathizers wound up in trouble because they had said or done things that were truly destructive in the context of a nation at war. They did publicly laud German armies, disparage U.S. forces, and spread slanders about American atrocities in Mexico as well as on the Western Front. Some even flew the German flag and denounced German neighbors who supported the war effort.
And then there were the spies and terrorists. When you read next year about the alleged paranoia of the time, do recall the genuine German conspiracies of the time, such as the Black Tom attack that occurred in Jersey City in July 1916, while the U.S. was still at peace. German saboteurs destroyed a U.S. munitions shipment destined for the Allies, in the process unleashing an explosion so large that it made people in Maryland think they were hearing an earthquake. Also recall that German secret agents really had formed working alliances with dissident groups on U.S. soil—Irish Republican militants in the big cities, Mexicans in the Southwest.
If the Germans ever did plan to strike again at the U.S. war effort, Pennsylvania would surely be their first target, and petty acts of arson and sabotage abounded. How sensible, then, were the state police to focus their efforts on German sympathizers who really did look and act like potential terrorists? In one typical case, a young German miner in Carbon County was heard making pro-German remarks. This was alarming because he was located right in the heart of the strategic coal country. On further examination, Wagner speculated in detail about just how the Allies could be crushed militarily. He then boasted to an undercover officer that he knew how to convey information to Philadelphia, where radio transmissions could carry it to the Mexican border, and thence to German agents. The investigating officer concluded, with the far from “hysterical” judgment, that Wagner “is a dangerous man … for he is very loyal to Germany; would like to work for the Fatherland, and his people who are in the war.”
I mentioned the comparison between “paranoia” in the Great War and modern Islamophobia. Actually, that Islamic parallel is closer than we might think. Then as now, some people spread worthless slanders about foreigners and aliens, but also, then as now, some of the nightmare stories were actually true. Among the mass of harmless ordinary migrants devoted to working to improve themselves and their families, there really were, and are, people out to destroy America and Americans. Despite all the horror stories we hear about idiots in 1917 striking at the Kaiser by kicking a dachshund in the street, German spies and terrorists really existed, and they posed a lethal threat.
I mention this context now because you are not going to hear much about it in the coming year, when we will once again be lamenting the American Paranoid Style.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.