In a scene from Marvel’s latest film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reveals a radical new defense plan that will allow agents to neutralize “a lot of threats before they even happen.”
Captain America’s alter ego Steve Rogers retorts, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.”
Now that the Captain America character displays these kinds of anti-“thought police” attitudes on the big screen, it’s probably difficult to imagine that Cap was once a witch-hunting, anti-communist crusader in the tradition of Joseph McCarthy. But for a brief time in the 1950s, that’s exactly what he was.
After World War II ended, the popularity of superheroes—especially patriotic ones—began to wane, giving way to the rise of horror and romance comics. By 1949, Captain America comic books went from being one of Timely Comics’—the company name before it was rebranded as Atlas and eventually as Marvel—biggest sellers to one of its weakest. In the very last issue of Captain America Comics—which had been renamed Captain America’s Weird Tales—Captain America didn’t appear in the issue once, not even on the cover. Instead, it featured four horror stories that had nothing to do with superheroes at all. Captain America had faded into obscurity. After the Allies won the war, it seemed, America didn’t need him anymore.
Almost five years later, though, Timely (now called Atlas) revived Cap. For nine months—from December 1953 to September 1954—Captain America was known as the Commie Smasher, along with his World War II sidekick, James “Bucky” Barnes.
Just like in The Winter Soldier, the world was a different place for Cap. It was the nuclear age, with the promise of nuclear power as the solution to cure the world’s problems and forge its future—from solving world hunger to providing space travel. Instead of gathering around the radio for entertainment, families gathered around the television set, with more than 50 percent of U.S. households owning one. And once an innocent past time for adolescents, comic books were being blamed for a supposed rise in juvenile delinquency by the newly created United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Comic book sales were down dramatically and distribution was suffering. The industry itself was facing possible shutdown. It seemed the end of comic books was near.
“A lot of comics were struggling to find distribution,” said Steve Saffel, senior acquisitions editor at Titan Books, who worked closely with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon on Simon’s autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics. “So publishers had to come up with something everybody could agree upon. I think the reason they brought back Captain America was because there he was the biggest seller of the 1940s. ... All they needed was an enemy who'd placate the government, and that's going to be the commies.”
Fueled by the mass paranoia caused by Senator Joe McCarthy’s claims that the United States had been infiltrated by large numbers of Communists, Soviet spies and sympathizers, and the very real threat of the Cold War itself, Atlas began publishing three titles featuring Rogers as Captain America: Young Men’s, Men’s Adventures, and Captain America Comics. Because, as Steve Rogers himself says in one of his commie-smashing adventures, the Communists are “the Nazis of the 1950s.”
To explain his five-year absence in comics, Atlas founder and editor Martin Goodman, along with then-writer Stan Lee, decided that Rogers had retired from the Army. But when the Red Skull—Cap’s old Nazi arch-nemesis—returns, this time as a Communist working for the Kremlin, he is forced to don his star-spangled uniform and wield his mighty shield once again, along with his old sidekick, Bucky.
Stories also prominently featured Asian communists, Soviets, and American commie spies. In “The Hour of Doom,” Cap and Bucky prevent a communist spy from blowing up the United Nations building in New York City. Another story featured Cap and Bucky infiltrating a communist base in Indochina. And in “The Green Dragon,” the Star-Spangled Hero and his sidekick track another communist spy into China.