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  • Yara Zgheib

On a Switch - Part II

This essay is the second in a three-week series entitled On a Switch, inspired by the words of former US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power:

‘No matter how small our actions may be, we have to model the principles that we believe in.’

The essays are stories of three dark moments in America’s history in which a few, ordinary citizens ‘led principled, effective resistance’ against the dark, and flipped a switch.

Propaganda comic book (1947)

Part II - The Red Scare.

Anti-Communism in America during the Cold War

‘A free society must agree to little more than the proposition that we should keep talking. We must make sure that everybody who has anything to say can say it. The essential freedom is freedom of speech — the freedom to criticize, to talk back. And of course the essential responsibility is to think.'

- Robert Maynard Hutchins

Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote these words at a time when the United States, the world’s beacon of individual liberty, was not a very free place. The second World War had just ended, only to be swiftly replaced by a Cold one between opposing worldviews: communism and capitalism.

Transatlantic tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States had their impact at home as well: Anti-communism dominated America. Conservative politicians and pressure groups groups set the tone, the media disseminated it. Whoever expressed even slightly divergent opinions was a traitor.

‘The increasing menace of communism is now widely recognized and we must take steps to keep un-Americanism under control.’

- State Senator of Illinois Paul Broyles, in 1947

Senator Broyles and other legislators instigated a series of draconian measures to rid Illinois of communists. Support of communism became a felony, communists were barred from public office, and all public employees were required to take a non-communist pledge.

At the epitome of this frenzy, however, was the establishment of the Seditious Activities Investigation Committee. It had the following mission:

To investigate individuals, publications, and organizations suspected of penetrating and indoctrinating the people with communist ideology. These included hippies, Muslims, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and most importantly, the state of Illinois’s academic institutions. Especially the universities.

In 1949, the committee held hearings to investigate the political intents and activities of University of Chicago professors. Called to the witness stand was the university chancellor himself. Robert Hutchins was accused of aiding and abetting communism.

The charge: hiring and maintaining certain faculty members of dubious political views, an act denounced as ‘Un-American.’

Un-intimidated, he said:

The University of Chicago does not believe in guilt by association,’

then proceeded, with calm and reason, to break down the prosecutor’s case.

Professor by professor, argument by argument, he challenged and rebuked the committee’s fanaticism with principles and facts. For instance, when asked about Maud Slye, an emeritus professor of pathology who had spent most of her career studying the heredity of cancer in mice, Hutchins wondered if the commission’s fear of indoctrination was … for the mice.

He defended every one of his teachers and university employees, and brought his audience back to the essence of what it means to be ‘American’:

It is to uphold that the essential freedom is that of belief, and that the essential responsibility is the responsibility to think. And that the ‘cure’ for objectionable ideas ‘lies through open discussion,’ not these hearings.

‘[…] Universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, and without it they cease to be universities.’

Thanks to Hutchins, no professor or faculty employee lost his or her position as a result of the committee’s hearings. When they in turn were interrogated, not a single one denounced the others.

Hutchins won against the committee, but not against the tidal wave. The impact of his integrity did not extend beyond his campus. The inquiries continued, and in October of 1950, the Chicago Board of Education established a committee to ‘combat communism in schools:’

The pledge of loyalty was imposed on all public school educators. Those who refused to take it were fired. Those suspected of being ‘sympathizers’ were denied certification. Many liberal texts were removed from the academic curricula, as were many faculty members from other institutions.

These policies were perpetrated even after it became clear that communism posed little threat to the American society. They were still in place when Hutchins retired as president, decades later, but his principles resisted and eventually them:

The Cold War and Red Scare are over, but through them both and to this day, never have freedom of inquiry and speech been suppressed at the University of Chicago.

#politics #reflection #history