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.
Despite Cap’s high sales during World War II, this new conservative, aggressively patriotic hero just couldn’t replicate the trend in the 1950s. With McCarthy’s support fading due to the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 and the paranoia that accompanied the Red Scare subsiding, Captain America and Bucky would soon be forced back into retirement.
But wasn’t Cap frozen in ice and discovered by The Avengers, you ask? Yes, he was. But it wasn’t until another 10 years. In 1964, Lee and Jack Kirby, Captain America’s other co-creator, wrote that storyline with no mention of Cap’s days as a Commie Smasher. That part of his history was completely ignored.
The comic book industry is a funny thing. Story and character continuity were never considered a big deal before the 1970s. Publishers figured the average turnover rate in readers was about seven years. Children who read comics grew up and a new generation of child readers took their place. So it seems nobody ever thought about explaining Captain America’s brief run in the 1950s to readers until Steve Engelhart did so 20 years later, when comics started appealing to older audiences.
Engelhart retroactively explained the character’s history, that the 1950s Cap and Bucky had actually not been Rogers and Barnes but William Burnside and Jack Monroe, two men who had been obsessed with Cap and Bucky. Burnside found the original Super-Soldier Serum formula, made his own batch, and injected himself and Monroe with it. Burnside even went so far as to legally change his name to Steve Rogers and get plastic surgery to make himself look like Rogers. The serum eventually drove both men insane, a convenient explanation for Cap’s commie-smashing days.
Over his more than 70-year history, Captain America has always been a freedom fighter. But what kind of freedom he fights for depends on which era of modern American history you look at.
In a 2006-2007 storyline called “Civil War,” the superheroes of the Marvel universe are forced to register with the U.S. federal government as “human weapons of mass destruction” and reveal their secret identities under the Superhuman Registration Act. Two sides are formed among the heroes: the side that supports it, led by Iron Man, and the side that opposes it because it violates civil liberties, led by Captain America. Cap is so against it, in fact, that he dies for the cause. The storyline is an allegory for the Patriot Act, a result of the 9/11 terrorists attacks on American soil.
The Cap in The Winter Soldier is one who, much like in Mark Waid’s 2010 five-issue miniseries Captain America: Man Out of Time, fights for what he feels is best for the American people. "My job is to make tomorrow’s world better. Always has been. Once, long ago, I asked Bucky what purpose Captain America served outside of combat," Rogers says in the series. "It was a foolish question. There’ll always be something to fight for. And I’ll always be a soldier."
The beauty of Captain America is that he is and always has been a symbol of the American dream. But that dream encompasses what German psychologist Erich Fromm called the basic human dilemma, which is the conflicting desire for both security and freedom. As a symbol, Cap will always struggle with that balance, reflecting our own struggles to define just what being an American means.