Carnegie Mellon University

Civil liberties Kiron Skinner

May 06, 2020

Under what circumstances can the government curtail civil liberties? IPS Taube Professor Kiron Skinner's students set to find out

By Bill Brink

On March 26, 1947, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “Communism, in reality, is not a political party,” he told the committee. “It is a way of life – an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic; and like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.”

More than seventy years later, as the world deals with an actual epidemic, Americans face questions regarding their civil liberties similar to those at the beginning of the Cold War. Students in Institute for Politics and Strategy Taube Professor Kiron Skinner’s class, “America and the World,” grappled with the question: Under what circumstances can the government curtail civil liberties?

To inform their arguments, they watched – physically distanced, but together, via Zoom – the sixth episode of “Cold War,” the 1998 CNN television series. The episode, titled “Reds,” included clips from the time period, including Hoover addressing the HUAC, and interviews with key players.

“This particular segment is my favorite because I think it brings together American politics and international relations in an interesting way,” Professor Skinner said.

Following the viewing, the class discussed the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s and parallels to current government mandates regarding physical distancing and the closing of businesses to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Finally, they wrote blog posts outlining their positions, with guidance from IPS Research Fellow Abby Schachter.

“I’m going to emphasize one word of the two-word assignment Professor Skinner gave you,” Schachter told the students. “Short blog: short.”

After World War II, both the US and the Soviet Union turned their fear of the other against their own people. The HUAC was formed in 1938 to investigate Communist organizations that arose during the Great Depression, but the committee increased its activity in the late 1940s. It directed much of its attention to the film industry, sentencing what became known as the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors that included Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo, to prison terms. Gary Cooper said he turned down scripts containing Communist ideas. Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan testified.

“If you did get subpoenaed, you didn't have much of a choice of what to do,” Lardner said. “Either you completely co-operated with the committee, which meant saying yes or no to the question about whether you were a Communist or ever had been, and if the answer was yes, as it was in my case, we knew the next question was, who else was?”

The HUAC included Richard Nixon, a first-term congressman from California whose investigation into Communist spying by former State Department official Alger Hiss turned Nixon into a national figure. In the Senate, Wisconsin’s Joseph McCarthy followed in the HUAC’s footsteps and used his chairmanship of the Committee on Government Operations, which included the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, to hunt down supposed Communists in the government.

“It seems like McCarthyism and the domestic political climate would have made it nearly impossible, frankly, to have an honest conversation about what foreign policy priorities would be,” one student said during the discussion.

In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin forced the Soviet model of Communism onto the satellite nations he controlled. Moscow orchestrated a show trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where fourteen defendants were tortured into confessing to crimes that didn’t exist. At the end of the Slanksy Trials, so named for the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, eleven of the fourteen defendants were hanged. The show trial, along with the Doctors’ Plot – an anti-semitic fabrication in Moscow in the 1950s – were examples, the documentary noted, of how both sides persecuted Jews because of their connection to the “enemy.”

“Stalin needed an internal enemy … and the Jews fit that role very well,” said Yakov Etinger Jr., whose father was imprisoned in the Doctors’ Plot and who spent time in a Soviet gulag. “Jews had family in America.”

“I was just interested in the lack of evidence when it comes to convicting people, both in the Soviet Union and in the US,” one student said.

When the episode ended, the students and Professor Skinner discussed the relationship between the fear of Communism in the early years of the Cold War, and the actions that resulted from that fear, to the actions taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Students then heard from Schachter, who blogged about politics for the New York Post during her career as a journalist, about how best to construct their argument: Write about an idea you find exciting and interesting. Craft a strong thesis statement. Be concise and clear.

The students, writing under pseudonyms to freely express their opinions, cited examples of past restriction of civil liberties in their blogs: the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Japanese internment camps during World War II, the Patriot Act after September 11th. More argued against restrictions than for them.

“When crisis situations demand that some sacrifices be made in terms of civil liberties, because the public’s reaction is so often knee-jerk opposition, government officials are incentivized to forego the public forum altogether,” one student argued. “The fire of freedom may be choked but as long as the fires burns, it can burn brighter,” wrote another.

Students who argued in favor of the restriction of some civil liberties during times of crisis appealed to the notion that it must be done for the good of the nation. “No singular American,” wrote one, “can defeat a pandemic.”