Revisiting McCarthyism in the Patriot Act Era On Sept. 4, 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) took the stand to defend himself against censure charges stemming from his campaign to purge the nation of Communist Party members and their sympathizers. Adam Burke has a retrospective of an era that tested American civil liberties on the fourth anniversary of President Bush's signing of the Patriot Act, which many critics consider a similar test of America's democratic principles.

Revisiting McCarthyism in the Patriot Act Era

Revisiting McCarthyism in the Patriot Act Era

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On Sept. 4, 1954, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) took the stand to defend himself against censure charges stemming from his campaign to purge the nation of Communist Party members and their sympathizers. Adam Burke has a retrospective of an era that tested American civil liberties on the fourth anniversary of President Bush's signing of the Patriot Act, which many critics consider a similar test of America's democratic principles.


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Four years ago today, Congress signed the Patriot Act into law. It was written only weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The aim of the Patriot Act was to enhance anti-terrorism investigation powers. Critics claim the law cuts too deeply into civil liberties. In the first of a two-part report, we find this debate has happened before in our history and it remains largely unresolved. Producer Adam Burke takes us back to the late 1940s, to the birth of the Cold War and the heyday of homeland security.

(Soundbite of archival audiotape)

Unidentified Man #1: Any real American would be proud to answer the question: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Unidentified Man #2: Well, it depends on...

Unidentified Man #1: Any real American.

Unidentified Man #2: It depends on...

ADAM BURKE reporting:

It's now well-known that during the late 1940s and throughout the '50s, the McCarthy era, congressional committees attempted to ferret out suspected subversives living on US soil. Historian David Oshinsky of the University of Texas, Austin.

Dr. DAVID OSHINSKY (University of Texas, Austin): The vast majority of people who came before these congressional committees were probably left-wing in terms of something in their background, at one time may have belonged to a radical organization.

BURKE: Chandler Davis was one of those who was swept up in the federal hunt for Communists. In the autumn of 1950, Davis worked at the University of Michigan, teaching mathematics.

Mr. CHANDLER DAVIS: I was sitting in my office and these two gumshoes came in and said, `We're from the House Committee on Un-American Activities.' And I said something sarcastic and they got out their subpoena.

BURKE: And with that subpoena in hand, Davis went home shortly after to discuss the matter with his wife. They weren't entirely unprepared for the summons. Davis had been a member of the Communist Party.

Mr. DAVIS: We'd seen our friends encounter this and regularly be fired, and we didn't know what we were going to do economically, but we didn't turn our attention to that first. We turned our attention to mobilizing a defense, not in the sense of saving my job, which seemed impossible, but in the sense of crystallizing opposition to the Red hunt.

BURKE: Chandler Davis was one of thousands of Americans who lost his job during this period as Congressional bodies like the House on Un-American Activities Committee investigated suspected subversives.

Dr. OSHINSKY: They were hauled before these congressional committees, they were subpoenaed, the were badgered before the committees.

(Soundbite of archival audiotape; gavel pounding)

Unidentified Man #1: We're going to get the answer to that question if we have to stay here for a week. Are you a member of the Communist Party or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Dr. OSHINSKY: But few, if any of them, were shown to be dangerous, and they also had every right to the opinions that they held.

BURKE: Some of these people, including leaders of the Communist Party, were prosecuted by US attorneys in court. Meanwhile, the Truman administration initiated a loyalty-security program for all federal employees, and Congress passed legislation that increased the federal government's power to monitor Communists within the US, to detain Communists and even strip them of their citizenship. These federal efforts, according to Emory University Professor Harvey Klehr, were understandable responses to a very real threat.

Professor HARVEY KLEHR (Emory University): The Communist Party of the United States of America was serving as an adjunct to Soviet intelligence. That was not all it was, and most people that were members of the Communist Party of the United States were not Soviet spies. But virtually all the Soviet spies, and there were a couple hundred of them, were members of the Communist Party.

BURKE: Furthermore, Klehr says, the federal loyalty-security program was an important safeguard against further espionage.

Prof. KLEHR: It was a rational form of profiling, if you will, to find people that had connections to the Communist Party and make sure that they were not in government jobs.

BURKE: But Yeshiva University Professor Ellen Schrecker argues this rational form of profiling led to enormous social costs.

Professor ELLEN SCHRECKER (Yeshiva University): The problem was that these fairly rational measures expanded throughout the government and spread to private industry, universities, movie studios, to local school systems where clearly you're getting an ideological political test that bears no relationship whatsoever to national security.

BURKE: Schrecker contends that while the federal crackdown on Communists affected a relatively small section of the population, McCarthyism penetrated mainstream America. The consequence of this, she argues, was that it cast a chill over open political discourse.

(Soundbite of archival news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: In a series of dawn raids, FBI agents swoop down on Communists indicted on charges of advocating the violent overthrow of the government...

Prof. SCHRECKER: Reds exposed by congressional committee, 15 people fired from the New York City school system, that kind of thing. These are the headlines.

(Soundbite of archival news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: Department of Justice officials have promised further arrests as the crackdown on suspected subversives gathers momentum.

Prof. SCHRECKER: People stopped joining. People stopped signing things. People stopped organizing around issues that only five or 10 years before they would have been active in.

BURKE: Eventually, the Supreme Court under a new chief justice, Earl Warren, made a series of rulings that reined in congressional committees and began to dismantle the more egregious Red-bashing laws. Also, in 1953, Joseph Stalin died and the Korean War ended. And the following year, the Senate censured Joseph McCarthy, the most fervent and highly visible Red-basher. But for Chandler Davis, none of these measures reversed the damage.

Mr. DAVIS: It may not be clear from this distance in time, but really, people who were fired stayed fired, and most of the people who conducted the Red hunt on the basis of lies and whose lies were exposed stayed in office. McCarthy fell away, and the rest of them kept on going.

BURKE: After appearing before Congress and being essentially blacklisted by universities across the country, Davis spent six years in federal courts. He charged that the committee hearings violated his right to free speech, a constitutional provision which he says doesn't only protect his right to say things, but the public's right to listen.

Mr. DAVIS: I'm not defending, and I was not defending then, my right to be left alone; it's a question of defending everybody's right to be left alone in order that political discussion can proceed without fear.

BURKE: It was a battle that Davis lost and went to prison for, along with many others during the McCarthy era. Historian Harvey Klehr says it's no accident that federal courts repeatedly upheld Congress' right to probe and question.

Prof. KLEHR: You can make the argument that that's unfair, that people should not have been put in that position of facing any kinds of social sanctions. On the other hand, Congress has a right to investigate, and how do you limit it? Where do you limit it? Would we want the same kinds of limitations if Congress was investigating membership in the Ku Klux Klan? And Congress used the same tactics when they investigated the Klan in the late 1960s.

BURKE: Even now no consensus exists among scholars on the nature of the Communist threat in the 1940s and '50s. Klehr attributes the ills of the era to the actions of individuals who viewed any dissent as a form of treason.

Prof. KLEHR: That was part of the problem with McCarthy. McCarthy couldn't distinguish among Communist spies, Communists, Communist sympathizers and liberals.

BURKE: But whereas Klehr finds complexity and a difficult balancing act between internal threats and personal liberty, others say the scales were tipped one way. According to Ellen Schrecker, it was a time when the rhetoric of freedom was hijacked to serve politically repressive ends.

Prof. SCHRECKER: I think the McCarthy period shows us how readily the invocation of national security can trump our commitment to free speech and association and can trump these democratic values that we claim to profess.

BURKE: It's perhaps an impossible paradox of our democratic system that we protect, at least in theory, people's freedoms to espouse beliefs or ideologies that may be toxic to freedom itself. Socialism, capitalism; these are just ideas. It's only in the hands of men and women that they become tools for repression or democracy. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

ADAMS: As we mark the anniversary of the Patriot Act, we'll ask on the program tomorrow how far our government should go in seeking suspected terrorists.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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