The Greatest Menace: Organized Crime in Cold War America
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002
Subject, Methods, Database:
A historical study of the political and cultural context of the organized crime debate in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s, based on a variety of published and unpublished sources.
This study attempts to analyze the construction of organized crime as a social problem within the broader public debates of crime, immigration and citizenship. Seven aspects are singled out for discussion: ethnicity and crime, middle-class conformity, fiction and non-fiction crime literature, the Kefauver hearings and the role of television, citizen crime committees, the anti-mafia campaign of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Congressional investigations into labor racketeering, and the "Untouchables" TV series and the Italian-American lobbying against stereotyping.
The debate on organized crime in the postwar years helped define and reinforce social and economic hierarchies that were being destabilized by the rising fortunes of the white ethnic middle class and by claims that crime had social and economic roots in the failures of capitalism and racialized class divisions. Attention to organized criminals focused on political and cultural differences-nation of birth, political views, sexual nonconformity-as often as on the crimes themselves. By ignoring lawbreaking among native-born whites and instead focusing on a small cabal of foreign-born criminals, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, along with criminologists, the mass media, citizens' crime committees, chambers of commerce, and others, thwarted calls for ambitious solutions to social problems such as violence, racism, and labor unrest. Crime fighters and crime writers constructed a limited notion of normality as it applied to citizenship, even as they presented detailed, titillating accounts of people who transgressed the boundaries of social propriety. In first offering the possibility of release from social conventions but then reasserting the concept of justice as the containment of these acts, they allowed the public to identify with the status quo while experiencing the pleasure of viewing the bad boys.
The dominant political and popular culture of the 1950s perceived organized crime as a conspiratorial threat to national security as serious as that posed by communism. Both McCarthyites and anti-crime crusaders drew representational power from the perceived threat that communists and criminals alike posed to a perpetually unstable corporate, ethnic, and gender hierarchy; and both drew attention to people who seemed to conform in appearance and values in order to make the problem seem especially menacing. Just as Senator McCarthy's paranoid anticommunist accusations of well-bred radicals in the State Department overturned earlier images of bomb-throwing, bearded anarchists, the Kefauver hearings emphasized the new invisibility of organized crime. Mobsters looked like business executives, lived in the same neighborhood, contributed to political campaigns, and acted like good citizens.
The exposure of Italian American criminality created a unique problem for middle-class Italian Americans: virtually the only Italian Americans who appeared on television in the 1950s were criminals, and this created an impression in the minds of many viewers that criminality and Italian American ethnicity were interconnected-even interchangeable-categories. As Italian Americans sought to eliminate this association by downplaying criminality, denying the existence of the Mafia, and lobbying the television networks, they sought to assign a new meaning to their identity along the lines of race and class.
The author Lee Bernstein places his study of the organized crime debate in the frame of reference of Cold War history. He is not primarily concerned with the discourse on organized crime as such. Accordingly, he makes little effort to place his findings in perspective with the existing literature on the organized crime debate during the first half of the 20th century and since the 1960s. Even the literature that specifically deals with the organized crime discourse in the 1950s and early 1960s is at best given scant attention. Instead, Bernstein relies on general historical literature and on his primary source material, most notably the papers of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics deposited at the National Archives. The result is a more essayistic than analytical and more kaleidoscopic than systematic account, which is most valuable in the careful description of certain events such as incidents of racial violence in Cicero and Chicago, the Teamsters union's campaign against the McClellan committee and the Order Sons of Italy in America's efforts to change media depictions of Italian Americans.
An essayistic and kaleidoscopic treatise on the organized crime debate in the U.S. during the 1950s and early 1960s. While readers familiar with the existing literature will find new insights, they will also note that the author has not been overly concerned with putting his findings in perspective with previous analyses and interpretations of the American discourse on organized crime.
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© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.