My students are surrounded by events that are terrifying. Terrifying to themselves, to their parents, to nearly everyone: September 11, 2001, the war, here and in Afghanistan, against terrorism, and the war in Iraq. These times supply "teaching moments" in quantity. One thing that students ought to learn in this environment is that fear can compromise civil liberties. Somehow the students know this intuitively, but history can bring intuition to conscious reflection. Examples abound: the Inquisition, the Red Scare, the Cold War, and, of course, the McCarthy Era.
The essential question my unit will attempt to answer will be: "How has fear threatened freedom over time, with special emphasis on the Cold War and the McCarthy Era?" Each student will be able to evaluate the effect of fear on civil liberties, with special emphasis on the Fifth Amendment, and will be able to connect the Cold War and McCarthyism with today's events. The ultimate aims will be to have the students identify and evaluate ways to avoid the most destructive of consequences of justifiable fears of today's new enemies.
The Unit will begin by examining the Bill of Rights, with particular emphasis on the Fifth Amendment. We will begin with essential ideas such as
self-incrimination, right to counsel, right to remain silent, heretic, inquisition,
and more. Most students are aware of the basics of the
warning, and I plan to use demonstrations/plays to help the students know how to use the Amendment.
In addition, I will take the students back to explore the
of the Fifth Amendment, going back to the Inquisition, the Star Chamber, the pamphlets of the English Levellers, and the Salem witch trials. We will make extensive use of primary sources, including Bernard Gui's suggestions for the conduct of inquiry, first person accounts from the Levellers and witnesses to the Salem witch trials. I will also make use of films/film clips from
A Man For All Seasons, St. Joan, and The Crucible, and 12 Angry Men.
Through this approach, students will be able to make connections between times of fear, such as the during the Catholic Church's persecution of heretics, the Cold War and the times they now live in.
The students will study the events following World War II leading to the Cold War, including nuclear proliferation and the rise of McCarthyism. We will make use of world maps so the students can identify the "Iron Curtain," the geopolitical changes in Europe and Asia, and the events leading to the dangerous tension between the U.S. and its former ally, the USSR.
Then, the students will study the impact that events abroad had on domestic politics. The heart of the unit will involve the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy/McCarthyism. The students will learn to identify and evaluate the following, and more:
House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood 10, blacklists, the Smith Act, the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Edward R. Murrow, and Joseph Welch.
The class will be able to identify and evaluate the issues raised in the unit in a CAPT type essay or essays, one of which could involve taking a position on the proposed use of military tribunals. Others could involve the rights, if any, of the prisoners taken in Afghanistan who are currently being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Primary sources will be used extensively to strengthen the "reading for information" and "persuasive writing" skills.
Students will be assessed throughout the ten-day unit. At the close of the course, the class will be given an examination, which will primarily involve writing a persuasive essay on the central questions of the unit, and the question will involve an application of the lessons learned during the study of the Cold War to various situations in the world and to their lives.
Students, adolescents in general, tend to believe that the events of the world are unique to their generation. Many students talk about the threat to civil liberties arising from the war on terror as if it is the first time that such measures have been contemplated or taken. Students will benefit by knowing that others have come before, and that the Bill of Rights has survived other trials.
The Inquisition, Heresy, and Self-Incrimination
During the medieval Inquisition, heretics were the primary targets of the Roman Catholic Church. Heretics, by definition, were not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. Rather, they were Catholics who had fallen away from, or had chosen a path separate from, strict Church doctrine. The concept of heresy, or deviation from accepted doctrine, predates the Catholic Church. As applied to this Unit, heresy was the main target of the McCarthy Era. During the Red Scare of the 1920's, foreigners were the most prevalent suspects for bringing Communism and Anarchism to this country. Certainly foreigners were feared during the McCarthy Era, but the primary targets now were American Citizens. This is what has given the McCarthy Era its inquisitorial nature and its continuing relevance. How are we better than the Soviet Communists if we are busy creating our own "citizen victims?"
So, what was to be done with heretics? During the medieval Inquisition, the goal was for the heretic to confess the error of his ways, so that he or she may be taken back into the bosom of the infallible Church, and thus his soul would be saved. (However, there was no guarantee that the physical body would be saved by confession.) How was this to be done? The privilege against self-incrimination did not exist. The accused heretic was forced to answer many questions, posed in cross examination form, without right to counsel, rules of evidence, or the presumption of innocence. The accused had to take an oath to tell the whole truth about themselves and their accomplices. Refusal to swear to the oath could result in excommunication, punishment until the "contempt" was purged, or a judgment of heresy. Confessions could be coerced by tortures, such as a "trial by fire." Judgment included excommunication, a finding of witchcraft, and execution by many different means including hanging or burning at the stake. On May 30, 1431, Jehanne, Maid of Orleans (later named Saint Joan, the only person ever sainted after being executed by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic), was burned at the stake as a heretic and witch. She had claimed to hear voices, and proclaimed that a personal and direct relationship to God was more important than the temporal authority of the Church. For this she died. And she had no counsel, no right to present witnesses, no rules of evidence, and no right to remain silent.
In the 16th Century, during Catholic religious persecution in England, John Lambert was burned at the stake as a heretic. He, and the likes of John Lilburne and the pamphleteers known as the Levellers, made the right to remain silent their central cause. These true civil libertarians directly challenged the religious and secular authorities in order to protect individuals. The right not to be forced to be a witness against oneself became the central right enshrined in the Bill of Rights and is a central focus of the Unit. Making the transition between religious persecution of heretics and the Cold War fear of Communism in America may not be self-evident in a chronological study of history, but does make sense and can be done using the thematic approach of the Unit.
The McCarthy Era: Its Causes, Impact, and Significance For Today
Joseph R. McCarthy, elected as junior Senator from Wisconsin in 1948, rode the wave of postwar anti-Communist fear, and along the way gained great power and worldwide political fame. Conditions are rarely right for the emergence of a demagogue in America, but in the late 1940's and early 1950's they were.
McCarthy burst upon the national scene, and revealed his favorite technique for getting press attention, with a speech made in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950. He claimed to have a list of 205 Communists or Communist sympathizers who worked in the State Department. Eventually the alleged list was greatly reduced, and ultimately the charges were found nearly baseless. This technique amounted to declaring someone guilty without requiring any proof of guilt, and is known as the "smear."
Another important technique for discovering alleged Communists or other subversives was to force witnesses to "name names" of people they knew or knew of who might have had some association with leftist organizations.
McCarthy's political career has been compared to a Roman candle, but while it burned brightly the civil liberties of many Americans were violated, jobs were lost forever, families impoverished, and some even committed suicide.
Below is a list of just some of the people, concepts, and events of the era, which can help us understand what happened and why. An understanding of the McCarthy Era should provide useful lessons that can be applied today.
Relevant Portions of The Bill of Rights
The First Amendment provides for a free press, free speech, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, free exercise of religion and prohibition of the establishment of religion. In the context of this Unit, a free press, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and the freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, and the freedom of religion and the prohibition of the establishment of religion have each and all been involved.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In our treatment of Miranda and related cases and history, the Fourth Amendment has been a constitutional justification for the right to privacy (see below).
Of all of the Bill of Rights Amendments, the Fifth Amendment is at the thematic core of this Unit. The Fifth Amendment is the right to refuse to be witness against oneself i.e. the right to refuse to answer questions on the ground that the answer might incriminate the witness. From the chronological beginnings of the Unit, the medieval inquisition
The right to privacy appears neither in the U.S. Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, but has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court (after the McCarthy Era was over) and other Courts as a "common law right to be left alone," the right to be free from intrusion upon a person's seclusion or solitude, the right to be free from intrusion into a person's private affairs, and the right to be free from public disclosure of embarrassing private facts. The Right to Privacy has served as the Supreme Court's rationale for the landmark
Roe v. Wade
Some Important People, Events, and Organizations of the McCarthy Era
House On Un-American Activities Committee ("HUAC")
Established in 1930's to investigate German sympathizers in 1945, HUAC became a permanent investigative committee with broad subpoena powers, which were used primarily to investigate American Communists or alleged sympathizers. HUAC became most famous for its interrogations of Hollywood figures and for the refusal of the "Hollywood 10" to give testimony or otherwise cooperate. Refusal to cooperate, or the assertion of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self- incrimination (those who did assert the privilege were labeled as Fifth Amendment Communists), often resulted in "blacklisting." Blacklisting was, in effect, an unofficial ban from employment in a person's profession or job.
The Smith Act
Passed as the Alien and Registration Act of 1940, the Smith Act made it a crime to advocate or belong to a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government. After 1948, the Act began to be widely used against Communists and others who were not in fact charged with any overt acts. Instead, they were charged with conspiring to organize as the Communist Party and to willfully advocate and teach the principles of Marxism-Leninism. In 1957 the United Supreme Court drew a sharp distinction between the advocacy of an idea for the purpose of incitement and teaching an idea as an abstract concept. Other Courts were to reaffirm the constitutional protection of free speech and the Fifth Amendment, and the prosecutions effectively stopped. However, the Act was not repealed.
Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech
In 1946, on a tour with President Harry Truman, Winston Churchill made a speech at
Westminster College in Missouri. The speech coined the term "Iron Curtain" to describe Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, which started immediately after the end of World War II. Churchill warned the world of the danger of Soviet Communism and of "Fifth Columns" working within the borders of Western Europe and the U.S.
Russia's first test of the atomic bomb (1949)
Chinese Communists' victory over Nationalists (1949)
Korean War between Communist and non-Communist forces (June, 1950 to July, 1953) and Chinese incursion (November, 1950)
Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, was elected to the Senate from Maine in 1948, became an outspoken critic of McCarthy's methods. In 1950, along with six other senators, she issued the "Declaration of Conscience", which, while not mentioning McCarthy by name, decried the climate of fear and the danger to Americans' constitutional freedoms that such fear presented.
was a world famous African American singer, actor, civil rights activist, athlete, scholar, author, and defender of the Soviet Union even after Stalin's atrocities became known. He was blacklisted in the late 1940's and 1950's.
Lillian Hellman, author of
and one of America's best know playwrights and screenwriters, gained fame before HUAC when she refused to "name names" even while waving the Fifth Amendment for herself.
Edward R. Murrow, CBS television journalist whose broadcast on the program "See it Now" ridiculed McCarthy as reckless, and calling on Americans not to stand silent in the face of McCarthy's tactics.
On March 11, 1954, the Army accused Senator McCarthy and his staff of using improper means in seeking preferential treatment for G. David Schine, a consultant to McCarthy's committee, after Schine was drafted into the Army in November 1953. It developed into an investigation into McCarthy's charges that Communists had infiltrated the Army. McCarthy's reputation was dealt a mortal blow during the hearings.
Joseph Welch, Counsel for the Army at the Army McCarthy Hearings, a soft-spoken Boston attorney from the old line form of Hale and Dorr, was made famous in the stunningly simple question to McCarthy "At long last, have you no sense of decency?"
Stuart Symington, Democratic Senator from Missouri, went head-to-head with McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and ended the hearings when he walked out on McCarthy with McCarthy calling after him to come back. The country had turned its back on McCarthy, and it wasn't long before he was censured.
Ralph Flanders, Republican Senator from Vermont, proposed the Senate censure motion that resulted in McCarthy's censure on December 2, 1954.