Fighting McCarthyism: OU prof, Supreme Court, defeat loyalty oath

By David Bruce

Published 11 December 1989 in The Athens News (Ohio).

In 1950, Joe McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that made him nationally prominent.

“Ladies and gentlemen, while I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

Following that speech came years—the early to mid-1950s—in which McCarthy cast aspersions—with little or no evidence—about men and women innocent of any wrongdoing.  McCarthy nearly immobilized two presidents, and because of his fame and the fear in which he cast the country, few dared to oppose him.

Ohio University Philosophy Professor Robert Wieman was exposed to much of that anti-communist hysteria in the early 1950s when he taught at Oklahoma A & M College.  In a recent interview with The Athens NEWS, Wieman, who has taught at OU since the mid-‘50s, told how in 1951, the Oklahoma legislature passed an anti-communist law, requiring all local and state employees to take a loyalty oath.  The oath swore that the individual 1) was loyal to the United States, 2) was not a Communist, and 3) would bear arms, if necessary, in case of attack upon the United States.

Feeling that the law as drafted was unconstitutional, Wieman (a Navy veteran from 1942-46 who served much of the time in waters off Africa) and six other state employees at Oklahoma A & M went to court to force a test of the law’s constitutionality.  Eventually, the case which became known as Wieman vs. Updegraff, reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

But first, the case went before Oklahoma District Judge W.A. Carlisle, who rebuked the seven Oklahoma A & M employees:

“The people of the United States today are facing a terrible danger.  We’ve reached the point where we must separate the wheat from the chaff.  These people want all the other protections of the government but they say they wouldn’t fight to defend this country if necessary.  I say it’s a travesty of justice.  It’s an outrage for people like that to draw public funds.  If Washington were alive today, I wonder what he’d say about something like this.  In my opinion, a man that wouldn’t defend his country if necessary has no right to draw its money.”

Carlisle ordered that the employees be fired and their pay withheld.  Eventually, though, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wieman and the other state employees.  The front-page headline in The New York Times read, “Oklahoma’s Oath of Loyalty Killed.”

In the Supreme Court decision, issued Dec. 15, 1952, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

“The Oklahoma statute is but one manifestation of a national network of laws aimed at coercing and controlling the minds of men.  Test oaths are notorious tools of tyranny.  When used to shackle the mind they are, or at least they should be, unspeakably odious to a people.  Governments need and have ample power to punish treasonable acts.  But it does not follow that they must have power to punish thought and speech as distinguished from acts.”

This case had two important ramifications, Wieman pointed out.  First, he said, there was an “emphatic reaffirmation of the legal system.”  According to Wieman, “McCarthyism is almost any passionately fanatic movement.  Whether the people are always sincere in using it or are using it as a vehicle to win elections doesn’t matter.”  In a movement that is passionate and fanatic and perhaps even sincere, he pointed out, there is a tendency to “say that procedure doesn’t matter, only the end matters.”

During the McCarthy era, Wieman recalled, many people were “hesitant to defend the procedural safeguards for the modification of policy and the bringing of consensus among people.”  His case allowed the U.S. Supreme Court and later the Oklahoma Supreme Court to offer their prestige and eloquent statements about why these procedural safeguards are important, the OU professor said.  The case reaffirmed that the American system of laws is a procedural system which should not be sacrificed for a passionate commitment to some end which fanatics believe outweighs other people’s rights, he said.

In addition, Wieman maintained, accommodation—finding a way in which people can live together with the least mutual obstruction and the most mutual contribution—is one way for people and nations to live among one another.  The Supreme Court case led to more accommodation, while it generated more opposition to McCarthyism.

Before that, however, through smear campaigns and negative campaigns, McCarthy won elections, “If you can win elections by this kind of thing, it becomes a feeding frenzy,” Wieman said.  “It’s hard for people to express themselves effectively if [their opinion] isn’t swimming with that tide.”

Today [December 1989] Wieman sees a return of some of the characteristics of McCarthyism.  Professionals are acknowledging that elections are won these days by politicians and their advisers doing whatever it takes to win, fair or foul.

This Wieman calls an “extremism in relation to the past.”  Until recently, he said, “although running for re-election was a major concern of people in office, they didn’t spend all their term running for their next election.

“Most people, unless they were desperately out and unlikely to win without some wild extremism, were unlikely to commit themselves to things, in order to win an election, that would then interfere with their being able to meet the problems of the nation once in office,” he said.

Today, Wieman said, there is a “curious combination of cynicism with a quite sincere factional suspicion of people who hold views different from what we do.”  For example, he pointed out, for the most part anti-abortion and abortion rights advocates are not seeking an accommodation with one another.  It is much the same with other major issues, he said.

Also, in politics today there is the belief that any proposal, to meet a crisis, that costs money is not politically practical.  “And so,” Wieman said, “we have the oddity of national governors who will discuss needs and discuss possible solutions to those needs and will declare in favor of those solutions to those needs, but then assume that somebody else will have to fund it—state or local governments.”

“Well, if you decide that someone else is going to do something and pay for it, that’s not the way things are going to get done,” he said.  “They get done by the people who are going to pay for them deciding that’s what should be done.”

After a candidate is elected, the professor noted, he or she doesn’t face the needs of the nation; instead the candidate thinks about “what did I say I was going to do and how can I squirm out of it if at all.

“It paralyzes government,” just as McCarthyism paralyzed government in the early 50s, Wieman said.

When you have a win-at-any-costs political mentality, “courage [becomes] a terribly expensive thing to have,” Wieman said.  “You don’t win by being courageous, you win by attacking from the outside; and if you are in, by being defensive, by rhetoric.

“Do anything and you make some enemies somewhere,” he continued.  “You can’t do anything without influencing some people more favorably and other people less favorably, and so they’re not going to regard you as their best friends anymore.”  Because of this, some politicians conclude that they ought not to do anything, he lamented.

A philosopher, Wieman explained that “in philosophy, we think we’re engaged in inquiry, working out a commitment to the underlying principles of inquiry and the intellectual life.”  And so the philosopher doesn’t regard teaching at a university as a job, in which the employee must leave all important decisions to higher-ups.  After all, according to Wieman, “Universities are made up of people like philosophers; they’re not made up by the chairman of the board of regents who hires somebody to stand in front of the class.”

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