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It Can’t Happen Here?

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel entitled It Can’t Happen Here depicting how the United States following the example of many European nations responded to depression and war by turning toward totalitarianism. Despite the emergence of demagogues such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin, America in the 1930s did not descend into fascism. The advocates of American exceptionalism insist that with the separation of powers found in the Constitution that “it can’t happen here.” However, the response of many Americans to Muslims following the terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali, along with an examination of American history, gives pause and raises serious questions regarding this assumption.

Many of the Republican presidential candidates, along with members of Congress and many of the nation’s governors, have called for the creation of a larger national security state in response to threats of terrorism from the Islamic State. While some politicians are taking advantage of the terrorist threat to foster fear among the American people, they are abetted by the news media which feeds a twenty-four hour news cycle with images of death and destruction amid reports of possible further attacks. Demagogues running for president have suggested closing the nation’s borders to refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, closing some mosques, creating a national data base to register Muslims, increasing surveillance of American citizens, and dispatching American troops to Syria. The implementation of such policies would threaten American democracy and have the potential to bring about the fascism that concerned Sinclair Lewis. And the United States has had some close calls in the past.

After the notorious XYZ Affair in which American diplomats were asked to pay a bribe in order to open negotiations with the French government, there was a national clamor for war as Americans refused to pay tribute to a foreign government. As the nation and ruling Federalist Party prepared for war, there was concern that the Jeffersonians or Democratic-Republicans, who seemed to draw a great deal of support from recent European immigrants, would not support the war effort. Accordingly, Federalists in Congress succeeded in attaining passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Jeffersonian support among immigrants was to be reduced by expanding the naturalization period from five to fourteen years. Aliens who criticized President John Adams during the war crisis were subject to deportation, while citizens who undermined war preparation could be imprisoned for sedition or treasonous speech. These laws were enacted to silence Vice-President Jefferson and his followers. In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and James Madison composed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in which the state legislatures of the two states declared the Federalist legislation null and void. The potential of civil war seemed to loom over implementation of the Alien and Sedition Acts. To avert a crisis that might topple the new nation, Adams reopened negotiations with the French. With the threat of war removed, the Alien and Sedition Acts were allowed to expire, and freedom of speech and political association survived.

The right of dissent was also threatened by America’s entrance into the First World War, which also fostered intolerance for German-Americans. When the United States entered the conflict in 1917 many citizens of German descent changed their names from Schmidt to Smith as nativist mobs attacked them and forced them to kiss the American flag. The speaking of German was forbidden in many states, while schools and colleges suspended teaching of the language. The loyalty of German-Americans was suspect, and the same was true for many perceived radicals, such as the members of the Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who questioned American participation in the war. This intolerance became even greater following the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s withdrawal from the war.

Vigilantes in the West lynched IWW organizer Frank Little, and IWW miners were forcibly deported from Bisbee, Arizona. IWW newspapers were confiscated and banned from the mails, while leaders such as Big Bill Haywood were indicted for sedition. Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act by encouraging resistance to conscription. The war hysteria was essentially employed to destroy the Socialist Party, which had enjoyed widespread support among urban immigrants in the Northeast and Midwest as well as in Southwestern states such as Oklahoma. Indigenous American radicalism suffered a body blow in World War I from which it has never really recovered. A series of bombings on Wall Street following the war was blamed upon anarchists from Southern and Eastern Europe. Fearing that this “new immigration” was a threat to Anglo-Saxon American democracy, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer instituted a series of raids aimed against foreign radicals, many of whom were targeted for their ethnicity. Suspected foreign-born radicals, such as Emma Goldman, were arrested and deported. It is within this atmosphere that Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for murder and robbery, and the Ku Klux Klan gained a national following by labeling the “new immigration” as un-American.

The Second World War also tested American tolerance following the Japanese attacks upon Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Responding to fears that Japanese-Americans constituted a potential fifth column within the country, the American government removed residents of Japanese ancestry, regardless of citizenship, from the West Coast into isolated internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. The excuse for this unprecedented action was the fear of Japanese sabotage, although no such acts were ever confirmed. Perhaps this is somewhat similar to unsubstantiated claims that many American Muslims in New Jersey were on the rooftops celebrating the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. The Japanese evacuation was, of course, challenged in the courts, but the Supreme Court upheld a dangerous precedent in ruling that the president has the right as commander-in-chief to order such evacuations. By the time the camps were closed, many residents were unable to reclaim their homes, businesses, and jobs. Under President George H. W. Bush, the United States government finally got around to apologizing for this action. However, could a terrorist attack today foster a similar action against Muslim Americans?

American freedoms were tested by the Cold War and fears of Soviet attack, subversion, and espionage. Citizens were forced to sign loyalty oaths or lose their jobs in many schools and universities. Hollywood entertainers, directors, and screenwriters (such as Dalton Trumbo) were blacklisted for not informing on their colleagues. The House Committee on Un-American Activities as well as Senator Joseph McCarthy exercised the right to inquire into the political views of American citizens. In 1950, the McCarran Act required communist organizations to register with the government, and the legislation also included an emergency provision that gave the government the power to incarcerate Americans who were suspected of advocating sabotage or espionage. Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover encouraged surveillance of American citizens whose files could then be used to justify incarceration.

While massive imprisonment of dissenters under the McCarran Act did not take place during the Red Scare and McCarthyism, the opposition to the Vietnam War and unrest of the 1960s did lead the FBI to introduce a program known as COINTELPRO, in which government agents infiltrated and spied upon groups which Hoover deemed disloyal. Employing tactics that were later revealed to be illegal, the FBI encouraged divisions within the student and antiwar movements, while helping local law enforcement launch attacks against the Black Panthers that culminated in the murder of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton. The Vietnam War protests, urban and campus unrest, along with the assassination of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy terrified many Americans who feared a domestic revolution—a threat which was again fueled by the media. Politicians such as George Wallace and Richard Nixon made law and order with the militarization of police forces a key element of their appeal. However, the forces of order seemed to overreach, and many prominent trials such as the Chicago 8 and Panther 21 in New York City resulted in acquittals.

Following the end of the Cold War, there was no respite from fear with the advent of international terrorism and groups such as Al Qaeda. In response to the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while Congress passed the Patriot Act which increased the surveillance power of the state and limited judicial restraints. The invasion of Afghanistan did topple the Taliban government, but over a decade later the Taliban continue to exercise influence in the country, and the Afghan government backed by the United States has major problems with corruption and is unable to form a formidable fighting force. In Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration used the threat regarding weapons of mass destruction to promote a rush to war. Saddam Hussein was removed from power, but the invasion fostered a Sunni insurgency against the new Shia regime allied with Iran. After the war and withdrawal of American troops, the poor treatment of Sunnis by the Iraqi government, along with the destabilizing civil war in Syria, led to the rise of the Islamic State—a series of events set in motion by the ill-fated American military adventure in Iraq.

The world today is a dangerous place, and another terrorist action in the United States is certainly a possibility. The test for American democracy, however, will be how we respond to such a crisis. The Alien and Sedition Acts, World War I, the “new immigration,” the internment of Japanese Americans, the Cold War and McCarthyism, COINTELPRO and dissent in the 1960s, and the aftermath of 9/11 indicate that in times of crisis the United States has a history of giving into fear and abandoning liberty in favor of security. The abridgement of rights and freedom in exchange for security and law and order suggest that it could happen here, and citizens must be just as vigilant in protecting the rights of all Americans as we are in looking for terrorists.      


Image credits:  "Donald Trump Signs The Pledge 25" by Michael Vadon - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons. "No-mosque" by Albert Mestre. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.