In the hot pot of the Cold War, Capitalism and Communism were in an all-out struggle to bring the entire world to a boiling point. Twenty-one years ago today, on April 1, 2001, Red Scared: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture by Michael Barson and me was published. The intent was simply to expose the absurdity of such a deeply tense period in our Baby Boomer childhood and foster appreciation for the tentative peace we lived in since the end of the Vietnam War. Of course, we were April Fooling ourselves—only five months later fear would take over again with the fatal attacks of 9/11. The world can always be counted on to not be peaceful for too long.
In any event, in the process of doing research for the book, I did not imagine that I would be scared to death by bubble gum cards. However, in 1951 (when I was a year old) the Bowman Gum Company of Philadelphia, known largely for its coveted and tradable baseball card sets that came with a piece of bubble gum, produced a terrifying series of Red Menace cards (subtitled “Children’s Crusade Against Communism”).
Kids went from trading sluggers for promising rookies to MIG jets providing cover for Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks; from star first basemen to the first American city set ablaze by a nuclear bomb.
Since Putin started his war to bring Ukraine back into Russia, these cards, which I remember having currency well into the 1950s—when anxiety was a way of life (and death)—take on renewed relevance on steroids.
Recently, cartoonist Rick Meyerowitz sent me these three from his once-complete set as a reminder that we’ve been on raging battlegrounds before. Looking at the ultra-horrific imagery employed to instill fear and loathing, we’ve come a long way in the sensationalist propaganda of war to reporting its harsh reality.
The 1951 complete Red Menace set included 48 cards, each designed to exploit the anti-Communist passions that underscored America during the decade of my childhood. Released shortly after the start of the Korean War (No. 1 marks the invasion of South Korea by the North), the images showcase major events of the early Cold War (and it various proxy hot wars) with China and the Soviet Union. Of special vicarious interest is the chilling aftermath of a nuclear war (below). The specter remains.
Years after they were produced, I recall finding the gutted scene of 23rd Street at Broadway and Fifth Avenue, not too far from where I lived. The location, which I walk by everyday still, conjures up this kind of image (notably during the pandemic).
I don’t recall this one, titled “Fighting a nuclear fire,” but all the Red Menace cards reinforced the national call for vigilance, suspicion and fear that was the hallmark of the Red Scare.
“The set’s intent was not as much to serve as a history lesson than to convey the fears harbored by a generation of Americans against the former Soviet Union,” notes the website of the PSA card collectors service.