McMahon speaks on how fear influences decision making

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Visiting professor Robert McMahon described how fear of political events of the past and present have shaped the world today. Photo courtesy of Jason Liu.

On Sunday, Robert J. McMahon, professor of history at Ohio State University and a visiting professor at the College this semester, delivered a talk titled, “The Insecure and Fearful Superpower: A Cold War Legacy?” The Stanley Kaplan Council on Foreign Affairs sponsored the lecture.

McMahon started off by introducing what he called the most crucial influence in decision-making and politics in the United States within the last 70 years: fear. “Fear and insecurities are at the root of our decisions as a nation,” McMahon said, “especially post-Cold War.”

McMahon made it clear in his lecture that this idea of fear turns into threats. Fear of fascism, fear of communism, fear of revolutionary nationalism, fear of Germans, fear of Japanese and fear of Islamic radicalism all eventually turn into threats: the threat of Muslims, the threat of the Soviets et cetera.

All of these fears and threats, he said, “have dominated our foreign policy since the outbreak of World War II.”

“Americans construct threats, [but] threats are actually social constructions,” McMahon said. He admits that they are indeed “anchored in external realities,” yet it is the perception of these threats that he takes to be the core of these social constructs. These threats go on to trigger fear throughout the nation, often calling for an intervention or a series of actions on the U.S.’ part. The Cold War, however, was the first time that fear was effectively employed in order to bolster both political parties’ agendas.

McMahon used specific examples from both U.S. history and modern times to explain the idea of “using fear as a political tactic” to his audience. He explained how, in World War II, if Great Britain had been defeated, the U.S. would have been in trouble and essentially “have [had] a gun pointed at them.” This created fear amongst Americans; in a way, President Franklin Roosevelt predisposed “Americans to think of the world as divided,” McMahon said.

McMahon explained that, later on, the Cold War became another example of how “fear proved to be a politician’s most effective weapon.” He used the example of Harry S. Truman, and how he almost convinced the American public that communism — not necessarily the Soviet Union — was something to truly fear.

McMahon then explained that George W. Bush’s administration used fear while in office. “9/11 was exploited,” he said, in order to give reason to invade Iraq. “Ties of Al Qaeda to Iraq hardly seemed to matter.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney is a prime example of “how fear played a central role in that campaign,” according to McMahon. When Cheney said to the American people that “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” he hinted that they would be used against both the United States and its allies.

McMahon said that these messages were a great way to generate fear amongst the people and garner support in terms of declaring a war against Iraq.

As McMahon ended his lecture, many students had questions about fear looming over our country today. One student asked about how current policies should change in order to combat this issue. “Decisions are both interest-based and fear-based. Since World War II, fear has begun to overwhelm policy-making,” McMahon said.

What about the current fear of terrorism? McMahon offered an answer: “More people die annually from bathtub-related accidents than at the hands of a terrorist in this country.” He suggested keeping the reality of things in mind, regardless of what we hear in the media.

At the beginning of the lecture, McMahon posed a question: “Why is the United States, a global superpower for at least the last 70 years, constantly insecure?” By the end of the talk, McMahon had answered his own question. “Since the ’30s, we are safer than ever,” McMahon said. But the power of fear is undeniable; government officials and politicians realize this and “will use fear when they think it is in their best interest,” he said.

McMahon received his bachelor’s degree from Fairfield University, and then later received his doctorate from the University of Connecticut. McMahon is a specialist in the history of U.S. foreign affairs and has taught at various institutions such as the University of Florida, the University of Virginia and University College Dublin. In addition to educating students, McMahon  served as the president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations in 2001 and he currently holds the chair of Ralph D. Mershon Distinguished Professor at Ohio State University.

  • Tom Foolery

    Andy Grove, the founder of Intel, once said only the paranoid survive. Fear can be manipulated into inappropriate action or be considered prudent, cautionary behavior. Mr. McMahon doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two or appreciate the latter. But the facts show us the world has benefited greatly from the Pax Americana of the pre Obama years. Time will tell us how a change in “fear” as policy will treat us and the rest of the world once Iran, North Korea and Russia are treated as just misunderstood foes. I wonder how close the bullet from a terrorist rifle has to be before he decides it’s time to duck.