Corey Robin: Going After Gays (Again)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Corey Robin, the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, teaches political science at Brooklyn College and CUNY. He is writing a book about political repression in the United States.]

According to John Cheever, 1948 was ‘the year everybody in the United States was worried about homosexuality’. And nobody was more worried than the federal government, which was rumoured to be teeming with gays and lesbians. One might think that Washington’s attentions would have been focused elsewhere – on the Soviet Union, for example, or on Communist spies – but in 1950, President Truman’s advisers warned him that ‘the country is more concerned about the charges of homosexuals in the government than about Communists.’ The executive branch responded immediately. That year, the State Department fired ‘perverts’ at the rate of one a day, more than twice the figure for suspected Communists. Charges of homosexuality ultimately accounted for a quarter to a half of all dismissals in the State and Commerce Departments, and in the CIA. Only 25 per cent of Joseph McCarthy’s fan letters complained of ‘red infiltration’; the rest fretted about ‘sex depravity’.

The scare lasted from 1947 to the 1970s, and in The Lavender Scare David Johnson estimates that thousands lost their jobs. The men and women charged with rinsing the pink from the Potomac were astonishingly ignorant about their quarry. Senator Clyde Hoey, head of the first congressional inquiry into the threat, had to ask an aide: ‘Can you please tell me, what can two women possibly do?’ Senator Margaret Chase Smith asked one Hoey Committee witness whether there wasn’t a ‘quick test like an X-ray that discloses these things’.

The official justification for the purge was that homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail and could be turned into Soviet spies. But as Johnson points out, investigators never found a single instance of this kind of blackmail during the Cold War. The best they could come up with was a dubious case from before the First World War, when the Russians allegedly used the homosexuality of Austria’s top spy to force him to work for them.

The real justification was even more suspect: gays were social misfits whose pathology made them susceptible to Communist indoctrination. Many conservatives also believed that the Communist Party was a movement of and for libertines, and the Soviet Union a haven of free love and open marriage. Gays, they concluded, couldn’t resist this freedom from bourgeois constraint. Drawing parallels with the decline of the Roman Empire, McCarthy regarded homosexuality as a cultural degeneracy that could only weaken the United States. It was, as one tabloid put it, ‘Stalin’s Atom Bomb’.

How could a nation confronting so many foreign threats allow itself to be sidetracked like this? (This is not just a question for historians: in recent months, Congress has devoted considerable energy to debating gay marriage, while in the last 13 years the US military has fired 55 of its Arabic speakers for being gay; the most recent was uncovered after investigators asked him if he had ever participated in community theatre.) With the Soviets in possession of the bomb and Korea on the march, why was Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, dispatched to Congress to defend his heterosexuality and that of his ‘powder puff diplomats’? Didn’t he have more important things to do than host rowdy gatherings of politicians and journalists that were

"reminiscent of ‘stag parties’, featuring copious amounts of Scotch and bourbon, and smiling women ‘whose identity remained undisclosed’. As one senator remarked, ‘It reminded me somewhat of the fraternity rushing season at college.’ Dean Acheson tried to appear as ‘one of the boys’, slapping senators on the back. A journalist reported that ‘his hair was rumpled, his tie awry. The stiff and precise manner and speech which have antagonised many of us had disappeared. He even seemed to have removed the wax from his moustache.’"

Johnson’s book is one of the most instructive histories of the domestic Cold War to have appeared in years, but its reach extends beyond its immediate subject to the question, which vexes us today, of achieving the right balance between freedom and security. Johnson’s book suggests not only that we seldom strike the right balance but that the concept of ‘balance’ may itself be deeply flawed.

The first problem with this notion is that it assumes security is a transparent concept, unsullied by ideology and self-interest. Because it benefits everyone – ‘the most vital of all interests’, John Stuart Mill called it, which no one can ‘possibly do without’ – it is immune to politics. Yet, as Arnold Wolfers wrote years ago, security is an ‘ambiguous symbol’, which ‘may not have any precise meaning at all’. It allows political leaders to pursue partisan and ideological courses of action under the banner of a seemingly neutral, universal value.

The actions of the US government during the war on terror bear this claim out. According to two official commissions, one of the reasons US intelligence agencies did not anticipate 9/11 was that turf wars prevented them from sharing information. The ‘obstacles to information sharing were more bureaucratic than legal’, David Cole and James Dempsey write in Terrorism and the Constitution, and had little to do ‘with the constitutional principles of due process, accountability, or checks and balances’. But while the government rides roughshod over constitutional principles, it has done little to remove these bureaucratic obstacles. Even the Department of Homeland Security, which was supposed to unite competing agencies, ‘is bogged down by bureaucracy’ and a ‘lack of strategic planning’, according to a recent wire report.

Despite evidence that the pre-emptive arrest and detention of suspected terrorists frustrates the gathering of intelligence, the US continues to rely on such policies. In the two years following 9/11, federal authorities rounded up more than five thousand foreign nationals. As of today, Cole and Dempsey write, none of them has been ‘convicted of any terrorist crime’, while the FBI has yet to identify a single al-Qaida sleeper cell in the United States. After 9/11, Cole reported in Enemy Aliens (2003), the Justice Department selected thousands of male immigrants for questioning on the basis of their age, date of arrival and country of origin. Though the Justice Department claimed it chose men only from countries harbouring al-Qaida cells, it did not interview anyone from Britain, France, Spain or Germany.

The pattern is clear: measures that would improve security are not taken, while the measures that are taken either fail to improve security or undermine it....

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

DeWayne Edward Benson - 10/23/2006

Pro-homosexuality articles strike me as often based on data and statistics hard to believe, in fact to hard to believe. Let me tell you a true story.

I once stole as a young child a pen knife from a 5&10 store. This is probably the first time I've mentioned this in 60 or more years.

In all of those 60 years, can you believe that not once did I "in your face" broadcast this to the world.

This is my way of saying, bull shit bud.