On the first of May in 1950, members of the Mosinee, Wis., American Legion—war veterans, all of them—dressed themselves in Russian military uniforms and staged a Red Dawn-like takeover of their small town.
The town's mayor, Ralph E. Kronenwetter, was dragged from his bed in his pajamas and forced to surrender to his captors in the town's new "Red Square" with a gun at his back. Mosinee's police chief, Carl Gewiss, was also rousted from his bed.
It was an ugly time in America. The country had gone through the Great Depression, followed by four years of a world war. After having crushed the forces of German fascism and Japanese imperialism, you'd think that the United States could catch its national breath. But instead, along came the threat of international communist domination, and the country's collective itchy trigger finger was a-twitchin'.
While the communist threat was certainly real, it was made worse by those inside America who exaggerated and exploited it for their own personal and political gain. Up-and-comer Richard Nixon would ride the Red Scare to victory in the 1950 California Senate race over Helen Gahagan Douglas (wife of Academy Award-winning actor Melvyn Douglas). Ever the guttersnipe, Nixon repeatedly referred to Gahagan Douglas as "the Pink Lady," calling into question her patriotism.
The real star of the sleazy era was Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator from the state in which the takeover occurred. It's not surprising that the fake communist takeover took place in McCarthy's home state. The legionnaires had chosen May 1 because May Day is celebrated around the world as International Workers' Day, meant to commemorate the struggles of those workers who were oppressed or killed in the fight for fair wages and better working conditions. (I'm sorry, but that sounds like a rather American ideal to me.) I remember that, as a kid, I used to enjoy watching the footage from Moscow as the Soviets paraded every missile they ever made past a reviewing stand in which stood one obese leader after another, each one thinking, "Jeez, can we get this over so I can sit down ... and eat something?"
(It's a little-known fact that May 1 is officially Law Day in the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower declared it as such in 1958, and it became law in 1961. Eisenhower probably meant it as a screw-you to the populist tone of May Day, but Law Day was originally the brainchild of Eisenhower's legal counsel, Charles S. Rhyne, who, at the time of the announcement, was the president of the American Bar Association.)
Anyway, back to the fake invasion. Roadblocks were set up all around the town. The public library was seized, and books were purged. Businesses were shut down; members of the local clergy were rounded up and placed in a barbed-wire stockade near "Red Square"; and local restaurants were only allowed to serve Russian black bread and potato soup.
As publicity stunts go, it was a doozy. It probably would have been an unqualified success had it not been for the fact that the mayor, despite being only 49 years old at the time, suffered a catastrophic medical event—either a heart attack or a cerebral hemorrhage—and died five days later. Also, a local preacher, Will Bennett, who had bragged to the media how he hid his Bible inside the church organ, died in bed a few hours after the mayor did.
In the understatement of all time, Franklin Baker, the commander of the local American Legion post, said, "It was a terrible coincidence."
I think about that story every time I hear somebody say the all-time-stupid line, "We've got to take America back!" Mitt Romney has been using that line more and more on the campaign trail, often to a thunderous response. Take it back from whom, exactly? From your fellow Americans with whom you just happen to disagree on a few items? It's so lame.
It's odd. I lived through the latter part of the Red Scare. I remember the Cuban missile crisis, which was (gulp!) 50 years ago this month, and I participated in the drills where we had to hide under our desks, perchance to survive nuclear annihilation. When I got to a certain age, I pondered the communist threat and concluded that it was way overblown. How could that system possibly emerge victorious over a country that had Motown, basketball and Julie Newmar as Catwoman? (That thought was formulated during my hormonal teen days and made perfect sense at the time.)
We should all acknowledge that we've come a long way from those days. While there are still (and will always be) a handful of nutjobs who see black helicopters and threats of a United Nations takeover, most Americans are relatively even-keeled. This is, indeed, a heated and strident election. But if you step back and take a calmer look, you realize that, in the presidential election of 2012, we have a Mormon running against a black guy, and most of what they're arguing about is money.
We're still not where we should be, but that's way better than the American Legion pretending to be commies and scaring the mayor to death.