It was March, 1954. The US economy was in recession, with no real end in sight. Edward R. Murrow had broadcast a scathing indictment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, but McCarthy was still on the rise. The US tested its first hydrogen bomb. Shooting had stopped in Korea, but there was yet no official end to the war. And the war in Indochina was reaching a crisis phase, as Viet Minh and French troops faced off at Dien Bein Phu.
At a press conference on March 17, President Eisenhower was grilled on these and other topics. In a comment on one of the questions, he said:
What are we talking about? It is, I think, there is too much hysteria. You know, the world is suffering from a multiplicity of fears. We fear the men in the Kremlin, we fear what they will do to our friends around them; we are fearing what unwise investigators will do to us here at home as they try to combat subversion or bribery or deceit within. We fear depression, we fear the loss of jobs. All of these, with their impact on the human mind makes us act almost hysterically, and you find hysterical reactions.
We have got to look at each of those in its proper perspective, to understand what the whole sum total means. And remember this: the reason they are feared and bad is because there is a little element of truth in each, a little element of danger in each. That means that finally there is left a little residue that you can meet only by faith, a faith in the destiny of America; and that is what I believe is the answer.
His speechwriters liked the “multiplicity of fears” line, so they turned that passage into a full speech, which was broadcast on April 5. It was paternalistic, in typical Eisenhower style, but if you want to calm a nervous nation you could do worse than speak like a kindly father-figure.
For example, we are concerned about the men in the Kremlin. We are concerned about the Atomic Age. We are concerned about the loss of our international friends in exposed areas of the world–the loss of them to the Communist dictatorship. We are worried about Communist penetration of our own country, and we are worried about the possibility of depression, and the loss of jobs among us here at home.
Now, the greater any of these apprehensions, the greater is the need that we look at them clearly, face to face, without fear, like honest, straightforward Americans, so we do not develop the jitters or any other kind of panic, that we do not fall prey to hysterical thinking.
He came round to the threat of Communism to America:
Now the next thing that we fear, or concerning which we are apprehensive, is this idea of Communist infiltration into our own country, into our Government, into our schools, into our unions, into any of our facilities, any of our industries, wherever they may be, and wherever those Communists could damage us. Now, it would be completely false to minimize the dangers of this penetration. It does exist. We know some of them are here. Yet, let me give you now some of the counterbalancing factors.
First of all, this fear has been greatly exaggerated as to numbers. In our country today, there are possibly some 25 thousand doctrinal Communists. The FBI knows pretty well where they are. But the headlines of the newspapers would sometimes have you think that every other person you meet is a Communist. Actually, 25 thousand out of 160 million people means about one out of six thousand. But they are dangerous.
You can pretty much replace “Communist” with “terrorist”, and it will work today.
When you get right down to it, terrorists are pretty low on the list of Things That Kill People. Malaria, motor vehicle accidents, and even falls kill more people than terrorists. Yet we don’t panic over those. Terrorists only gain the headlines because of the suddenness of the the attack, and the large numbers of casualties in a very short time. Yes, it’s a tragedy to those who lose loved ones. But is it worth going insane over?
Donald Trump wants to shut down mosques. Some are calling Islam an “existential threat” to America, as if it could somehow completely obliterate the country. Others want to slam the door on all refugees. Jeb Bush wants to declare war. But who do you declare war on? Terrorism is a tactic, not an “enemy”. And even if you declare war on ISIS (or ISIL, or whatever they are calling themselves today), how do you know when you’ve won? Chest-thumping and saber-rattling looks good in the media, but this isn’t that kind of conflict. There’s no well-defined enemy that wears the same uniform and has a leader who you can force into surrender (and can order his troops to lay down their arms, and have that order obeyed).
Far better to treat this as a matter for law enforcement. Consider attacks as a crime – which they are – and proceed accordingly. Collect evidence, arrest and prosecute those involved, take steps to prevent such crimes in the future. You won’t ever get rid of it completely, but you can reduce it to the point where it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t worth doing.
Look, when your house is infested with cockroaches, you clean the place up, seal off the little cracks that they move through (without closing off all the windows and doors that let air – and you – move about), and drop insecticide in key spots. You don’t blow up the house…..
Transcript of March 17 Press Conference: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=10184
Text of April 5 Speech: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=10201