In 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This sentiment – expressed by a man who understood first-hand the highs and lows of the struggles for liberty – is one that would ring familiar in the ears of those living in the country he helped to establish. The world is certainly not a peaceful place and many across the globe view the United States as a symbol of the evils of that world (in a variety of guises – material, cultural, environmental, military…). In the years since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a marked and growing distrust by the American government and some of its citizens for those around the world who do not appear to share the “American” world view (even though that is a very fluid term even in the best of times). An important aspect of the fear is a belief that the United States is not as secure as it should and that some of this may be due to the presence of agents and traitors. A recent example is the assertion by a former CIA operative that President Obama’s loyalties are not where they should. Of course, a charge that important or influential people in the American government are working against their nation is not new. In this edition of The History Rhyme, we will present the current assertions about President Obama and his supporters and then will look back into America’s past – even before the time of Jefferson’s quote – to see what the rhyming events for our current situation tell us about our current predicament.
In the August 28, 2014 edition of WND.com – a conservative online news website that was founded in 1997 – a story by Garth Kant appeared with the provocative title – “Ex-CIA expert: Obama switched sides in war on terror.” On the same day, a summary of the article by Vicky Nissen with the more-provocative title “Ex-CIA employee admits President Obama is a radical Islamic enemy of America” appeared in another online news source called Examiner.com. These articles detail the opinions of a former CIA operative named Clare Lopez – assertions that the author of the WND articles states “a few members of Congress have confided to WND in private, but declined to say on-the-record. Lopez declares that the president and other officials like CIA Director John Brennan (who she calls a secret convert to Islam) have had essentially the same goals in the Middle East as Osama bin Laden, namely “to remove American power and influence, including military forces, from Islamic lands.” As an aside, she “mused” (the term used in the WND story) that the only reason who Obama finally had din Laden killed was that he “couldn’t delay any longer” and that he “thought it might look good” to let the special forces kill him. Another accusation in the story is that the Obama administration helped during the “Arab Spring” of 2010 to “bring down the secular Muslim rulers who did not enforce Islamic law.” To show that the actions of the Obama administration were not a whimsical change of view – but rather a deeper plot by America’s enemies – Lopez contends that the American government was being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood as early as the Clinton administration and that the presence of these agents confused President Bush into believing that Islam was a “religion of peace” after the 9/11 attacks. Lopez’s final conclusion is that “for whatever motivations, there is no doubt this administration switched sides in what used to be called the Global War on Terror.”
What should we make of these charges? Are they true or just the partisan rantings of someone whose distrust of those unlike her has affected her judgment. In our increasingly partisan and media driven world, it has become harder and harder to find a view that is as free of partisan biases. In a world that often lacks a historical perspective, it is also easy to think that we have reached new depths of distrust of those living among us. In this same world, it is also tempting to assume there has never been a time that a president or his associates were accused of involvement in the kinds of activities that require Jefferson’s prescribed level of vigilance. Of course, this is not the case.
Since the creation of the United States in the late 18th century, there have been prominent examples where fear of those among us drove those in power to feel compelled to take actions in times of crisis that would have been unthinkable in times of calm. Some of the prominent examples of this include: the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which were signed into law by President John Adams as a reaction to rising tensions between the United States and revolutionary France. It resulted in the arrest of some opponents of the Adams administration – most notably the vehemently critical publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache. The opinions on these acts were very partisan with Federalists initially being supportive while their Democratic-Republican opponents were bitterly opposed. However, the acts soon proved so unpopular that it helped Thomas Jefferson defeat Adams in the extremely bitter presidential election of 1800 and to serve as a prominent chapter in the fall of the Federalists from national prominence.
A more recent example is the investigation of the former State Department official Alger Hiss in 1948 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Mainly due to the testimony of a former Communist spy named Whittaker Chambers, Hiss was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union which Hiss denied. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury but proclaimed his innocence for the rest of his life. It the heated atmosphere of the Cold War, the Hiss case and his innocence or guilt was a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats. For the most anti-Communist elements of the Republican Party, there was no question of Hiss’ guilt. For the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, the actions of HUAC were a shameful example of the witch-hunting that occurred during the Red Scare era of the Cold War and that Chambers was an untrustworthy liar. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of KGB documents in the 1990s that historians were able to determine that Hiss had actually been a Soviet agent.
Although the fear and distrust expressed in the comments of former CIA agent Clair Lopez can be found in the aforementioned events of the late 18th century and the middle 20th century, the accusations of treason against the president and his closest advisers are not (or at least not so overtly) found. However, that is not to say that those closest to a president have always escaped such charges. To conclude our look at how fear of a hidden enemy has shaped American politics in the past, we will consider the topic of a previous History Rhyme – Mary Todd Lincoln. As noted in the February 2014 edition of this blog (Ladies First), Abraham Lincoln’s wife has been much maligned by the general public and historians in the years since she became first lady. This negative appraisal is not too dissimilar to the one held about her during the time of her husband’s administration. During her time in Washington, Mary had prominent critics in the Washington press corps and among elected officials. During the early years of the war, she was investigated by Congress in connection to a White House gardener gaining access to a presidential speech before it was delivered. She was also generally condemned for her excessive spending on White House redecorating. Yet, it was not her questionable choices of confidants or draperies that are of interest to us in this History Rhyme.
Mrs. Lincoln is under our historical microscope this month because of the questionable loyalties of her half-siblings during the Civil War. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was married twice in his life. The children of his first marriage, which included Mary, mostly remained loyal to the United States, while the children of his second marriage did not – including three of her brothers who fought in the Confederate army. Still, it was not just the actions of her relations that caused suspicion. Questions of the First Lady’s loyalties grew in December 1863 when Mary allowed her half-sister, Emily Todd Helm, whose husband had been a Confederate general until his death at the Battle of Chattanooga, to stay at the White House. There were also criticisms of a Mrs. Lincoln’s efforts for another of her half-sisters, Martha Todd White, to receive a pass through Union lines. According to several historians, most notably Carl Sandburg in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Year and the War Years (published in 1954), concerns that there was possibly a Confederate spy in the White House were significant enough that the Senate’s Committee on the Conduct of the War met in secret to determine if there were validity to these claims. According to Sandburg, the president felt it necessary to appear before the committee with a sorrowful expression and with hat in hand to assure the senators that “I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.” According to this account, the committee dropped their investigation in response. Although there are some who contend that this story is completely apocryphal, it is consistent enough with descriptions of Lincoln’s generally mournful countenance and the distrust of his wife that was felt by some in the Senate to at least seem plausible.
After looking at the various examples from the past on the need for Jefferson’s eternal vigilance, what can we say about the newest outbreak of the fever that seems to grip some in this country in times of trouble? First, we can certainly say that it is nothing new to believe that there are those around us with nefarious aims. The world is a dangerous place at times and there have been many who have viewed the United States as either an enemy or fertile ground for new supporters. Second, we can see that allegations of disloyalty against those in the highest levels of power are also certainly not new. Sometimes the allegations are backed by laws such as the Alien and Section Acts, by a congressional committee, such as the HUAC hearings, or just by the spreading of opinions in the guise of journalism as in our current case. Third, we can see that although it often appears from a short-term perspective that the level of animosity among our political factions is at an all-time high, this is a rather myopic assessment. Even though so-called journalists are accusing the president and his camp of essentially treasonous acts, there has been nothing to compare against the extravaganza of fear and accusations that was the HUAC hearings or the allegedly demeaning instance of a president having to beg a congressional committee to leave his wife alone. Furthermore, there is no effort underway by the defenders of the president to pass laws that would make their accusations punishable by time in jail. In the opinion of this History Rhymer, the relative sedateness of the animosity we see today is something for which we should be thankful.