A Final Word

excerpted from the book

It Did Happen Here

Recollections of Political Repression in America

by Bud Schultz, Ruth Schultz, Victor Navasky

University of California Press, 1989


The experiences recorded in this book contradict the view that "it can't happen here." They show, as well, that political repression cannot be attributed simply to moments of national weakness or to the excesses of ambitious or zealous bureaucrats. There was, of course, the colossal arrogance of J. Edgar Hoover, who took it upon himself to determine the appropriate leadership for Black Americans by "neutralizing" leaders from Martin Luther King, Jr., to the Black Panthers. And it is true that political repression reached spectacular proportions in times of national hysteria: the red scare of the 1920s and the Cold War of the 1950s. Nevertheless, we believe that repression in America is a pervasive phenomenon that transcends specific persons and specific periods.

Political repression has appeared throughout the century in the actions of local, state, and national governments-including the administrations of liberal presidents. Scott Nearing escaped conviction under the Espionage Act used by the progressive Wilson administration to imprison hundreds of dissidents for their writings and speech. Pete Muselin was one of the many jailed for sedition or criminal syndicalism after the post-World War I red scare had subsided. The internment of Minoru Yasui and 120,000 others of Japanese heritage was carried out by the executive branch of the New Deal. And some of the harshest repressive acts of the century were visited upon civil rights workers and Black Power advocates well after the McCarthy era, during the protest decade of the 1960s when the Reverend Ben Chavis, Chuck McDew, and Cleveland Sellers experienced southern "justice." Today, Leonard Peltier is in Leavenworth, denied the new trial he deserves, and Margaret Randall is threatened with deportation for what she wrote.

Attacks on dissenters, as illustrated by the FBl's campaign of political intelligence-gathering and espionage, have been tenacious, far-reaching and foreboding. Once a target was fixed upon, it could be relentlessly tracked across decades. When a 1956 Supreme Court interpretation of the Smith Act precluded the prosecution of the Communists the bureau had been feeding into court dockets since the late 1940s, the FBI secretly initiated the illegal COINTELPRO as a substitute. Thus the attack continued unabated. And for another decade or more, Communists were subjected to intelligence operations that were unrestrained by legal or moral bounds.

The reach of domestic intelligence-gathering and surveillance extended well beyond the "extremes" at which it was supposedly aimed. Once initiated, COINTELPRO expanded to include others whose political activities were unacceptable to the FBI-Frank Wilkinson's National Committee to Abolish HUAC, for example, and the United Farm Workers Union, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBl's unbridled intrusion into the private lives of Americans has included such notable figures as John Steinbeck, Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt and such popular idols as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Joe Namath. The bureau kept track of the political associations of many of the delegates attending the 1972 Democratic Convention, the private lives of members of Congress, and, as a recently uncovered memorandum reveals, the sexual preferences of the Washington press corps, information that was supplied to Richard Nixon upon request.

The ominous function of political intelligence-gathering has been secured by its incorporation into federal bureaucracies; the agencies that conduct such intelligence operations have proliferated and expanded. The veil of patriotism they have drawn around themselves as the guardians of our national security and the glamorous self-portrait they have promoted in the popular culture have shielded their clandestine activities from both citizen and rigorous congressional oversight. "The intelligence community tends to become a sacred cow," writes Thomas Emerson, Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale, "untouchable by normal methods of control." No less a body than the U.S. Senate was frustrated in its attempts to learn whether the FBl's illegal COINTELPRO operations had ended. A Senate report states that the Church Committee "has not been able to determine with any . . . precision the extent to which COINTELPRO may be continuing"; and Morton Halperin, a former National Security Council official, adds: "But all available signs do indicate that COINTELPRO by other names is still going on."

Especially in this country, repression has been fed by a virulent anticommunism. We are not speaking of the serious criticisms many have of communism, but of a mania that suspends rationality. The mere term "communist" became, as John Henry Faulk notes, a catchword to brand an opponent and shut down debate. Any movement for social justice, for peace, for civil rights, for unionization could be painted red-labeled "bolshevik," "pinko," "fellow travelers," "communist-controlled"-and then attacked. Fear of communism has gained such a foothold in the American consciousness that gross abuses of civil liberties are tolerated as if they were in the national interest. These irrational fears have sustained repression across the century, confronting every generation with the problem of how to prevent the erosion of our freedoms. There is no resting easy.

The repressive techniques described in this book are inimical to democratic practice. Laws cannot prohibit speech or political activities without compromising democracy. When laws are used to arrest those who organize unions, to imprison those who advocate alternatives to the established power relationships, and to jail those who oppose foreign policy, democratic principles are among the victims.

Congressional investigating committees cannot require persons to reveal their political beliefs and associations in a democracy. When such a committee recklessly impugns reputations; when it parades witnesses whose false accusations are unquestioningly accepted; when it makes names of witnesses public, causing them to be hounded from their jobs or homes-or even driven to the point of suicide; when it interferes in the internal disputes of unions and other organizations; or when it attacks with subpoenas and slander anyone who opposes it, then the dissent that is so necessary for the practice of democracy is quieted.

In a democracy, loyalty tests cannot be a requirement for either employment or immigration. When persons are labeled disloyal because of their writings or their associations, and when disloyalty is determined by arbitrary standards and vague charges and the loyalty proceedings deny the accused constitutional protections such as the right to confront their accusers, the boundaries of democracy are constricted.

If democratic principles are to be honored, police cannot interfere with lawful political demonstrations. When demonstrators are subject to mass arrests or harassment for absurd infractions of the law; when police beat or intimidate demonstrators-indeed, even shoot or kill them; when police infiltrate violence-prone organizations and participate with them in violence against demonstrators, citizens cannot freely exercise their democratic rights to petition and to assemble.

If free expression is to survive, the FBI and other secret police cannot collect political intelligence or engage in political espionage. When secret police target their political opponents for prosecution; when lawful organizations are infiltrated and disrupted, their offices burglarized, their files and membership lists rifled; when police provoke violence among rival political groups; when the FBI opens people's mail, hounds them out of their jobs and apartments, and breaks up their marriages; and when all this is done in secret by agencies unaccountable to the electorate, then democratic institutions are subverted.

Repressive techniques have been selectively applied. Those who opposed one or another policy of established economic or political interests have felt the force of government power against them, whether they were involved in organizing Blacks to register to vote in McComb, Mississippi, in organizing lumberjacks and copper miners into "one grand industrial union," in opposing the internment of Japanese Americans, or in challenging an unpopular war in Vietnam.

By any measure, repression has been visited disproportionately upon the American left. The state has crushed indigenous radical movements from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Black Panther Party. Anyone who professes a belief in socialism and advocates it effectively within the bounds of the Constitution would be naive indeed not to expect to be a target of repressive state action. The tiny Socialist Workers Party suffered intense secret police surveillance and harassment for more than three decades, although no evidence of illegal activity by the party was uncovered in all that time. Yet political police agents and informers, for a number of years, constituted one out of every ten of the party's members; its offices were burglarized 193 times from 1958 to 1966; ten million pages of files on its members were amassed; and its perfectly legal political activities were sabotaged.

But the costs of these violations of democratic rights are borne by more than those who are directly attacked. The chilling effects of such assaults instill fear in others who, but for the abuse of grand juries, the FBI visits to family, friends, and neighbors, the loss of jobs, the subpoenas, the imprisonment, or the deportations, might have raised their voices in protest. Speaking of the sedition law used against Margaret Herring McSurely, the federal judge who overturned her indictment said: "The conclusion is inescapable that the criminal prosecutions were instituted, at least in part, in order to stop plaintiff's organizing activities in Pike County. That effort has been successful. Not only has there been the 'chilling effect' on freedom of speech, there has been in fact a freezing effect." Fear engendered by violations of constitutional rights becomes the instrument for what might be the worst intrusion of all: self-censorship.

Political repression in America has been consequential; it has had major, long-term effects. The brutality used to subjugate Black people in the South, for example, not only caused them to live for generations in poverty and misery, but it also affected the balance of political power in that region, allowing southern ultraconservatives to become entrenched in pivotal positions within the national government, affecting its policies on issues from civil rights to foreign relations.

The use of local and state militia to break strikes, the harassment and mass arrests of unionists, the existence of private police in company towns, and the injunctions and other legal sanctions against strikes suppressed unionization until the mid-1930s. Historian Robert Goldstein cites as evidence of the effectiveness of those repressive measures the dramatic upsurge in union membership when the Wagner Act prohibited much of the harsh treatment unionists had experienced. After the 1930s, the most severe attacks were reserved for left-led unions. As a consequence of government actions that curtailed or weakened union organizing, business gained disproportionate benefits from periods of prosperity, and the possibilities of radical unionism never had the chance to be realized. Instead, bureaucratic and sometimes corrupt unionism flourished, with a corresponding loss of union fervor among rank-and-file workers.

Political repression also helped foreclose consideration of socialist alternatives in America. The left did not simply lose out in the free marketplace of ideas because of the weight of its own errors or because of the affluence of the American working class. Consider the example of the Communist Party: whether its political fortunes were or were not on the wane by the 1950s, the massive assaults directed against it and against so-called fellow travelers not only devastated the party apparently beyond repair, but also stigmatized the entire socialist left in such a way that it has yet to recover, in addition to opening the door to continuing repression against newly emerging radical views and organizations.

Finally, in part as a result of our experiences with the remarkable men and women whose stories are told in this volume, we've come to a greater respect for constitutional rights, which, as principles, are often honored but too often violated. Such rights are precious-the upside of America-and they are treasured most, perhaps, by persons who have had them denied. "Thank God for the Bill of Rights," said Harvey O'Connor, reflecting on his own encounters with congressional inquisitors. We absolutely agree.

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