America Challenged

by William O. Douglas

Avon Books, 1960, paper


A nation usually loses its liberties under the pressures of fear or under the anxieties of actual war. Every ruler or leader, every prosecutor or judge, every legislator who has denied the citizen freedom has been propelled by the feeling of great urgency. Emergencies mount and become an excitable fact in the public mind. Everyone sees the crisis through his own spectacles and doubtless deems his motives the most patriotic of all.

Benjamin Franklin early observed that loyalty oaths were "the last resort of liars." Abraham Lincoln later said, "On principle, I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it enough if a man does no wrong hereafter." Experience with loyalty oaths both in England and later on these shores should have taught us that enforced loyalty oaths are very poor guides to future good conduct. Yet since World War II many kinds of loyalty oaths were adopted for federal and state positions. Hundreds of local units of government used them. Oaths were exacted from voters, occupants of public housing projects, teachers, recipients of public welfare, union officials, those seeking tax exemptions (such as religious groups, and even from boxers and wrestlers. Beyond the oaths were the numerous committees, commissions, and boards active in loyalty testing. These inquiries went beyond past and present conduct that had relation to subversion and embraced a wide range of activities (including psychiatric treatment) which were thought to make one a poor "security risk." The figure emerging as the ideal public servant was a faultless, correct, proper, orthodox-and I might add-dull character. The comparison of the ideal with the automaton became pitiless as the loyalty testing moved from the realm of conduct into the zone of ideas and beliefs.

One measure of our intolerance was the wide scope given to questions under the loyalty program for government employees. We are raised in the Jeffersonian tradition that what a man thinks is not the government's business; it is only his actions that he is accountable for. And we were brought up to think that he is not accountable to government for any actions that do not violate some law of the land. Consider then the following questions in a loyalty investigation of a government employee during recent years

Q. "What were your feelings at that time concerning racial equality?"

Q. "Do I interpret your statement clearly that Negroes and Jews are denied some of our constitutional rights at present?"

Q. "The file indicates that you were quite hepped-up over the one-world idea at one time. Is that right?"

Q. "At one time or two you were a strong advocate of the United Nations. Are you still?"

Is it possible that in America one's belief in equality of all people or in the desirability of the United Nations can be equated to disloyalty or subversion-or even be relevant to those issues?

Further examination of this employee called for his opinion on Franklin Roosevelt, Norman Thomas, and Henry Wallace.

Another employee was suspect in a loyalty hearing when charged with having studied the Russian language with a friend.

Q. "Did you ever take any lessons from anyone on the Russian language?"

A. "No, sir, no formal instruction."

Q. "You'd categorically deny that if somebody would say that you did?"

A. "Absolutely. Undoubtedly he'd tell us a common word -I know that 'da' means-it means, 'yes.'"

Q. "But you never attempted to take lessons in the Russian language?"

A. "No."

Q. "Who gave lessons to your wife?"

A. "She got these records. There was a Berlitz record of somebody's and she took the address from that. There was a neighbor of ours, two doors down, who gave her a lesson in it and she went to the Unitarian Church, I believe, for lessons also. She'd take a couple of lessons and quit and start in with somebody else."

His views on government ownership were also deemed relevant to his loyalty. Yet we know that some of the most articulate proponents of democratic values at home and abroad have been socialists.

One employee ran the gauntlet on "Liberalism."

Q. "What does the word liberal mean in your estimation? Doesn't it mean connected with communism and Russia?"

This line of questions was typical of the reign of intolerance which possessed us after World War II. Men and women were indiscriminately smeared; trial by investigation became a pattern of conduct; innocent association with subversives, plainly protected by constitutional guarantees, was not differentiated from knowing association. Sinister meanings were imputed to a person's exercise of his constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment, even against the warning that "The privilege against self-incrimination would be reduced to a hollow mockery if its exercise could be taken as equivalent either to a confession of guilt or a conclusive presumption of perjury." Blacklists flourished not for what people had done but for what they had believed or thought.

There were some protests to these invasions of privacy. But we as a people did not revolt. Some did not speak up for fear they would be tarred by the same brush. The desire to get votes, by beating the drums and producing hysteria, recruited many to this regime of intolerance. One could probably count on the fingers of his two hands the newspapers that held the line, exposed the un-Americanism of these procedures, and denounced those who placed "a badge of infamy" on people by means of press releases or pronouncements in committee hearings. The truth is that we became insensitive to this type of injustice.

We have paid a heavy price for this invasion of the realm of conscience and belief. Those tagged with disloyalty or those slurred by the charges of it were virtual outcasts. Holders of the Ph.D. degree ended up working on railroad section gangs. Men and women who had spent years preparing for some branch of the public service had to put their careers behind them and seek employment in business or establish businesses of their own. But the arms of the loyalty boards were long. The business enterprise that worked on government contracts was also subject to scrutiny; and its employees came under the watchful eyes of F.B.I. investigators and loyalty boards. The casualties ran into the thousands. Only an infinitesimal number of employees was truly subversive. The victims in the main were nonconformists who once had been indiscreet or who had been so bold as to have unorthodox or unpopular beliefs at some points in their lives, or associates or friends who were "leftist." Few had either the resources or the stamina to fight the charges. Most of them resigned and became anonymous victims of the reign of intolerance.

The damage done was not restricted to them. Their fate was telegraphed to every sensitive mind. A generation of youngsters became aware that there were great risks in being unorthodox and in failing to conform to the patterns of standardized thought that were slowly taking shape. A youngster on the way to the top might lose his place on the escalator if he were too much of an individualist. He might lose out even in such competitive projects as a Fulbright scholarship! The consequences were far-reaching; and we have not recovered from them. One effect was to make our foreign service unattractive to many imaginative young men and women. Another was to stifle reporting by those abroad.

Most youngsters at our numerous listening points were reluctant to depart from orthodox lines, to challenge traditional thinking, to put the communist threat in new perspective. We suffered greatly in intelligence and in insight. Another effect was a rapid decline in registration for Russian language courses. At a time when we should have been studying the Russian language en masse in an effort to know and understand this new and powerful competitor, we were driven away by fear.


And note what television has done. This brilliant scientific achievement has been debased by catering to the lowest common denominator among us. The advertisers in effect control it and they desire that their wares not be associated with any controversial issues. And so they seek the level of broadest appeal and end up with supine and depressing programs. Think of the potentialities of television if it were visualized as a national university of the air. Then the great literature of the world could be brought to us in vivid terms. Music and art, poetry and literature, history and economics could be added to current news and sports events to make television a powerful educational force in the nation. It could help us become adult and mature. Instead its pressure in every living room is on the side of infantilism and mediocrity... Captive of Madison Avenue, television makes millions out of the side of orthodoxy and conformity. It does not cultivate a society given to debate, soul-searching, or dissent.

Television has also reflected the decline in respect of our Bill of Rights. The police are extolled; the rights of man downgraded. This is a symptom of a larger malady. One bit of evidence, not commonly noted, is the fact that the annual budget of the F.B.I. is over twice as large as the annual budget for the entire federal court system.

Dominance of the Military

World War II pitched military men into a central position of control over our lives. And their prestige allowed them to push more and more into critical positions when peace arrived. Their domination mounted as increasing billions were allotted to defense. The spending of forty-five billion dollars a year is a force of tremendous power. A part of its impact is the way it has shaped our thinking, directly and indirectly. We have become more and more military-minded as our economy has become more and more geared to military projects. There has been a conspicuous trend to move the military into policy positions. This dangerous and dramatic break with American tradition has been largely accepted. Only a few muted voices have been raised in protest. Books such as Soldiers and Scholars ( 1957) by Masland and Radway even go so far as to show how the military can be better educated to fill these policy roles.

Yet our military-mindedness is the most crippling influence in our world relationships. Much of the evil which came out of World War II stemmed from the paramount influence of the armed forces in setting war objectives. It is epitomized today by the fact that each of the armed forces has its own State Department within its organization. Bismarck's greatness was in his ability to hold the Prussian generals in check, to subordinate a military machine to foreign policy objectives. Even war is political. The American military mind seems not to understand that the enemy of today can be the ally of tomorrow. And we as a people fall into the goose step stirred by dreams of military solutions of these intensely political questions.

Toynbee reminds us that great civilizations usually commit suicide. His analysis of the passing of the great Greek civilization in Civilization on Trial points to the internal decay that set in when man was deified and human power worshipped. The deadening of individuality, the growth of intolerance, the exaltation of mediocrity, the implicit insistence that our elite think and act like some prototype of Americanism, the insensitivity to the staggering injustices which we have allowed minorities and nonconformists to suffer-these are warnings that our civilization is imperiled. Holmes, with keen insight of the drift, wrote as long ago as 1919, "The whole collectivist tendency seems to be toward underrating or forgetting the safeguards in bills of right that had to be fought for in their day and that still are worth fighting for.... We have been comfortable so long that we are apt to take for granted that everything will be all right without our taking any trouble.

We were born in revolution. The right to be different, the revulsion against interference with conscience and beliefs, respect for minorities-these were part of our great moral tradition. We exalted the dissenter or innovator and saved a noble place for him. He challenged the status quo and was the agency of change. He is more sorely needed today than ever, because the rate of change is increasing. In simpler days a man's education might carry him through life. Changes are now so rapid that an engineer may be obsolete after ten years and need a new education. It is true in many fields that the worst enemies of progress are the narrow prejudiced views obtained in an education that is now outmoded. The need for constant re-education is greater than ever. Unless we are geared to perform that service, we cannot keep abreast of problems. The challenges of this age exceed any in our history. Yet it seems that we are more and more frozen in attitudes and positions.

We seem immobilized at a time when our inventive genius should be the most active.

A vast proliferation of ideas and radical changes in attitudes are necessary if we are to meet the mounting crises at home and abroad.

We need in truth a genuine revolt against the regimes that have fed us tranquilizers and made us think that all is well abroad and that domestic needs can wait. Revolt is necessary if we are to avoid becoming a second-rate nation.

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