Artifact: Red Errings


Credit: Reason Magazine

This 1947 cover of the kids' monthly, Calling All Boys, appears in a new collection of Cold War images entitled Red Scared! The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture by Steven Heller and Michael Barson (Chronicle Books). The book's take on the era is a throwback: Anti-communism, it argues, was both laughable and dangerous. These days, serious Cold War inquiry has moved on to such matters as the period's actual threat of Soviet subversion, but anti-anti-communists will always be able to cite plenty of malicious figures to defend their view.

Among them is John Edgar Hoover. Look at the legendary FBI chief here. Presented along with football players and cowboys, Hoover is the main attraction, "Crimebuster No. 1," even as he was rounding people up, assembling dossiers, wiretapping, and presenting a significant threat to constitutional rights. To defend his crusade, Hoover tried to turn civil libertarians into the nation's enemies. Like Sen. Joe McCarthy, he undercut a serious matter with a self-serving sideshow.

In a sense, he's still doing so, as Red Scared! proves. But there's more to him yet. He's become a study in shifting public personae, from head G-man, to the Man With the Files, to the gay in the closet, to an accused assassination conspirator, to, perhaps, a fan of the little black cocktail dress. Some figures become indispensable characters in America's telling of its own story. Hoover's fate is that he continues to play the revealed villain.