Back in 1835, Samuel F.B. Morse (who went on to invent the telegraph and the Morse Code), wrote a book about a plot to overthrow the American republic. The conspiracy, Morse wrote, was well-funded, highly secretive, and hatched in Vienna by members of the The St. Leopold Foundation, which had dispatched cells of Jesuit missionaries to the U.S. to forcibly convert the nation to Roman Catholicism. This was no small intrigue: The plot’s leaders, as Morse meticulously catalogued, were Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich, Ferdinand V of Hungary, and (of course) Pope Gregory XVI. “It is high time that we awakened to the apprehension of danger,” Morse wrote.
What is shocking about this nonsense is not that Morse actually believed it, but that millions of other Americans did too. Morse’s book seeded the rise of the nativist “Know-Nothing” party, whose goal was to curb immigration, root out Catholicism, and return America to its protestant ideals. In essence, they were the America-firsters of the nineteenth century. The Know-Nothings swept into office in Chicago, were strong in Massachusetts and, in 1856, nominated a national ticket (Millard Fillmore and Andrew Donelson), for the presidency; they tallied nearly 900,000 votes, one-quarter of those cast. “I know nothing but my country, my whole country and nothing but my country,” they chanted.
Historians have since excavated the Morse plot with relish, if only as a way to better understand a nation that, from time to time, enjoys being scared witless.
Before the Know-Nothings there were the Anti-Masons, a political movement that warned of a takeover by secretive apron-wearing do-gooders who met for god-knows-why. And before that Americans were warned about witches named Dorothy, Rebecca, Martha, and Rachel, dancing in New England’s forests. Some 120 years after Morse, in 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter dubbed this “the paranoid style in American politics”—a paradigm-shifting essay that catalogued a raft of intrigues peopled by witches, Illuminati, Masons, Jesuits, Mormons, Jewish bankers, Bilderbergers and, in Hofstadter’s time, communist dupes doing Moscow’s bidding. America’s enemies might be unseen, but they were everywhere.
“In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship,” Hofstadter wrote, “is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it managed to survive at all.”
None of this qualifies as your typical run-of-the-mill lunacy (scented candles cause cancer), over-the-top tripe (the recent solar eclipse marks the beginning of the apocalypse), or unbelievable baloney (that man-made pyramids have been discovered in Antarctica). Rather, the paranoid style is rooted in pernicious, but believable, political fears: that the nation is under threat from people or movements plotting to do it harm and is teetering, teetering, teetering on the edge of an abyss. The problem is not that this is patently false (The Germans! The Japanese! The Russians!), but that it’s often exaggerated—and, sometimes, purposely so. Then too, as Hofstadter implied, preying on these fears for political gain not only isn’t new, it’s tried, tested, and often successful. Scaring the dickens out of voters is as American as the 4th of July.
The historical “for instance” in this is well-documented: during the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy insisted that the Soviet Union had outstripped the U.S. in ballistic missile production. There was a growing and dangerous “missile gap” Kennedy claimed, placing the nation in great peril. Dwight Eisenhower, he said, had been derelict in not acknowledging the threat. An independent study commission issued a report that confirmed the fear and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it credence: We are “turning out missiles like sausages,” he claimed. As it turns out, Kennedy was right: there was a missile gap, but not in a way that he thought—we had plenty, while they had none (a later CIA report speculated that, actually, they might have had three, maybe). Years later, Kennedy’s claim looked downright foolish: the problem for the Russians wasn’t that they couldn’t make missiles (they eventually did, and plenty of them), but that they couldn’t make sausages—which cost them their empire. The same kinds of claims were retailed by U.S. intelligence services about Russia’s allies: a 1987 CIA fact book said that East Germany’s GDP per capita was higher than West Germany’s, a claim so ludicrous that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan dismissed it to a panel of CIA officers with a legendary quip: “I know a Berlin taxi driver who could have told you that wasn’t true.”
The claims now are not only as breathless as anything the CIA said about East Germany in the 1980s, they’re as suspect: Mexico is “on the verge of collapse”—a claim made by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly—that Russia is providing arms to the Taliban (retold by the recently retired commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, Jr., and, just the other day by James Mattis), that the U.S. military will be “outranged and outgunned by many potential adversaries in the future” (noted by national security adviser H.R. McMaster prior to his service at the White House) and that, as Donald Trump himself said during his address to the United Nations, large parts of the world “are in conflict and some, in fact, are going to hell.”
The problem with the claims is that those who are asked to dismiss them are required to defend the opposite—that Mexico is economically healthy (it isn’t, but it’s hardly on the verge of collapse), that Russian weapons haven’t shown up in Afghanistan (they have, though not simply in the hands of the Taliban), that Russia and China aren’t developing new and more sophisticated weapons (they are, but so what?), or that it’s ridiculous not to believe that “major portions of the world are in conflict” (that’s always been true). The other problem with disproving the claims is that doing so contains a whiff of weakness, or naiveté: that the skeptic favors open borders, supports Afghan terrorism, doesn’t support a strong military, or is hopelessly misinformed. In fact, however, each of these claims have been made before—and refuted by expert testimony.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey said that Mexico was in a state of collapse back in 2009, a claim contradicted by then-Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair. More recently, and before the recent earthquake shook Mexico City, the collapsing Mexican government offered to help provide aid to Texans victimized by Hurricane Harvey. It’s a wonder they would think of us as the walls were coming down around them. Then too, if Mexico is really on the verge of collapse, shouldn’t the administration be doing something about it—perhaps we should appeal to the international community to provide the Mexican government with low interest loans, or maybe we should deploy a U.S. aircraft carrier group to the Gulf of Mexico. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the claim is Morse-like: designed to frighten us, perhaps, into building a wall as a barrier to keep immigrants who are not pouring over the border from pouring over the border.
The same holds true for each of the other claims. Following Gen. Nicholson’s statement that Russia was providing arms to the Taliban, his claim was given short shrift by both the Defense Intelligence Agency and by Jens Stoltenberg, the General Secretary of NATO. Stoltenberg acknowledged that he’d seen the reports, adding that the only thing they lacked was proof. But Stoltenberg went further, inviting Russia to be a part of the Afghanistan peace process—a strange request to a nation that a top U.S. general claims is helping the enemy. Even so, the claim was repeated just this last week by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who added Iran to the growing list of Taliban allies. Of course, Nicholson and Mattis might be absolutely right, but they’re saying so doesn’t make it so. Then too (we shuffle our feet, look at our shoes, mumble to ourselves), the Taliban’s best friend in Afghanistan isn’t Russia or Iran, it’s Pakistan—our friend.
That Russia is an antagonist is now widely accepted, and it is trivially true that Moscow’s nuclear arsenal (with or without the help of China) could lay waste to the U.S. But outgunning us? Russia spends a fraction of what the U.S. spends on its military establishment (some 14 percent of what we spend, in fact) and so must pick and choose what weapons it will develop. The result is that the Russian Federation continues technological advances in some weapons systems, but lacks significant technological depth elsewhere. During its 2015 May Day military parade, Russia showed off its new state-of-the-art T-14 main battle tank, complete with a new-fangled APS (active protection system) designed to defeat anti-armor weapons. Onlookers ogled the tank, oohing and ahhing at its shiny exterior, its impressive armament. But then, just as it was about to exit Red Square it broke down—and had to be towed. Is Russia a threat? Sure, it’s a threat. But Russia has many of the same problems now that it had at the end of the Cold War. It ranks 53rd in per capita GDP—just behind Panama.
The world has problems, big problems but it is not going to hell. Here’s what going to hell looks like. In the autumn of 1941, Europe was under the domination of a genocidal regime that had extended its murderous policies through all of Europe and whose armies were headed towards Moscow. In Asia, large swathes of China and all of Southeast Asia were occupied by Japanese militarists. The two, with Italy, had formed an axis and controlled significant portions of the globe. Their enemies were teetering on the edge of defeat. The world was going to hell, alright, but the U.S. had yet to get into the war.
But that’s not the worst of it. During the early morning hours of September 26, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was notified by his computer system that the U.S. had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles at Russia. Petrov sat there for a moment, when he should have been on the telephone to his superiors. After several moments he concluded that the warning just didn’t make sense. Why would the U.S. launch only five missiles at Russia, when everyone in the Soviet military supposed they would launch a barrage. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds,” he later told the BBC, “staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.” Petrov ignored the warning—and may well have prevented a nuclear holocaust.
So, yes, we’re in deep, deep trouble—just as we were when witches danced in Ipswich, when Samuel Morse claimed we were being subverted by papists, when Joe McCarthy saw a communist under every State Department memo—and when the Russians were producing missiles like sausages.
Now, as then, we have two choices: we can either embrace our fears and shake in our boots, or we can tell the sky-is-falling crowd what Samuel F.B. Morse’s friends told him all the way back in 1835.
Get a grip.
Mark Perry is a foreign policy analyst and the author of The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur. His next book, The Pentagon’s Wars, will be released in October. He tweets @markperrydc