Bad propaganda is very much like bad cooking: its ineptitude is overwhelming upon initial sensory impact. This weird little pseudo-documentary, produced by the long-discredited John Birch Society in the aftermath of the passage of the landmark mid-1960s civil rights legislation, is a failure, but it is a fascinating failure because it brings together a wealth of data and ideas into a work that cannot differentiate between information and truth.
The foundation of “Anarchy U.S.A.” is the argument that the civil rights movement was a Soviet-supported plot to wreck the United States through tactics that were used to bring about Communist regimes in China, Cuba and Algeria. The strategies cited involved dividing the population into antagonistic factions, creating the appearance of popular support for a revolution, neutralizing opposition to the potential revolution, inciting mob violence and using the resulting anarchy to “create the semblance of a revolution.”
To its credit, the film is correct in detailing how the Communist Party in the United States initially focused in the late 1920s on machinations to fulfill an absurd Stalinist plot to establish a so-called Negro Soviet Republic in predominantly black urban centers in the American Southeast. The film is also justified in questioning the Communist Party’s support of racial equality through allegedly insincere advocacy of humanitarian issues. Footage of a speech by African-American James Ford as the party’s vice presidential candidate in the 1940 election is also included, inferring that Ford was either a stooge or window dressing for the Communist plot.
Still, “Anarchy U.S.A.” is burdened by sins of omission: it significantly downplays the oppression in China and Cuba that fostered their respective revolutions, and its mini-history of the Algerian uprising finds no faults with the French colonial occupation. It also fails to provide a fuller picture by avoiding mention of the nasty feud between the Communist Party in the United States and mainstream civil rights organizations, or the tumult of the McCarthy era that demeaned the party’s standing among many African-Americans and brought down several of its most prominent black figures (including Paul Robeson and New York councilman Benjamin J. Davis Jr.).
But halfway through, the goes completely off the tracks by introducing two unidentified African-Americans, a man who claims to be a former Communist Party member and a woman who states that she was an undercover FBI informant that spied on Communist activities. Neither individual is the least bit credible – both appear to be cold-reading their outrage from cue cards – although there is a slight surprise when the woman manages to remark about the need to address ongoing racial inequality.
And while a harrowing montage of news footage featuring incendiary language from white racists (including a Ku Klux Klan rally leader) and black civil rights leaders are tied together as evidence to support the argument of Communist-fueled dissent tearing the United States apart, the film ultimately fails its thesis by refusing to acknowledge the social, political and economic disenfranchisement of the nation’s black population in the decades prior to the introduction of Communism in the United States, let alone the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The film’s blithe dismissal of President Lyndon B. Johnson as a dupe of the Kremlin and Martin Luther King Jr. as a Red agitator erases whatever credibility the film hoped to achieve. (The film strangely missed its mark during this final stretch by failing to note the one-time Communist affiliation of March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin or W.E.B. Du Bois’ late-life embrace of Marxism.)
“Anarchy U.S.A.” (which carries no credits regarding production, direction or the droning narration) had zero impact in its day – it was never released in theaters, although it was made available in 16mm prints to any person or organization sympathetic to the extremist John Birch Society politics. It survives today as an oddball relic of a failed effort to link Cold War panic with overheated race-baiting convulsions. If it has any value, it would be as a warning to would-be propagandists on how not to use motion pictures to drive home a political point.