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
Q. "What were your feelings at that time concerning racial
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
O. Douglas page