Another McCarthy Era

Interview by Steven Rosenfeld, a senior editor for TomPaine.com

Boston University Professor Emeritus Howard Zinn is an historian and author of A People’s History of the United States. He was interviewed by TomPaine.com’s Steven Rosenfeld about the American government’s history of repressing dissent.


TomPaine.com: The United States has a proud history of political dissent, but doesn’t it also have an equally notable history of government repression of unpopular political speech?

Howard Zinn: The story of suppression of speech and press critical of the government starts with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which were designed to intimidate critics of the Adams administration, and led to a number of people being sent to prison. Widespread government violations of the right of free expression took place during World War I, when Congress passed and President Wilson signed the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which led to the imprisonment of close to a thousand people who had expressed opposition to World War I.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, in the period of the Cold War, even before what is known as the McCarthy period, President Truman by Executive Order demanded loyalty oaths from government employees. This required the Justice Department to draw up lists of “subversive organizations,” and not only membership in but “sympathetic association” with any organization on that list would be considered in determining disloyalty. The Federal Bureau of Investigation kept files on hundreds of thousands of Americans, noting what meetings they attended, what petitions they signed, what organizations they belonged to or gave money to. The House Committee on Un-American Activities interrogated thousands of people about their political beliefs and affiliations.

From 1956 into the 1970s, the FBI conducted a secret Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in which the FBI engaged in various illegal activities, including wiretapping, break-ins and forged letters, designed to disrupt dissident organizations. The FBI had a Security Index listing 200,000 people who could be summarily detained in time of war. Even after the COINTELPRO was supposedly abandoned, the FBI was harassing organizations that were critical of U.S. foreign policy, secretly breaking into their offices and seizing their files.

TP.c: The Justice Department is prosecuting Greenpeace under a 1872 law barring certain people from boarding ships at sea”because Greenpeace members boarded a freighter with illegal mahogany from Brazil and unfurled a banner to protest illegal logging. How unusual is it for the government to selectively prosecute protest organizations?

Zinn: Selective prosecution is not unusual. In general, left-wing organizations have been the chief target of the FBI and the Justice Department, more so even than criminal mobs. For instance, in 1959, 400 agents in the New York FBI office were assigned to “communism” while only four were assigned to organized crime. In 1976, the FBI allotted seven and a half million dollars for its political informers, more than twice the sum for organized crime informers.

TP.c: Six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a speech saying his agency would use all available tools in the war on terrorism. He quoted Robert F. Kennedy, a former attorney general, who, when fighting the mafia, said he would arrest mobsters for “spitting on the sidewalk,” if that’s what it took to win. Is there anything new in the government’s use of arcane laws to go after those it sees as its ‘enemies?’

Zinn: This is hardly new. Very often the laws are not arcane but may have been originally passed for different purposes. For instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a provision about crossing state lines to start a riot, which seemed to have been aimed at racist organizations, but which was used in 1969 to prosecute anti-war dissenters.

TP.c: Everybody knows civil liberties take a beating in wartime. But historically, what is the most effective way to balance or challenge the excessive use”or abuse”of state power when those in government use the language of war?

Zinn: The recourse of citizens when civil liberties are attacked is first to expose those attacks as violations of basic freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights; and second to speak and write even more boldly than ever in order to encourage other people to do the same, so that the number of people speaking their minds becomes too great for the government to handle.

TP.c: Do you have any final thoughts on how history is likely to see or judge this administrations expansion and use of police powers to go after its perceived enemies?

Zinn: I believe future historians will look back on this period as we now look back on the McCarthy period, a time when hysteria led to the intimidation of citizens and the suppression of free expression. I believe an analogy will be seen between using fear of communism then and using terrorism now as a justification for repressing free speech.

Published at TomPaine.com • Dec. 2, 2003

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