Where are all the fire and brimstone conservatives who made alleged Soviet and communist meddling in U.S. affairs their crusade during the second half of the twentieth century?
One of the greatest historical ironies of the mounting controversy over Trump and his alleged connections to Russia is the astonishing disinterest conservatives—especially congressional Republicans—have shown in finding out the truth. Some, such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have resisted calls for an independent inquiry, while Representative Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, recused himself from his committee’s Russia investigation just before it was announced he faced his own ethics inquiry.
Throughout the Cold War, there was a general consensus that the Soviet Union posed a dire threat to the United States and that the Communist Party USA was its covert arm. Conservatives made hyper-vigilance about Moscow’s interference in our domestic affairs a sine qua non of American politics, a veritable litmus test for patriotism.
From the late 1930s through the 1970s, a series of Congressional committees aggressively investigated myriad forms of real and imagined Soviet subversion ranging from atomic espionage to communist infiltration of labor unions, civil rights groups, and government.
For one, the bipartisan House Committee on Un-American Activities held scores of hearings around the country into allegations that law-abiding U.S. citizens were secretly members of the Communist Party or its unwitting dupes. The most infamous of these hearings focused on Hollywood where, conservatives claimed, communists were inserting Soviet propaganda into feature films. Other sensational hearings targeted alleged communist influence in public schools and colleges.
HUAC issued subpoenas, compelled testimony under penalty of perjury, pressured friends to inform on each other, and jailed those who refused to bend for contempt of Congress. The lack of evidence that the vast majority of its victims were involved in nefarious deeds—as shown by scholarly studies and declassified FBI records—did not lessen their pursuers’ zeal. Lives were ruined.
These investigative bodies were part of a sprawling anticommunist network of conservative organizations that included state un-American activities committees, police “red-squads,” the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, Young Americans for Freedom, the John Birch Society, and other self-styled patriotic groups.
Ronald Reagan carried this credo into the 1980s, when as president he declared that the Soviet Union was manipulating the Nuclear Freeze Movement. He charged that freeze proponents could be unknowingly aiding our foe. “All I’m saying is that one must look to see whether, well intentioned though it may be, this movement might be carrying water that they’re not aware of, for another purpose,” Reagan said at a news conference in 1982.
The FBI investigated the freeze movement and Representative C.W. (Bill) Young, a Republican of Florida, released a declassified version of the bureau’s report, titled, “Soviet Active Measures Relating to the U.S. Peace Movement.” (Soviet active measures are clandestine efforts to influence events and public opinion overseas.) The study concluded that the Soviet Union does not “directly control or manipulate” the U.S. freeze movement but attempted to “play on the sentiments of the Western peace movements.” Young said he was releasing the report “so we can share with the American people the extensive Soviet propaganda effort being undertaken within our own borders.”
Evidence for many anticommunist investigations of the Cold War was scant compared to what is before us now. U.S. intelligence agencies—the CIA, NSA, and FBI—concluded that President Vladimir Putin himself “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” with “a clear preference” for Trump over Clinton, according to a declassified report made public in January. The agencies also found that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency created a website called DCLeaks.com to release the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee, and relayed those emails to WikiLeaks.
This comes amidst an extreme lack of transparency and political conflicts of interest. Trump breezily disparaged those intelligence findings, much as he has labeled any news reports he doesn’t like as “fake news.” He has refused to release his tax returns amid questions about possible business interests involving Russia. And last week he fired the man leading the Russian inquiry, FBI Director James Comey.
To be sure, Comey is flawed; although highly respected his fierce independence and outspoken nature have exceeded established boundaries. But Trump dismissed him shortly after he had requested more resources to expand the bureau’s investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia’s interference in the election. The timing raises inescapable questions of whether the president’s motive was to obstruct the inquiry.
These questions are all the more troubling in light of Trump’s own statements. In the pink slip he gave Comey, Trump claimed the FBI chief had told him three times he was not under investigation. And he told Lester Holt of NBC News that he was angry at Comey because of the Russia inquiry: “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story’.” Now Trump will name a new FBI director—someone who may be less inclined to pursue the fraught investigation.
Some Republicans expressed concern. Richard M. Burr, of North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was troubled by the timing and reasoning of Comey’s termination and that it would make his committee’s investigation of ties between Russia and Trump associates more difficult. Senator John McCain, of Arizona, criticized Trump’s firing of Comey and called for a special congressional committee to investigate “Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.” Representative Justin Amash, of Michigan, said he, too, was considering a special congressional inquiry.
Yet despite their past focus on alleged Soviet threats, congressional conservatives have been reticent on Putin’s meddling and possible connections to the president’s associates. They should be pressing not only for more aggressive investigations in the House and Senate, but for a special counsel or independent panel. It appears they fear pursuing what is a vital matter of national security may damage their own political agenda.
Seth Rosenfeld is a journalist based in San Francisco and author of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.