The One Un-American Act
by William 0. Douglas
The other day I was rereading some English history that followed on the heels of the American and French Revolutions. England was suffering from tremors on account of the ideas of change that swept the world. We know from hindsight that most of England’s fears were fancied. But the powers-that-be, the rulers, those who represented the status quo, were tense and fearful. Their fears were transmitted to the citizens; the epidemic of anxiety spread.
Each period of history has experienced these fears of change. America is no exception. At the end of the 19th century the spectre of anarchy and socialism stalked this country.
We witness today perhaps the most widespread suppression of views the country has known. The suppression comes not from fear of being jailed but from fear of being dismissed from employment, banned from radio work, disqualified for teaching, or unacceptable for the lecture platform. Those sanctions are effective and powerful. They often carry as much sting as a fine or a jail sentence.
We know that the Communist threat is the basis of the fears that sweep our communities. We know that that threat has substance to it. We know that Communist cells are much more dangerous than any Jacobin Club or Fabian society or Socialist party ever was. We know that there are sensitive areas in government where the employees must be beyond suspicion.
But we also know that the safety of our civilization lies in making freedom of thought and freedom of speech vital, vivid features of our life.
Our proudest boast has been a system that makes belief in the unorthodox a permissible way of life. It is not because we want to destroy existing institutions, nor to undermine an orthodox faith that we make room for revolutionary ideas. Ideas, like the people who have them, need expression. The market place tests them—accepting a few, rejecting many. It is the interchange of ideas, the challenge to prejudices that give any people the resiliency to meet changing conditions.
Political inventiveness is the great need of this age. People throughout the world have lost many of their moorings. The reasons are varied. But whatever they are, the result is a growing sense of insecurity. It is in that insecurity that Communism finds its greatest hold. Communists offer a world-wide fraternity that cuts across all racial, national, and color lines. It therefore has tremendous appeal among many people.
We who believe in a free society—and when I say we I mean not only we of the West but Nehru of India, U Nu of Burma, Maghsaysay of the Philippines, Mossadegh of Persia and kindred spirits the world around—we can offer much more liberty and much more fraternity than any Communist regime. But we must invent new political methods, if we are to enlist the peoples of the world in a new front.
It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies. We need all the ingenuity we possess to avert the holocaust.
The task of keeping our civil liberties alive is not an easy one in troubled times like these. But I believe our civilization will supply the necessary men. The people need leadership that makes a virtue of courage, of conviction and freedom of expression.
The pre-eminent problem of this age is the invention of new institutions, new political methods for aligning the people of the world in a true crusade for freedom. The ingenuity will be lacking if fear of Communism shrinks the world of ideas to one school of thought, to one point of view. Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.
This is a condensation of a talk by Justice Douglas to the Authors Guild Council in New York, December 3, on receiving the 1951 Lauterbach Award. This annual award for support of civil liberties was established in memory of the late Richard E. Lauterbach, liberal journalist and author, who was a Nieman Fellow in 1947.
Permission to reprint this article in its entirety from Nieman Reports , vol. 7, no. 1 (Jan. 1953): p. 20, was granted by The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Lippmann House, One Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138.