Queen's University

A book, a course, and the future of the American republic

What might tempt an historian five years comfortably retired ever to return to the lecture hall for one last go-around at teaching one of the most popular undergrad courses ever offered at Queen's?

Retirement from active duty as a university professor brings the opportunity to try new things, avocations that enticed, but never become central during one’s working life because of the need to keep up with one’s publishing and teaching. Toward the end of my career, I wondered what I would do when I left the academic trenches.

Prof. Geoff SmithGeoff Smith - back in the saddle again!

That uncertainty -- for some a painful withdrawal after three or four decades of routine – did not become a problem. I continued my photography and writing, became an artist, learned to knit, and now also torture a guitar in my spare time, itself an oxymoron, when every night is Friday night and every day is Saturday.

Despite these activities, my nearly four decades at Queen’s remain etched in my mind. I still write recommendations for students, attend athletic events, and remember the good things about my long tenure. Most important was my teaching. I was fortunate in the History Department (and later the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies), to develop many courses including, among others, American diplomatic history, the sociology of sport, and a survey of “Drug Wars and Drug Cultures” from the Opium Wars to the current, murderously counterproductive, war on drugs.

Yet the single course that makes me smile most was a social/cultural/political excursion into the arcane world of “Conspiracy and Dissent in American History” (History 273, later 275), a lecture course that took as its fulcrum the many ways in which eras of conflict and crisis generated widespread fears of conspiratorial activity, especially among elite groups. My own interest in political extremism had been sparked as a Berkeley MA student, when I did a research paper in 1965 for Prof. Gerald Wheeler, which sought to detect the influence of homegrown right-wing rebels (“kooks,” I thought then) as the notorious Michigan radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, Silver-Shirt leader William Dudley Pelley, and German-American Bund Fuhrer Fritz Kuhn upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s foreign policy before Pearl Harbor.

That paper ultimately became the basis of my doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, completed under Alexander DeConde, and titled “A Social and Diplomatic History of American Extremism, 1933-1941.” The thesis ran to a length of more than 750 pages and scared off the first five publishers who saw it. Only when cut in half did the manuscript, find a home, with Basic Books in New York, appearing in 1973, a year after the launching of “Conspiracy and Dissent”.

I found quickly that writing a book on a decade was nothing compared to developing a full course that begun with the witch trials at Salem in the 1690s and carried into the tremendous turmoil of the Vietnam era. Soon I became an interpreter of every “anti-” movement in U.S. history. The students loved it -- Masons, Catholics, Mormons, socialists, anarchists, communists, beats, radical artists, and singers – anything, in short that suggested un-Americanism, paraded across the lecture-hall stage. One student ripped off the label of a bottle of Molson beer and gave it to me adorned as “anti-all ale,” with the ingredients and alcohol content suitably altered.

By 1973-4, President Richard Nixon and Watergate “legitimized” my course, and I began a journey from my original argument that the American government elites were the straight men, and the “lunatic fringe” legitimate targets. But with my book, To Save a Nation out, selling well, even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history, I began to doubt some key assumptions. The beliefs that Americans differed not on ends, but on the means to achieve them, enjoyed equal opportunity to succeed, and boasted a remarkably conflict-free and homogenous history gave way to a growing appreciation of class, ethnic, gender, and racial divergences.

And, of course, I began to see the reality that government could be just as much a dealer in what the historian Richard Hofstadter deemed the “paranoid style” in American history as any so-called “lunatic fringe” operation. In 1982 I wrote an article examining anti-Semitism in the Roosevelt State Department, as well as the proto-fascist right that FDR had used to such political advantage before World War II. I also explored unwarranted racial fears that led Washington early in 1942 to imprison 110,000 West Coast Japanese despite no evidence of transgressions against national security.

The Republican Party is now clearly a haven for groups who a half-century ago would themselves be declared un-American menaces  . . . .

A decade later, I published a revised edition of To Save a Nation, and, in a new epilogue, sought to explain the ways in which accusations of conspiracy that proved such powerful political weapons for liberals in the 1950s and 1960s had come home to roost. Neo-conservatives and Reagan Republicans succeeded during the 1970s and 1980s in transforming the words “Democrat” and “liberal” into un-American allusions. “Paranoia,” however defined, now rested at the core of U.S. politics.

Five years retired, I now wonder if I might again teach my conspiracy course or write another edition of To Save a Nation. For the Republican Party is now clearly a haven for groups who a half-century ago would themselves be declared un-American menaces – evangelical Christians who rail against all manner of sin in society, patriots who would allow university professors and students on campus to arm themselves, and radical libertarians who loathe government at all levels. Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, among others, do not occupy the fringe of American political culture. They are now central to its understanding.

Despite the death in May of Osama bin Laden, who was America’s greatest enemy since Adolf Hitler and Joe Stalin, many Americans wonder if, in fact, he still lives. Similarly, many citizens contend that President Barack Obama is not really an American citizen, as required under the U.S. Constitution. The chief executive long ignored this question, but finally brought out a long-form proof of citizenship, an act that demonstrated the power of extreme conservative Republicans.

How might one explain this centrality of conspiracy theory within the Republican Party?

Ah, there’s the call – to the lectern again, and the computer!

Queen's Alumni Review, 2011 Issue #3Queen's Alumni Review
2011 Issue #3
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