Today in History- December 9, 1953 – General Electric announces it will fire all Communist employees. McCarthy’s Un-American hearings had huge impact across the United States in political, industrial and academic spheres. By the early fifties, many powerful employers (General Electric, Westinghouse, R.C.A., Bethlehem Steel, U.S. Steel, to name only a very few), and indeed, whole industries, proclaimed a new ground for automatic discharge or suspension — being an uncooperative witness, or a variant thereof.” General Electric’s announcement was part of larger trend. At the University of California, faculty were required to sign a “loyalty oath” and those who refused to sign were fired. Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s Robert Oppenheimer’s politics were brought into question and led to his undoing at the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission this year. Vannevar Bush, a leader in engineering education and civilian military research, testified in defense of Oppenheimer and warned that: the hearing ran the danger of “being interpreted as placing a man on trial because he held opinions, which is quite contrary to the American system.” He continued, “If you want to try that case, you can try me. I have expressed strong opinions many times. They have been unpopular opinions at times. When a man is pilloried for doing that, this country is in a severe state. Excuse me, gentlemen, if I become stirred, but I am.”
These events in the 1950s illustrate how a climate of hysteria can challenge the principles of civil liberties, privacy, free speech and tolerance that we hold of value in the United States. No one would argue against the need to protect a citizenry against terrorism, but McCarthyism shows us that the line between patriotism and panic is easily crossed. Today many are concerned that the “Patriot Act” is taking us down the road to McCarthyism and has the potential to stifle open inquiry with Internet monitoring and electronic surveillance. Founded in 1990, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s mission is to defend free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights. In particular, they have been on the cutting edge of championing the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s resources on the Oppenheimer or free speech and academic freedom. Or browse our educational resources on ethics and social implications of technology.
Readers may be interested in our November 9th blog on Ernest Lawrence awarded Nobel Prize in physics for the cyclotron. Or the December 3rd blog on Social Implications of Technology.