Usually when someone analogizes the US government’s current campaign against Russian influence to the Red Scare of the 1950s, it’s meant as a cautionary device. Let’s not go back to black lists and “un-American activities.”
Last week, however, National Security Adviser John Bolton reached back to this era to describe in earnest what the US intelligence community believes it’s up against. In an interview with the conservative radio host Mark Levin, Bolton described the kind of Russian and foreign influence the US government is trying to foil with a direct reference to the bad old days:
“Let’s remember back when it was the Soviet Union, the communists made an effort in the 1940s and the 1950s to influence American public opinion by getting control of Hollywood, by taking over the Screen Actors Guild, by getting the writers’ and producers’ unions under their control.
This is what brought Ronald Reagan into political life, to stop that effort to influence opinion by taking over Hollywood. Using social media now for the Russians is a new medium of expression, but the tactics are the same. We were vigilant against it in the ’40s and ’50s, and beyond that we need to be vigilant against this kind of foreign influence today.”
The context of these remarks provides a delicious irony. Bolton is defending his boss, Donald Trump, from Democrats who charge that Trump has done nothing to counter the Russian threat to our democratic system. Bolton says that’s wrong. Trump is well aware of the threat of Russian influence and has directed his spies and hackers to defend the republic against it, just as the FBI did in the 1940s and 1950s.
And yet Trump often sounds like the reds the FBI hunted in the 1950s. Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe against him a term borrowed from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, “The Crucible,” about the Salem witch trials and a commentary on the anti-communist hysteria whipped up by Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wisconsin.
Like the progressives of 70 years ago, Trump also expresses his desire to reach an accommodation with Moscow: “Getting along with Russia is good thing.” The anti-communists of the 1950s would likely deride this kind of talk as treacherous naivete.
On the history, Bolton is half right. The historian Ron Radosh, co-author with his wife Allis of “Red Star Over Hollywood,” told me it was true there were screenwriters, producers and others in Hollywood of that era who were members of the Communist Party. But there is scant evidence Hollywood’s communists took orders from the Kremlin; rather, they acted on their own conviction.
Bolton could have used other examples as well. The indispensable history of the KGB, “The Sword and the Shield,” based on handwritten copies of the Soviet intelligence services’ archives, provides many. There was the Soviet campaign to spread the conspiracy theory in the 1980s that the CIA created the AIDS virus. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Soviets spread disinformation that he was murdered by the US government.
The parallels are apparent between those campaigns and Russian meddling today. Mueller’s indictments of 13 Russians in February described a disinformation campaign that created fake Instagram and Twitter accounts urging Muslims and blacks not to vote in the 2016 election.
The difference of course is that the advent of social media makes it much easier to spread lies directly to voters. In the old days, KGB spies had to cultivate friendly reporters, start newspapers and carefully push propaganda. Today, it just takes a few fake Facebook accounts and a Twitter handle.
That said, it’s dangerous to focus too much on this aspect of Russian interference. The Russians are not 10 feet tall. They have been trying to influence US elections for decades. Nikita Khrushchev boasted in his first summit with John F. Kennedy that he helped elect him president in 1960, according to Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov’s history of Soviet foreign policy, “Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War.”
To say that Russian fake news swung the vote for Trump is really an indictment of the president’s supporters. They were dupes of Putin’s propaganda.
Far better to distinguish between Russia’s social media campaign and the more dangerous tactic hacking of US political figures and then releasing their emails on the internet, or recruiting Americans as agents of influence. While the Russians used all of these techniques in a kind of hybrid political warfare, the FBI and the National Security Agency should focus on the more threatening components of these campaigns.
The problem with asking social media companies or the federal government to root out fake news is that it creates a new problem to solve an old one. One of the burdens of living in a free society is that citizens are free to read and believe what they wish. It’s the job of journalists and fellow citizens to counter conspiracy theories with facts.
There is also the danger that demagogues can exploit a national obsession with foreign influence to harm innocent people and discredit the cause of countering Moscow’s predations. That’s what happened during the Red Scare. And it may happen again, even though the demagogue in the White House keeps complaining about witch hunts.
By Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.