Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America

2, February 2016

Today, it seems like we can’t go to any of our favorite news sites without seeing at least one story about terrorism and sabotage. The threat of terrorism is a part of every news cycle, a part of the conversations that Americans from New York to Los Angeles are having with their family and friends. All this talk of terrorism and internal threats makes it seem like we’ve entered a new era in American history. In some ways this isn’t wrong. The word "terrorism" is fairly new; it wasn’t used widely until the 1970s although it was originally coined during the French Revolution in the 1790s. And every new terror threat is so unique, so different from the attacks that came before, that we seem to never know what to expect. But even though the word itself wasn’t commonly used throughout most of American history, tactics that we would today recognize as terrorism have been with us since the very beginnings of America.

International Spy MuseumSpies, Traitors, Saboteurs comes to MHM from the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC.

The idea that terrorism and threats from within aren’t something new in American history is the subject of a new exhibit opening at the Missouri History Museum: Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America. This exhibit, which comes to us from the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, examines nine different moments when Americans felt threatened by terror, from the burning of Washington, DC, in 1814 to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. In each of these moments, visitors are asked to consider the ways that law enforcement officials responded to those threats. When has that response been appropriate? When has it not been enough? When has it gone too far? How we should try to balance security and civil liberties?

The exhibit is full of fascinating objects and interactives that help to tell this story. You’ll see a helmet worn by a first responder to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and a piece of one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. You’ll see documentaries and videos about groups like the Weather Underground and the KKK to understand the threats they posed to American security. You’ll be able to look through the FBI file on Lucille Ball to determine why the federal government was keeping tabs on the famous comedian during the 1950s. You’ll be able to look through several documents that federal authorities were concerned contained a code placed there by Japanese spies during World War II. And you’ll be able to make your voice heard on how you think the U.S. government should respond to these kinds of threats. By looking back and learning about the history of terror in America through objects and interactives like these, we can be better equipped to know what to expect in our future.

As much as it seems like all the discussion of terrorism in America is new, what Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs shows us is that threats of terror—and debates over how we can best combat those threats—are not new. They are as old as the country itself.

Spies Traitors Saboteurs

—Adam Kloppe, Public Historian