HL90 DV: Red Scares

HUAC beware! Lauren Kaminsky and Steve Biel told us about their returning HL90, Red Scares; read more about the relationship between politics and culture, and get a sneak preview of Zoom outfits to come.

Tell us about your class!

In this class we’ll explore the anti-radical impulses and movements in US history that culminated in the convulsions known as the First and Second “Red Scares.” The First Red Scare, precipitated by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, followed on fears and persecution of anarchists, socialists, and other labor radicals in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In the Second Red Scare after World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joseph McCarthy, the FBI, and others conducted widespread investigations of suspected communists and purged “subversives” from all levels of government, the entertainment industry, public and private schools, colleges and universities. Beginning with mid 19th-century fears that revolutionary uprisings could spread from Europe to the United States, “Red Scares” explores anxieties about subversion and perversion in American politics and culture. 

What does your class help us understand about the present? 

Why was an insurrectionist at the front of the mob storming the Capitol last Wednesday carrying a sign saying “THE REAL INVISIBLE ENEMY IS COMMUNISM”? Subverting American democracy in the same of protecting the nation against subversion is not a new phenomenon, and, as we’ll explore in this course, the specter of hidden communists and other radical enemies reaches deep into U.S. history.

Demonstrators try to enter the U.S. Capitol building during a protest outside of in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The U.S. Capitol was placed under lockdown and Vice President Mike Pence left the floor of Congress as hundreds of protesters swarmed past barricades surrounding the building where lawmakers were debating Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

Red Scares have been inextricably tied up with histories of racism and xenophobia. So much of this course will focus on how anti-radical rhetoric and politics targeted marginalized groups, including African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and others.

Is there a particular text you’re excited to share with students?

During the early Cold War, “bad” mothers were a particular cause for concern among social observers. The 1952 Hollywood film My Son John presents us with a mother whose excessively close attachment to her son turns him into a homosexual and Communist spy.

Do you have any cool assignments planned?

One of our essay assignments asks students to use documents from the poet Langston Hughes’s FBI file to explore how investigators constructed a relationship between social justice activism and communist subversion. 

Anything else students should know?

This is what we look like when we teach this class:

How should students contact you to find out more?

Check out the Red Scares Canvas site, sign up for our joint office hours, or email Steve and Lauren!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

%d bloggers like this: