E.L. Doctorow — the Bronx-born author of such historical fiction novels as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March —died on July 21 at 84, from complications caused by lung cancer. He leaves behind a shelf-full of novels and collections of short fiction and this piece, “Fear,” which first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Playboy.

Why does the world seem so scary? Here’s one reason: Our government wants us to be afraid. Very afraid.

In 1954 the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a deadly armaments race, testing and installing ever more powerful nuclear weapons to be dropped from aircraft, launched in ICBMs and shot from submarines. This was our Cold War, the result, it would seem, of the incompatibility on the same earth of a democratic republic and a communist dictatorship. But how inevitable was this conflict?

Here I invoke the plaintive figure of a forgotten American patriot named Henry Stimson. Despite the fact that he was a Republican, having served as secretary of state in the 1930s under Herbert Hoover, he was appointed secretary of war by Franklin Roosevelt and went on to direct the largest wartime mobilization in American history. Stimson worked nobly through the four-year conflict with Germany and Japan. But when Harry Truman succeeded Roosevelt and dropped the second atom bomb on Japan, and another test bomb on the Bikini atoll after the war was over, and after we showed disdain for the nuclear-challenged Soviet Union, it became apparent to Stimson that a dangerous foreign policy was in the making based on America’s sole possession of atomic weapons. Knowing that this scientific monopoly could not last, Stimson wrote a memo to Truman, proposing that we share the secrets of atomic-bomb manufacture with the Soviets.

“The chief lesson I have learned in a long life,” said Stimson, “is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him, and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him. Unless the Soviets are invited into the partnership on the basis of cooperation and trust, we are going to maintain the Anglo-Saxon bloc over against the Soviet in the possession of this weapon. Such a condition will almost certainly stimulate a feverish activity on the part of the Soviet toward the development of the bomb in what in effect will be a secret armaments race of a rather desperate character.”

Today we would call Stimson’s approach constructive engagement. It seems extraordinary that such an idea could have been conceived at that time, not by some idealistic political marginalist or Soviet sympathizer but by a career diplomat and public servant. Henry Stimson knew that Stalin was a barbarian mass murderer of the same magnitude as Hitler. But it was as if he foresaw the next 50 years of a cold war that would engender enough moments of tension between two nuclear-armed superpowers to threaten a planetary holocaust.

As it happened, the Soviets had proposed a treaty based on co-existence that was virtually what Stimson was recommending. To Truman this could mean only that his 78-year-old secretary of war had gone soft in the brain. Bomb hefting was what Truman trusted. The hard-liners in both camps assumed control, and the desperate arms race predicted by Stimson became a reality.

Does Stimson’s vision seem naive and soft-brained now? The Soviets had been devastated by World War II. Their industrial base was shattered, and they’d lost 20 million people. Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, would testify that even after the Russians got the bomb we did not seriously regard them as a military threat. Presumably the containment factor of mutual assured destruction would have been operative with or without all the sword rattling.

In the 1970s President Richard Nixon chose to engage constructively with another monolithic communist nation: He brought about a détente with Mao’s Red China. The Chinese Communists do not intend to yield power and bring about a democracy. But their economy has become somewhat recognizable to us. We trade with them now. China is a big market. And we’re a big market for her. We have had some leverage in her treatment of human rights activists and political dissidents. And our profound differences are mediated by diplomacy. Is it inconceivable that the same degree of constructive engagement could have moved Russia away from its Stalinist horror — Mao having been a no less malevolent ideological enemy of ours than Stalin?

The dangerously bisected world of the Cold War period was to a great extent a self-fulfilling prophecy of American governance. Once they scraped together their own nuclear arms and the means to deliver them, the Russians became just the foreign menace we always said they were.

With the Cold War under way, the voting public had to be persuaded to accept not only nuclear weapons development but also the enormous percentages of tax money given over to military security. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican statesman of the time, knew how to do it: “We’ve got to scare the hell out of the American people,” he said. And so the animus of our Cold War was unleashed to an astonishing degree on ourselves.

By 1954 the ideology of fear pumped out by our politicians had evolved into something like a state religion. It sought out the subversive elements living among us and prosecuted them for crimes of espionage, but it also staged public rituals of confession and repentance before congressional committees when no crimes were supposed to have occurred except crimes of thought. Teachers, university professors, journalists, editors, actors and scientists whose ideas did not conform either were fired from their jobs or stayed employed by coming forward to attest to their anticommunist credentials and offer their services to the thought-cleansing authorities. Everyone ran scared because reputations were being ruined and livelihoods destroyed by unsubstantiated accusations from self-appointed publishers of blacklists who were the 1950s equivalents of vigilante posses.

The 1950s taught our conservative politicians that nothing was more useful to their domestic designs than the fear of a foreign enemy. Under that era’s barrage against civil liberties, it became apparent to the Republicans that they had forged another powerful weapon: Political correctness was a means of cowing the opposition, discrediting it and ensuring incumbency.

It has been proposed by some historians that the real target of all that 1950s anticommunist hysteria was the legislative record of the New Deal enacted under President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1950s conservatives insisted on the natural relatedness of communists and Roosevelt liberals, who were said to be “soft on communism.” (Liberals, on the other hand, have never insisted on the continuum between conservatives and fascists, though the claim would be no more ridiculous.) The dominance of conservative ideology in our nation today connects us irrevocably to the 1950s: In the current climate, the way to stick it to a politician is to call him or her a liberal, the conservative ideology brought to fruition by President Ronald Reagan having supplanted a liberalism supposedly passé, a failed politics of intrusive big government, high taxation, overregulation of free enterprise. Yet the opposite is true. It was President Roosevelt’s application of liberal political philosophy that saved this country during the Depression. Government work programs for those out of work, Social Security, regulation of the banking and securities industries, the minimum wage and the National Labor Relations Act got the country back on its feet. The continuing implementation of liberal policy after the war–the G.I. Bill, Medicare, the Head Start program, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts under Lyndon Johnson–gave working people equity in the American dream, rectified some of the terrible aspects of racism, gave a fair shake to outsiders and underdogs and in general alleviated the injustices residing in our 19th century world of laissez-faire capitalism.

Put on a permanent war footing in the 1950s, we were urged to summon our collective fear, forge it into an imperial resolve and from that compose our national identity. We did so then, and we are doing so now.

Though the Soviet Union is gone, the fear is back with us, the political sociology of the Cold War in the 1950s having jelled into a messianic culture, so that for our leaders today, containment of the terrorist enemy requires our compliance with policies that abuse our freedoms and undermine our Constitution.

Given the threat of international terrorism, the USA Patriot Act passed by Congress under presidential goading calls for secret military tribunals, isolated detention of people suspected of crimes and secret searches of homes and offices of people who may come under suspicion of the authorities. A legislative proposal floating around Washington would expand the Patriot Act and empower the government to revoke any American’s citizenship on any grounds whatsoever. Had it not been stopped by Congress, the Bush administration would have created a nationwide data bank itemizing the business and personal transactions of every one of us, including the bookmarks on our computers and the books we take out of the library. As Attorney General John Ashcroft predictably said, those who protest any of this in the name of liberty “only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends.”

And so the liberals of today backed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq precisely because they didn’t want to be accused of being soft on terrorism. In the meantime, in the dazzle of its color-coded fear alerts, the Bush administration has stepped up the great conservative effort to weaken, if not totally dismantle, the economic, ecological and judicial enactments of liberal social policy that have brought inestimable benefit to the American people in the past 70 years.

The Cold War of the 1950s has so imbedded itself in the DNA of our ruling politicians that a militaristic future seems to be the only possibility for us. But of course there are generational differences. Our Iraqi adventure is a variant of our earlier efforts at regime change. In Iran in the 1950s we effected the ouster of a democratically elected socialist, Mohammed Mossadegh. In Chile in the 1970s we saw to the overthrow of a democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. Neither of these usurpings involved any appreciable military effort. They were clandestine CIA — State Department operations funded with a blank check by the American taxpayer. And when the deeds were done, we didn’t have to install more than a few economic advisors and American diplomats to oversee things. Everything was worked through the locals, a right-wing regent in Iran and a right-wing general in Chile, both of whom fulfilled our vision for their countries by means of mass arrests, censorship, torture chambers, disappearances and other tried-and-true techniques of repression that we would not countenance in our own country.

Iraq, by contrast, has required a clamorous affair of a couple hundred thousand troops, Stealth bombers and Abrams tanks — a noise heard round the world. Surely to be open and honest about our imperial nature is more in keeping with our superstatehood than sneaking about and leaving it up to investigative reporters to find out what we have done. And overthrowing a cruel tyranny would seem more defensible than subverting a democracy.

What then is to be missed from the old Cold War days? This: To act surreptitiously is to have some residual connection to moral behavior. There is, in that means of going about things in an underhanded way, a tacit admission of your own hypocrisy: You are engaging in a realpolitik that you know has no ethical basis.

It may be difficult for the American people not to cheer the overthrow of a vicious dictator. But the nature of our act of preemptive war stands apart from its results or from any motives we have claimed for its justification. It is nothing more than simple aggression. We have in power today a junta of empire-dreaming ideologists and salivating CEOs for whom the 13th century tribal-war idea of getting them lest they get us is the coolest way to advance American interests. And so with Iraq under our occupation we have provided a recruitment base for all the nihilist terror criminals of the Near and Far East. They are pouring across the borders, these new enlistees in jihad, to destroy infrastructure and kill our soldiers, and once more we have fulfilled our own dire prophecy, and we are in a war to which there is no foreseeable end.

We can condemn this administration for its ruinous economic policies, its environmental sabotage, its unjustifiable war and disastrous political philosophy, but there is a sin underlying all of this, and it cannot be forgiven. There is no atonement for the obdurate political leader who has ignored the historic opportunity to use the unprecedented power and wealth of his nation to ensure the well-being of its citizens, remediate the wretched poverty and suffering in so many parts of the world and affirm the ideal of a concordance of civilizations. No, no atonement at all for the political leader who is determinedly obsolete, a 19th century throwback.

And so now, as in the 1950s, we oscillate between fear’s two poles: We fear the enemy we have helped create, and we fear the nation we have become.

But one phenomenon of the 1950s is to be cherished, having appeared, as we can see now, as prophetic of a different future. I mean the rising dissidence exemplified by the Beats, those self-designed dropouts who got in their broken-down cars and took to the road–those pad crashers, Zen dabblers, pot-smoking poets and grand fools, the first prominent voices of alienation to come out of a stultifying political culture. They were hardly angels, and they didn’t produce a school of great art, but they stand out now as a historical inevitability.

And they weren’t alone. I think of the great black R&B musicians and the Southern white boy who modeled himself on them; the rising tide of revolutionary comedians, streetwise, cruelly observant of everything around them; the jazz musicians of the Five Spot; Billie Holiday; Charles Mingus; the author Michael Harrington, who wrote The Other America, about endemic poverty in the United States; and the practical, brook-no-nonsense saint Dorothy Day, who lived poor and published the Catholic Worker. These and others were the prophets of the mass rebellions of the next decade, the great civil rights marches and the student antiwar protests that envisioned Vietnam as the Cold War’s most absurd expression and attenuated rationale. Without the voices of the 1950s there would have been nothing in the manner of a reformation that the 1960s embodied, those socially painful years that monumentally challenged the rigid orthodoxies and dogma that had ruled us until then.

So we must remember the 1950s, that decade in so many ways like ours, as a time not without its energies of self-correction. There were these people outside the political spectrum and un-empowered by any office who by the example of their fearless creative lives said that we can’t leave it to the politicians to decide what America is.

Nor can we.