This post started out with my thinking about the paranoia and oppressiveness of the 1950s. However, I realized that the 1950s was merely a clear example of the entire Cold War era. Some would say the Cold War is still going on, but just with a new name. For certain, the Cold War spans almost the entire living memory of our culture. The people who clearly remember the US before WWII are getting very old and becoming smaller in number. And only now is a new generation growing up with no memory at all of the threat of communism. Maybe terrorism will obsess our collective psyche for the next half century or so as communism had done before it.
With the new or seemingly new threat of terrorism, it’s easy for many (the Boomers in particular) to fondly remember the peace and prosperity of the post-war period of history. But let us not get too soft and fuzzy in our memories. There is a dark past that I hope isn’t forgotten for fear of repeating it. Much of our present international troubles are directly rooted in the meddling activities our country did in the last century. We shouldn’t be surprised that the chickens have come home to roost. The problems of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran are nothing new and our country is far from innocent.
Mid-1940s to early 1990s — “The Cold War began in the mid-1940s and lasted into the early 1990s.” This general period involves some of the greatest and worst events of American history. The late 1950s to early 1960s represented the high point of American idealistic optimism, but I’ll instead focus on the negative here because the media, for all of its seeming negativity, too often overlooks the dark underbelly of politics. This, of course, might have something to do with the government becoming ever more adept at controlling the media through propaganda.
Most of the Cold War was patriotic rallying and international posturing rather than overt fighting and hence the name, but still there was plenty of international conflicts including covert operations (para-military training, assassination attempts, overthrowing of governments, financial support of dictatorships, etc.). The stakes were as real as the World Wars but just with more subtle methods. As this was the beginning of ideological warfare it was also the beginning of the endless war and the military-industrial complex that certain people early on had predicted and warned about. An interesting aspect was the ending of colonization as the preferred method of relating to “Third World” countries, but obviously that didn’t mean the “First World” countries were no longer interested in continuing their control and manipulation by other means. From the Wikipedia article on the Cold War:
Nationalist movements in some countries and regions, notably Guatemala, Iran, the Philippines, and Indochina were often allied with communist groups—or at least were perceived in the West to be allied with communists. In this context, the US and the Soviet Union increasingly competed for influence by proxy in the Third World as decolonization gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s; additionally, the Soviets saw continuing losses by imperial powers as presaging the eventual victory of their ideology. The US government utilized the CIA in order to remove a string of unfriendly Third World governments and to support allied ones. The US used the CIA to overthrow governments suspected by Washington of turning pro-Soviet, including Iran’s first democratically elected government under Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 (see 1953 Iranian coup d’état) and Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954 (see 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état).Between 1954 and 1961, the US sent economic aid and military advisors to stem the collapse of South Vietnam’s pro-Western regime.
Because of new advances in technology, this was an era that brought to a new level the power and ability of the information gathering agencies and secret (and semi-secret) enforcement agencies. It was around this time that many of the alphabet agencies in the US were created and gained immense power. These agencies, however, had predecessors before them. In the past century, there has been a complex ever-changing puzzle of committees and organizations under a variety of names.
Also during this time, the US and the Soviet Union began wide experimentation: atom bombs, neutrino bombs, hydrogen bombs, radiation, radar, sonar, microwaves, bio-chemicals, genetics, psychological manipulation, social control methods, brainwashing, psychedelics, ESP, telekinesis, influence of various kinds of energy waves on humans and technology, etc. In order to try to gain an edge, the world powers were willing to try anything at least once both on citizens of other countries and sometimes their own unsuspecting citizens. Still unknown to most people, the government parapsychology research went on for decades in both countries and possibly is still going on. For example, the Stargate Project was a 20 million dollar US intelligence program which at its peak had 14 labs that researched remote viewing(including clairvoyance and out-of-body experiences). This project involved the Army and the CIA and was in operation from the 1970s to 1995 when it either closed down or changed names as is commonly the habit for programs that get too much public attention. The Stargate Project was related to the projects Sun Streak, Grill Flame, Center Lane by DIA(Defense Intelligence Agency that, according to the Wikipediaarticle, “coordinates the activities of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force intelligence components”) and INSCOM, and SCANATE by CIA.
There was intense secrecy surrounding such government activities. We only know about them now because President Clinton was interested in UFOs and the John F. Kennedy assassination which even he couldn’t get information about and so in 1995 he signed the Executive Order 12958 which declassified many documents and promised to declassify further documents later (but in 2003 President Bush essentially replaced this order by amending it and so the government has returned to it’s stance of secrecy). This order forced the government to admit to much that it had denied in the past. This included the various research programs, but maybe more intriguing was the government’s lengthy interest in UFOs which publicly served the purpose of debunking and disinformation.
The world’s governments all became majorly interested in the foo fighters first observed in 1944 by military pilots during WWII and the ghost rockets first observed in 1946, but it was only after the war that the national governments realized that these weren’t experimental craft of the enemy and so that it is how they became labeled as Unidentified Flying Objects. The Air Force reports on the Roswel UFO incident didn’t come out until the mid-1990s which was about a half century after the event. There were several investigations into UFOs that lasted almost 3 decades, but of course any recent concerted efforts of government investigation would still be classified. The known investigations include: US Air Force’s 1947-48 Project Sign including the 1948 Estimate of the Situation document, US Air Force’s 1949-51 Project Grudge including the 1949 Grudge report, CIA commissioned 1952 Robertson Panel, US Air Force’s 1952 Project Blue Book including the US Air Force commissioned 1954 Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14, and the US Air Force’s 1968 Condon Committee (formally known as Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects). Besides the Air Force reports from the 1990s, there have been other official responses to UFO sightings such as Federal Aviation Adminstration reaction to the 2006 O’Hare International Airport UFO sighting and the official reaction of the Coast Guard and various space agencies to the 2007 Kodiak Island UFO sighting. Some people speculate that the NASA commissioned 1961 Brookings Report implies a motive for the government’s secrecy about UFOs, but the government is secretive by nature and probably doesn’t need specific reasons. Classifying information as secret was common practice during the Cold War even for uninteresting and harmless documents.
Directly in line with this culture of secrecy, there was an intense paranoia that too often emerged as projection of fear and hatred onto fellow citizens. The enemy had many guises: fascists, commies, liberals, aliens, or even your neighbor; and these enemies often blended together for the “enemy” was an amorphous force of constant threat. The movies were filled with the good guys endlessly fighting off various enemies and monsters, but it was also the beginning of film noir which was highly critical of American idealism. This was a time of the rising power of conservatism after Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism and it was a time of the US ascending as a greater world power than it ever had before. More importantly, this was a time of complete social upheaval. Veterans coming back after WWII were scarred and rootless looking to settle down to the comforting fantasies of the nuclear family portrayed on tv. America as it once was had disintegrated and the women had gotten a taste of liberation during the war. The Baby Boomers born into this new world were a polarizing ideological force of great numbers that would grow up to start more wars than any generation before.
Strangely or not, all of this ideology and idealism coincided with materialism. There was the romanticism of the Enlightenment project of modern progress embodied in industrialism combined with the promise of the new technological age. Despite conservativism coming to power and despite the collective dreams of traditional values, this was a new world. Capitalism had become a power to compete with democracy itself and some would say capitalism won. This certainly wasn’t the libertarian-leaning conservativism of the early history of the US. In it’s place, neoconservatism was starting to take root. World War II was over and the bad times seemed in the past. Even as the middle class grew to increased power, the elites of the military-industrial complex grew to even greater power than probably the whole middle class combined. But people weren’t worried, bread and circus as they say. People had jobs, had homes, and the entertainment industry was booming. Life had become practically one big advertisement for the greatness of being an American… unless you were a minority or a sexual deviant such as a homosexual, but those people don’t count. In the 1950s and 1960s, progress almost looked like it would be endless and few people noticed the negative consequences. My dad remembers that a smokestack belching out noxious gases was a symbol of productivity and he has fond memories of seeing them as a child. Things were happening. Every time you turned around, there was something new. Technology was advancing in bounds. The scientist was the savior of mankind. There were rocket ships and skyscrapers, and on a more personal level there were microwaves and tvs. The early versions of the internet was being developed. No doubt, science was kicking ass and taking names.
This was also a time when imagery gained power over the written word which had ruled for the last couple of millennia. Two images in particular captured our collective sense of identity: the mushroom cloud and the planet earth as seen from space. Another catchy symbol was the Doomsday Clock.
There is an interesting Wikipedia article about the Culture during the Cold War. And here is a lovely summary of a nuclear war scenario in the article Massive retaliation:
A massive retaliation doctrine, as with any nuclear strategy based on the principle of mutually assured destruction and as an extension the second-strike capability needed to form a retaliatory attack, encourages the opponent to perform a massive counterforce first strike. This, if successful, would cripple the defending state’s retaliatory capacity and render a massive retaliation strategy useless.
Also, if both sides of a conflict adopt the same stance of massive response, it may result in unlimited escalation (a “nuclear spasm”), each believing that the other will back down after the first round of retaliation. Both problems are not unique to massive retaliation, but to nuclear deterrence as a whole.
Some other lovely Wikipedia articles:
Democratic peace theory
Peace through strength
Mutual assured destruction (MAD)
Dead Hand (nuclear war)
Balance of terror
World War III
That was just introductory comments about the larger context. The rest that follows is about the specifics of this era, loosely in chronological order. I’m mostly focusing on documented information, but all of this leads to questions of motives. I’m not interested in discussing conspiracy theories for this blog. Where I do discuss conspiracies, I’ll limit myself to those that have been well documented and/or admitted to by the government. This is all actual historical events although some of it didn’t show up in the news media of the time and when it did show up the public only got partial information. Now that the Cold War is over, much more info is available for inquiring minds.
1942 to 1946— Japanese American Internment and the propaganda for it: Around 110,000 Japanese were imprisoned in camps, 62 percent were US citizens including those that were native born. The architects of the Internment camps used deception and withheld critical information. There was no evidence of espionage or sabotage from any of the detainees, and a government assessment concluded that the vast majority of the Japanese American citizens were loyal to the US. To promote the use of internment camps propaganda was necessary. Americans were open to such influence partly for the obvious reason of the fearful response to the Pearl Harbor attack, but also because at the time racism was very strong and there were farming conflicts involving Japanese Americans. Also, the media of this era was very agreeable to being used for propaganda purposes. From the Wikipedia article on the Propaganda for Japanese American internment:
As a common form of entertainment for many Americans, motion pictures portrayed a positive image of relocation to non-Japanese movie-goers. Produced by the United States War Relocation Authority, such movies as A Challenge to Democracy (1944) and Japanese Relocation (1943), depicted the internment camps in a positive light and showed the Japanese people as happy and content, benefiting from their new life in the internment camps. To accomplish this, these government-issued propaganda films touched on common positive themes, such as:
- ensuring the safety of internee property
- providing Japanese-Americans with greater opportunities, such as education, employment, internal government, and religion
- cooperation of the internees with the local authorities and federal government
- language comparing the relocated people to early American frontiersmen
Such motion pictures were made with film from actual Japanese American internment camps with a narrator informing the audience of what they were witnessing. As the UCLA Film and Television Archive writes:
[This] film reminds us how easily unpleasant truths can be rationalized into banality and individual liberties can be swept away. (UCLA, 2007)
As a prominent news source for many Americans in the 1940’s, the newspaper media also played an integral role in influencing national attitudes toward Japanese citizens. Many times, editorials published in these newspapers would approach relocation as a necessary inevitability characteristic in times of war. The San Francisco Chronicle on February 21, 1942 displayed just such an attitude of pro-Japanese-American internment, stating, “We have to be tough, even if civil rights do take a beating for a time” . The Bakersfield Californian was among the newspapers of the time to criminalize the Japanese American population, stating, “We have had enough experiences with Japs in times of peace to emphasize the opinion that they are not to be trusted.”  Violent sentiment would also be characteristic of some of these editorials, as when a writer to the Corvallis Gazette Times expressed, “The loyal Jap American citizens have the law on their side, but that may not protect them. Besides, what is the law and what is the Constitution to a dead Jap. If they are smart, they will not return” . Many newspapers would also publish propaganda cartoons concerning the Japanese military, which fueled a general racist attitude towards Japanese-American residents. 
From the Wikipedia article on Japanese American Internment:
In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation stated that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. About $1.6 billion in reparations were later disbursed by the U.S. government to surviving internees and their heirs.
A disagreeing opinion by Victor Hwang from the Asian Week (“Internment: More Than Just a Government Mistake”, February 28, 2003):
But contrary to the narrative which validates our nation’s commitment to constitutional principles over time, a more careful analysis suggests that the internment of Japanese Americans was not simply an error in judgment, but rather an accepted practice which has been frequently considered for use by our government during times of perceived crisis. In this view, the government has shown itself to be continuously willing to suspend the constitutional rights of the minority in the interests of national security, and it has learned nothing from the sacrifices and injuries done to the Japanese American community.
1945 — Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The largest bombing in history; It’s main purpose, besides bomb testing, was to force Japan into submission by destroying heavily populated cities which killed around 220,000 civilians. Whether or not it was necessary and effective for the intended goal, it is without a doubt the most devastating terrorist attack ever implemented (the government admitted that a major reason was psychological warfare). If you prefer euphemisms, you could call it a countervalue. It was the ultimate symbol of the ends justifying the means, a pragmatic ethics of brute force that undermines any claim of a moral highground… which isn’t to say any other country has the moral highground either. My dad is fond of saying that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other types of government. He might be correct, that is assuming the US government is still a democracy (or ever was… considering all of the royal lineages, family relations, business connections, and old money of the majority of politicians, one could be forgiven for thinking that our government is actually a plutocracy or at least a semi-plutocracy).
1945 to 1980 — Nuclear Weapons Testing Accidents, Downwinders, and Human Subject Research: There was a lot of nuclear and radiation testing going on and much of it was secret at the time. Because of the secrecy, most people are unaware of how many supposed accidents there were that exposed populated areas. Whether these were genuinely accidents or not, the government was very interested in the health results that ensued. Fortunately, some of these people (the ones that lived and knew what happened to them) were later compensated. Unfortunately, too many people have been negatively effected and compensation can’t solve the problem. Considering all of this, it doesn’t seem all that strange that cancer and other related illnesses and symptoms (such as decreased sperm count and deformities) have massively increased (in humans and other animals as well) since nuclear testing began. Throw in all the other pollutants and you’d think we as a species are collectively trying to commit suicide. From the Wikipedia article on Downwinders:
Between 1945 and 1980, the United States, U.S.S.R, United Kingdom, France and China exploded 504 nuclear devices in atmospheric tests at thirteen primary sites yielding the explosive equivalent of 440 megatons of TNT. Of these atmospheric tests, 330 were conducted by the United States. Accounting for all types of nuclear tests, official counts show that the United States has conducted 1,054 nuclear weapons tests to date, involving at least 1,151 nuclear devices, most of which occurred at Nevada Test Site and the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands, with ten other tests taking place at various locations in the United States, including Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi, and New Mexico. There have been an estimated 2,000 nuclear tests conducted worldwide; the number of nuclear tests conducted by the United States alone is currently more than the sum of nuclear testing done by all other known nuclear states (USSR, Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea) combined.  These nuclear tests infused vast quantities of radioactive material into the world’s atmosphere, which was widely dispersed and then deposited as global fallout. 
Even assuming these radiation dispersals were simply accidents involving naive scientists and over-eager politicians and military leaders, there is still plenty of evidence that intentional human experimentation occurred. From DUCK AND COVER(UP): U.S. RADIATION TESTING ON HUMANSby Tod Ensign and Glenn Alcalay:
If you have any lingering thoughts that the government’s failure to disclose radiation experimentation on humans was driven by misguided national security concerns, throw them in the nearest nuclear waste dump. At least some officials knew what they were doing was unconscionable and were ducking the consequences and covering their tails. A recently leaked Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) document lays out in the most bare-knuckled manner the policy of coverup. It is desired that no document be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits. Documents covering such work field should be classified `secret,’ wrote Colonel O.G. Haywood of the AEC. *1 This letter confirms a policy of complete secrecy where human radiation experiments were concerned.
The Haywood letter may help explain a recently discovered 1953 Pentagon document, declassified in 1975. The two-page order from the secretary of defense ostensibly brought U.S. guidelines for human experimentation. in line with the Nuremberg Code, making adherence to a universal standard official U.S. policy. Ironically, however, the Pentagon document was classified and thus was probably not seen by many military researchers until its declassification in 1975.2
As these and a steady stream of similar reports confirm, for decades, the U.S. government had not only used human guinea pigs in radiation experiments, but had also followed a policy of deliberate deception and cover up of its misuse of both civilians and military personnel in nuclear weapons development and radiation research. While the Department of Energy (DoE) has made some belated moves toward greater openness, there are clear indications that other federal agencies and the White House have not yet deviated from the time-honored tradition of deceit and self-serving secrecy.
From the Wikipedia article on Human Experimentation:
Numerous experiments were done on prisoners throughout the US. Many prisoners eventually filed lawsuits and these actions brought about many more investigations and suits against doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. Experiments included high-risk cancer treatments, the application of strong skin creams, new cosmetics, dioxin and high doses of LSD. Many incidents were documented in government reports, ACLU findings and various books including Acres of Skin by Allen M. Hornblum. The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study is one of many examples. The Plutonium Files, for which Eileen Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize, documents the early human tests of the toxicity of plutonium and uranium on people.
The CIA ran an extensive toxicology and chemical/biological warfare program in cooperation with the US military. The Edgewood Arsenal and US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland were the main headquarters for such studies. At such centres, the agency developed many toxins, incapacitants, mind-altering substances and carcinogens. Mind-control substances were studied to facilitate interrogation and toxins were used as weapons in assassination. One of the toxins that the CIA studied extensively was derived from red algae called dinoflagellate which produces the red tide.
The MK-ULTRA project was a CIA run human experiment program where prisoners and unwitting subjects were administered hallucinogenic drugs in attempt to develop incapacitating substances and chemical mind control agents, in an operation run by Sidney Gottlieb. Biological-weapons specialist Frank Olson‘s drink was spiked with LSD by Sidney Gottliebin November 1953. He became psychotic and chronically depressed and committed suicide by jumping from the roof of his hotel ten days later.
1924 to 1972 and beyond — J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and COINTELPRO: Hoover was effective at his job and there were real threats in the world that he dealt with, but history has remembered him less kindly since information about his life became open to the public. He was a major player who helped create the groundwork for the oppressive atmosphere of the Cold War era which interestingly spanned most of his long career. Without him, the communist and homosexual witchhunters wouldn’t have had the same power to threaten the public. It’s also important to keep in mind that Hoover’s 50 yr reign as director of the Bureau represents a direct link between Prohibition (along with it’s corrolary War on Crime against gangsters) and the War on Drugs (along with it’s later corollary War on Terrorism). From the Wikipedia article on Hoover:
Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation — predecessor to the FBI — in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972. Hoover is credited with building the FBI into a large and efficient crime-fighting agency, and with instituting a number of modern innovations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories. Hoover was highly regarded by much of the U.S. public, but posthumously he became an increasingly controversial figure. His many critics asserted that he exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI. He used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to use illegal methods to collect evidence. It is because of Hoover’s long and controversial reign that FBI directors are now limited to 10-year terms.
In 1956, Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated by Supreme Court decisions that limited the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute people for their political opinions, most notably, Communists. At this time he formalized a covert “dirty tricks” program under the name COINTELPRO.This program remained in place until it was revealed to the public in 1971, and was the cause of some of the harshest criticism of Hoover and the FBI. COINTELPRO was first used to disrupt the Communist Party, and later organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s SCLC, the Ku Klux Klan, the neofascist American Nazi Party and others. Its methods included infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations.Some authors have charged that COINTELPRO methods also included inciting violence and arranging murders.In 1975, the activities of COINTELPRO were investigated by the “United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities” called the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) and these activities were declared illegal and contrary to the Constitution.
Hoover amassed significant power by collecting files containing large amounts of compromising and potentially embarrassing information on many powerful people, especially politicians. According to Laurence Silberman, appointed Deputy Attorney General in early 1974, FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley thought such files either did not exist or had been destroyed. After The Washington Postbroke a story in January 1975, Kelley searched and found them in his outer office. The House Judiciary Committee then demanded that Silberman testify about them. An extensive investigation of Hoover’s files by David Garrow showed that Hoover and next-in-command William Sullivan, as well as the FBI itself as an agency, were responsible.
In 1956, several years before he targeted King, Hoover had a public showdown with T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader from Mound Bayou, Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI’s failure to thoroughly investigate the racially motivated murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till. Hoover not only wrote an open letter to the press singling out these statements as “irresponsible” but secretly enlisted the help of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in a campaign to discredit Howard.
In the 1950s, evidence of Hoover’s unwillingness to focus FBI resources on the Mafia became grist for the media and his many detractors, after famed reporter Jack Anderson exposed the immense scope of the Mafia’s organized crime network, a threat Hoover had long downplayed. Hoover’s retaliation and continual harassment of Anderson lasted into the 1970s. His moves against people who maintained contacts with subversive elements, some of whom were members of the civil rights movement, also led to accusations of trying to undermine their reputations. His alleged treatment of actress Jean Seberg and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two such examples.
Hoover personally directed the FBI investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report in 1979 critical of the performance by the FBI, the Warren Commissionas well as other agencies. The report also criticized what it characterized as the FBI’s reluctance to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the president.
Hoover hunted down and threatened anyone who made insinuations about his sexuality. He also spread destructive, unsubstantiated rumors that Adlai Stevenson was gay to damage the liberal governor’s 1952 Presidential Campaign. His extensive secret files contained surveillance material on Eleanor Roosevelt‘s alleged lesbian lovers, speculated to be acquired for the purpose of blackmail.
[…and if you’re into conspiracies…]
Hoover was a “devoted” Freemason and was coronated an 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Freemason in the Southern Masonic Jurisdiction. “He was raised a Master Mason on November 9, 1920, in Federal LodgeNo. 1, Washington, DC, just two months before his 26thbirthday. During his 52 years with the Craft, he received innumerable medals, awards and decorations.” Eventually In 1955, he was coroneted a Thirty-third Degree Inspector General Honorary and awarded the Scottish Rite’s highest recognition, the Grand Cross of Honour in 1965 by the Southern Masonic Jurisdiction. 
From the Wikipedia article on the FBI:
During the 1950s and 1960s, FBI officials became increasingly concerned about the influence of civil rights leaders. In 1956, for example, Hoover took the rare step of sending an open letter denouncing Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader, surgeon, and wealthy entrepreneur in Mississippi who had criticized FBI inaction in solving recent murders of George W. Lee, Emmett Till, and other blacks in the South. 
The FBI carried out controversial domestic surveillance in an operation called COINTELPRO. It aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations within the United States, including both militant and non-violent organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a leading civil rights organization.
In response to organized crime, on August 25, 1953, the Top Hoodlum Program was created. It asked all field offices to gather information on mobsters in their territories and to report it regularly to Washington for a centralized collection of intelligence on racketeers. 
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a frequent target of investigation. The FBI found no evidence of any crime, but attempted to use tapes of King involved in sexual activity for blackmail. In his 1991 memoirs, Washington Post journalist Carl Rowanasserted that the FBI had sent at least one anonymous letter to King encouraging him to commit suicide.
In March 1971, a Media, Pennsylvania FBI branch office was robbed; the thieves took secret files and distributed them to a range of newspapers including the Harvard Crimson.The files detailed the FBI’s investigations into lives of ordinary citizens—including a black student group at a Pennsylvania military college and the daughter of Congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin. The country was “jolted” by the revelations, and the actions were denounced by members of Congress including House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.The phones of some members of Congress, including Boggs, had allegedly been tapped.
Protecting an informant, the FBI allowed four innocent men to be convicted of murder in March 1965. Three of the men were sentenced to death (which was later reduced to life in prison). The fourth defendant was sentenced to life in prison, where he spent three decades.
In July, 2007, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertnerin Boston found the bureau helped convict the four men of the March 1965 gangland murder of Edward “Teddy” Deegan. The U.S. Government was ordered to pay $100 million in damages to the four defendants.
From the Wikipedia article on COINTELPRO:
COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program) was a series of covert, and often illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations within the United States. The FBI used covert operations from its inception, however formal COINTELPRO operations took place between 1956 and 1971. The FBI motivation at the time was “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.”
According to FBI records, 85% of COINTELPRO resources were expended on infiltrating, disrupting, marginalizing, and/or subverting groups suspected of being subversive, such as communist and socialist organizations; the women’s rights movement; people suspected of building a “coalition of militant black nationalist groups” ranging from the Black Panther Party and Republic of New Afrika to “those in the non-violent civil rights movement” such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and others associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and other civil rights groups; a broad range of organizations labelled “New Left“, including Students for a Democratic Society, the National Lawyers Guild, the Weathermen, almost all groups protesting the Vietnam War, and even individual student demonstrators with no group affiliation; and nationalist groups such as those “seeking independence for Puerto Rico.” The other 15% of COINTELPRO resources were expended to marginalize and subvert “white hate groups,” including the Ku Klux Klan and National States’ Rights Party. 
The directives governing COINTELPRO were issued by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the activities of these movements and their leaders.
[…just in case for some silly reason you thought this was all in the past…]
While COINTELPRO was officially terminated in April 1971, suspicions persist that the program’s tactics continued informally.Critics have suggested that subsequent FBI actions indicate that post-COINTELPRO reforms in the agency did not succeed in ending the program’s tactics. The Associated Pressreported in November 2008 that documents released under the FOIA reportedly show that the FBI tracked the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam for more than two decades. A review by The Washington Post shows that Maryland activists were wrongly labeled as terrorists in state and federal databases by state police’s Homeland Security and Intelligence Division from 2005 to at least early 2007. 
“Counterterrorism” guidelines implemented during the Reagan administration have been described as undercutting these reforms, allowing a return to earlier tactics. Some radical groups accuse factional opponents of being FBI informants or assume the FBI is infiltrating the movement.
Several authors have accused the FBI of continuing to deploy COINTELPRO-like tactics against radical groups after the official COINTELPRO operations were ended. Several authors have suggested the American Indian Movement (AIM) has been a target of such operations.
A few authors go further and allege that the federal government intended to acquire uranium deposits on the Lakota tribe’s reservation land, and that this motivated a larger government conspiracy against AIM activists on the Pine Ridge reservation.Others believe COINTELPRO continues and similar actions are being taken against activist groups.
Caroline Woidatargued that with respect to Native Americans, COINTELPRO should be understood within a historical context in which “Native Americans have been viewed and have viewed the world themselves through the lens of conspiracy theory.”
Other authors note that while there are conspiracy theories related to COINTELPRO, the issue of ongoing government surveillance and repression is nonetheless real. 
The War on Terror has brought to new heights the fear-mongering and civil rights infringement. I don’t doubt that COINTELPRO is still happening right now, but there is at least proof of similar activities happening into the 1990s. The Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were falsely accused of carrying a bomb after a planted bomb blew up in their vehicle even though all evidence pointed away from them. It should be noted that they were specifically travelling for the purpose of organizing a campaign of non-violent protests. After their spending years in jail, a judge finally changed the verdict instead charging the FBI and Oakland police of deception and misinformation and Bari and Cherney were awarded 4.4 million for the infringement of their civil rights. If I remember correctly, it was the first case ever won against the FBI and surely J. Edgar Hoover was rolling in his grave.
1938 to 1975 — House Committee on Un-American Activities (officially called House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC for short): It was an oppressive political organization lasting decades. Although there was a real communist threat, the fear-mongering distorted the actual reality of it and created a state of paranoia which the media played into. Besides media censorship, it led to Hollywood blacklists which destroyed careers and led some to suicide. Another main target of attack was the American Civil Liberties Union. 1975 to present — The House did abolish the committee, but only to transfer its powers to the House Judiciary Committee.
Late 1940s to late 1950s — McCarthyism: 1953 — Joseph McCarthy helped to create the greatest political oppression in modern US history by scaring government and military officials into submitting to his demands. The FBI became extrmemely intrusive and threatening. With various investigations and committees, many people had their lives destroyed and some were sent to prisons. 1953 — State Department bowed to McCarthy’s request by removing and in some cases burning books from its overseas libraries. This fear-mongering created a snitch culture where family and friends spied on eachother. From the Wikipedia article:
It is difficult to estimate the number of victims of McCarthyism. The number imprisoned is in the hundreds, and some ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs.In many cases, simply being subpoenaed by HUAC or one of the other committees was sufficient cause to be fired. Many of those who were imprisoned, lost their jobs or were questioned by committees did in fact have a past or present connection of some kind with the Communist Party. But for the vast majority, both the potential for them to do harm to the nation and the nature of their communist affiliation were tenuous. Suspected homosexuality was also a common cause for being targeted by McCarthyism. The hunt for “sexual perverts”, who were presumed to be subversive by nature, resulted in thousands being harassed and denied employment.
In the film industry, over 300 actors, authors and directors were denied work in the U.S. through the unofficial Hollywood blacklist. Blacklists were at work throughout the entertainment industry, in universities and schools at all levels, in the legal profession, and in many other fields. A port security program initiated by the Coast Guard shortly after the start of the Korean War required a review of every maritime worker who loaded or worked aboard any American ship, regardless of cargo or destination. As with other loyalty-security reviews of McCarthyism, the identities of any accusers and even the nature of any accusations were typically kept secret from the accused. Nearly 3,000 seamen and longshoremen lost their jobs due to this program alone.
1948 — There was a mass of comic book burnings by priests, teachers and parents. 1954 to present — Dr. Fredric Wertham and The Comics Code Authority: This organization was created out of fear that children would be negatively influenced and psychologically perverted by reading comic books. Many subjects became taboo: disrespectful portrayals of authority figures and evil winning against good; any inclusion of drugs as used by characters or in terms of plot; sexual innuendo, and depictions of “sex perversion”, “sexual abnormalities”, and “illicit sex relations” which specifically included seduction, rape, sadism, masochism, homosexuality, masturbation, and nudity; portrayals of violence, gore, cannibalism, kidnapping, and concealed weapons; the words “crime”, “horror” and “terror” in comic book titles; and the characters of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and zombies. The odd thing was these were all taboo even if someone wanted to publish a comic book with a morally good message such as portraying drug use negatively. Even though this organization held no legal power to enforce its requirements, through public fear it was able to get the comic book industry to enact its own self-censorship. A comic book had to meet these requirements to get the sticker of approval which determined sales. 1980s — comic books finally became free of censorship, but the Code in revised form continues to exist and continues to be self-imposed by some publishers.
1954 to 1956 — Wilhelm Reich and the FDA: Reich was prosecuted and imprisoned because certain government officials apparently didn’t like his researching sexuality. 1956 — Reich’s books, papers and journals were burned and his equipment destroyed by the FDA. His fellow scientists remained silent during this government oppression of free scientific inquiry. The term “orgone energy” was at the time censored from future publications of his work. This is particularly sad in light of the scientific idealism and social optimism of the 1950s. Dreams of a bright future blinded people to the darkness in their own present time. From the Wikipedia article:
In November, Reich wrote in Conspiracy. An Emotional Chain Reaction: “I would like to plead for my right to investigate natural phenomena without having guns pointed at me. I also ask for the right to be wrong without being hanged for it … I am angry because smearing can do anything and truth can do so little to prevail, as it seems at the moment.”
To speculate, it’s possible that the real reason for his prosecution wasn’t about his sexuality research. His main interest was developing technology that could focus energy fields for various purposes. This was an area of great interest of the government at the time. His equipment and paperwork may not have been destroyed but simply taken to a government laboratory. There certainly were many scientists working in various covert military programs. The government (specifically the alphabet agencies) weren’t above destroying someone’s life or career if they weren’t cooperative, and I imagine that Reich wouldn’t have wanted his research into healing methods being used for military purposes. Maybe the most depressing aspect of his story is that I believe his reason for coming to America was at least partly so that he could do scientific research unhindered by government control and interference.
1972 — Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal: Nixon was also one of the politicians who fear-mongered about Communism calling it “the threat” and he was a major player in the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Also, he was the first to use the phrase “war on drugs” in 1969. The Watergate scandal was the low point in American history and the nail in the coffin of the increasingly depressing events of the period. The Cold War which had been going on for decades was in full gear with all of its fear-mongering and oppressive atmosphere. The Vietnam War demonstrations were getting ugly and Nixon wasn’t open to these opposing viewpoints. The earlier assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. were still fresh in the public memory which just made Nixon’s criminal behavior all that more revolting. I don’t know if he was intentionally trying to destroy democracy, but he created a secret police which is something dictatorships are well known for having. Actually, I think Nixon was attempting to break a record by breaking every law in the book, and then after it all President Ford pardons him. WTF! Spies, and even common criminals for that matter, have been given the death penalty for lesser crimes. You need to look no further for proof that there is no justice (or at least very little) in American politics. If he hadn’t been caught and forced into resignation, who knows what he might have accomplished. Later presidents and politicians learned from his bad example, but I suspect all that has been learned is how to be more sneaky and deceptive.
Beginning in 1975 — Operation Condor: US agencies had a long history of manipulating and interfering in the politics of Chile even to the extent of undermining democracy and supporting groups responsible for horrible atrocities (see here), but most notable was Operation Condor which included the support of the Pinochet regime. From the Wikipedia article:
Operation Condor (Spanish: Operación Cóndor), was a campaign of political repressions involving assassination and intelligence operations officially implemented in 1975 by the governments of the Southern Cone of South America. The program aimed to eradicate socialist influence and ideas and to control active or potential opposition movements against the governments. Due to its clandestine nature, the precise number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor will likely never be known, but it is reported to have caused over sixty thousand victims, possibly even more.
Operation Condor, which took place in the context of the Cold War, had the tacit approval of the United States. In 1968, U.S. General Robert W. Porter stated that “In order to facilitate the coordinated employment of internal security forces within and among Latin American countries, we are…endeavoring to foster inter-service and regional cooperation by assisting in the organization of integrated command and control centers; the establishment of common operating procedures; and the conduct of joint and combined training exercises.” Condor was one of the fruits of this effort. The targets were officially armed groups (such as the MIR, the Montoneros or the ERP, the Tupamaros, etc.) but in fact included all kinds of political opponents, including their families and others, as reported by the Valech Commission. The Argentine “Dirty War“, for example, which resulted in approximatively30,000 victims according to most estimates, targeted many trade-unionists, relatives of activists, etc.
Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations, was closely involved diplomatically with the Southern Cone governments at the time and well aware of the Condor plan. According to the French newspaper L’Humanité, the first cooperation agreements were signed between the CIA and anti-Castro groups, fascist movements such as the Triple A set up in Argentina by Juan Perón and Isabel Martínez de Perón‘s “personal secretary” José López Rega, and Rodolfo Almirón (arrested in Spain in 2006).
1979 to 1985 — Second Cold War, from the Wikipedia article:
The Cold War (1979-1985) discusses the period within the Cold War between the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader in 1985.
The period is sometimes referred to as the “Second Cold War” due to the rising US-Soviet tensions and a change in Western policy from détente to more confrontation against the Soviets. Many military conflicts occurred, including Soviet war in Afghanistan, the 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident and the US invasion of Grenada.
Popular anger among sectors of the Iranian population opposed to the Shah’s rule, seething and repressed for a generation, combined with the Shah’s secular reforms, eventually culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which in turn led to a hostage crisis. Much of the anger in Iran was directed at the U.S., which helped bring the Shah to power in a 1953 CIA-backed coup. In recent years, U.S. officials have expressed regret for past U.S. actions that contributed to the Iran Revolution. Madeleine Albright in 2000 expressed regret for the ’53 CIA role, stating “…it is easy to see now why so many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”1
The fall of the Shah, a key Middle Eastern ally, was an embarrassment for the United States; and Carter’s inability to get U.S. hostages freed perhaps cost him the 1980 election. While the United States was mired in recession and the Vietnam quagmire, pro-Soviet governments were making great strides abroad, especially in the Third World. Communist Vietnam had defeated the United States, becoming a united state under a communist government. New pro-Soviet governments had also been established in Laos, Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Other communist insurgencies were spreading rapidly across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
Margaret Thatcher became the British Prime Minister in 1979, and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated US President in 1981. Both Reagan and Thatcher denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms that rivaled those of the worst days of the Cold War in the late 1940s, with the former famously vowing to leave the “evil empire” on the “ash heap of history“. Pope John Paul II helped provide a moral focus for anti-communism; a visit to his native Poland in 1979 stimulated a religious and nationalist upsurge that galvanized opposition and may have led to his attempted assassination two years later.
The “new conservatives” or “neoconservatives” rebelled against both the Nixon-era détente and the Democratic Party’s position on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, saying liberal Democrats were the cause for U.S. international setbacks. Many clustered around hawkish Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat, and pressured President Carter into a more confrontational stance. Eventually they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the conservative wing of the Republicans, who promised to confront Soviet expansionism.
The Soviet Union seemed committed to the Brezhnev Doctrine, sending troops to Afghanistan at the request of its communist government. The Afghan invasion in 1979 marked the first time that the Soviet Union sent troops outside the Warsaw Pact since the inception of the Eastern counterpart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This prompted a swift reaction from the west: the boycotting of the 1980 Summer Olympicsin Moscow and the heavy funding for the Afghani resistance fighters. A tedious guerrilla war continued. America supplied the mujahadeenof Afghanistan with weapons, including Stinger missiles used to shoot down many Soviet aircraft.
America also supplied arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, funded by the sale of arms to Iran, which caused the Iran-Contra Affair political scandal.
Led by heightened public awareness and fears, the period 1979-1985 witnessed the production in Western countries of several films and television dramas depicting the probable effects of a nuclear war and its aftermath. These included the ground-breaking American film The Day After (1983) and the British television docudrama Threads of the same year. Combining a contemporary Western youth culture of computer games and young love with fears of an accidental nuclear holocaust was the 1983 film WarGames. The Hollywood film Red Dawn (1984) played on American fears by portraying an invasion by Soviet and Cuban forces.
Several films of the James Bond series were set against a Cold War backdrop (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Octopussy, and most particularly The Living Daylights set in war-torn Afghanistan with Bond vs. the KGB directly), while films such as White Nights and Rocky IV exploited contemporaneous tense Soviet-American relations.
For the next couple of decades, people mostly gave up on the naive American dream and consoled themselves with self advancement and material gain. After the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s and the world weary politics of the 1980s, it was hard to remain truly optimistic about the world. However, politics became even more ideological than ever. I suppose the conservatives had their time in the sun and the public attitude was slowly shifting back to liberalism again (which fits the predictions of Strauss and Howe’s generations theory).
Despite their having been the largest generation, the Baby Boomers never had many of their own elected as president (which certainly isn’t to imply they didn’t have many in positions of power). George Bush, Jr. was a clear example of a Baby Boomer and now Obama is a clear example of a new generation. So, with Bush Junior out of office and with many other Boomers finally retiring late in life, the last remnants of the political power from the Cold War era are disappearing. From birth on, the Boomers have dominated American culture for almost the entire Cold War. The Boomer generation didn’t start the Cold War, but they became the representatives and promoters of it. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Gen Xers were born. And, the latchkey kids that they were, they represented the collective malaise of a decadent society. Gen Xers aren’t ideological as the Boomers were and so maybe we can hope for a waning of the political extremism that has created so much conflict in the world for the last century or so. I’d like to believe that America won’t return to some of the civil rights atrocities of last century, but events of the new century seem to demonstrate a federal government seeking to increase its extra-constitutional powers.
There are plenty more fun facts about US history since WWII. There is the United State’s role as world leader and the US “relations” to other countries including a variety of covert (and sometimes not so covert) CIA operations and military conflicts. Also, there are the even more interesting details about covert operations and intelligence gathering within the US. Especially intriguing are the US government activities related to the media, propaganda, and information control. All of this, of course, involves conspiracy theories and the mixing of public and private interests. For a small sampling of such issues, see these Wikipedia articles (in no particular order):
Overseas expansion of the United States
Overseas interventions of the United States
United States military aid
United States Foreign Military Financing
United States and state terrorism
War crimes committed by the United States
Extrajudicial prisoners of the United States
Extraordinary rendition by the United States
Torture and the United States
Human Rights Record of the United States
Human rights in the United States
CIA transnational human rights actions
CIA sponsored regime change
CIA activities by region: Near East, North Africa, South and Southwest Asia
CIA activities in Iran
CIA activities in Iraq
CIA activities in Afghanistan
CIA activities in the Americas
CIA activities in Brazil
Dirty War and Operation Condor
CIA activities in Asia and the Pacific
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (School of the Americas)
School of the Americas Watch
Foreign relations of the United States
Latin America – United States relations
Nicaragua vs. United States
CIA drug trafficking
CIA and Contras cocaine trafficking in the US
Kerry Committee report
Special Activities Division
CIA activities in the United States
Human radiation experiments
Ward Churchill 9/11 essay controversy
Psychological Operations (United States)
Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare
CIA and the media
CIA influence on public opinion
Propaganda in the United States
Censorship in the United States
Bush administration payment of columnists
Media bias in the United States
Committee on Public Information
Office of Public Diplomacy
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
United States President’s Commission on CIA activities within the United States (Rockefeller Commission)
NSA warrantless surveillance controversy
Congressional response to the NSA warrantless surveillance program
NSA call database
Warrantless searches in the United States
Family Jewels (Central Intelligence Agency)
Bay of Pigs Invasion
Cuban Project (Operation Mongoose)
Operation Gladio and Propaganda Due
U.S. intelligence involvement with German and Japanese war criminals after World War II
Arthur C. Lundahl and CIA interest in UFOs
Criticism of the Federal Reserve
World Finance Corporation
October surprise conspiracy theory
Deep Throat and William Mark Felt, Sr.