"Freedom: For or Against?"
Remarks by William R. Brody
Thursday, May 22 | Homewood Field | 9:15 a.m.
To our honorary degree recipients and our new members of the Society of Scholars, to our Trustees and alumni, faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, but most of all, to our brand new graduates, I bring greetings on behalf of all of Johns Hopkins University.
A colleague and esteemed member of the faculty once told me that in his experience, all university presidents were one-day wonders.
"How so?" I asked.
He said: "It's simple. Three hundred and sixty four days of the year they don't know anything. Then suddenly, on graduation day, they know everyone's future."
I am inclined just now to assure you all that, in fact, I don't know your futures. But I suppose that would make me a zero-day wonder.
What I can tell the graduates today, is that not only is the future unknowable, it is probably just as well that this is so.
I had a friend who was very concerned with knowing what was to come when we were graduating from college, so he decided to go see a fortuneteller.
The fortuneteller asked my friend to sit, and had him put his hands on the table.
Then she laid down some Tarot cards at his fingertips, studied them intently for several minutes, and said: "You will be poor, and miserable, until you are 45 years old."
"And then?" said my friend rather hopefully. "What happens when I'm 45?"
She said: "By then you'll be used to it."
So this morning, though they are very much on our minds, I will leave our graduates' futures in their own quite capable hands.
Instead, I want to take a few minutes to address a very select group here with us today. Your numbers may be small, but your influence is great. I'd like to talk to the grandparents of our graduates in the audience.
To the grandparents -- and perhaps even the great-grandparents - - I offer a special welcome. We are honored to have you here with us: for your love and faith and support that has been so important in the lives of our graduates and their parents; for your experience and knowledge and wisdom; and most particularly for your memories, which are long, and include times both good and bad in this country. Just now we have need of your memories -- and your wisdom.
Let me explain. I'd like to read from some letters and cards that have come to the President's office of Johns Hopkins.
Here is an example: "One might not like to have teachers be subject to the scrutiny of the FBI, but ... perhaps it will be a good idea to screen some of the teachers.
Certainly I think anyone who has studied there should be carefully screened by the FBI before given a job of any kind."
Here is another: "When one thinks of all the traitorous teachers in our schools and colleges we do not wonder that we are a morally bankrupt nation. If we don't wake up and return to the principles and ideals upon which our nation was founded we deserve to be annihilated. No country was ever more blessed than America. And no country has been less deserving of such blessings. We need AMERICAN teachers..."
Here is a third: "I am suffering from high blood pressure, my doctor advised me to go to a doctor at Johns Hopkins. Believe me, I would rather die than go to an institution that tolerates and encourages treason."
And here is one more: "Our college presidents are intellectual cowards. They give sanctuary to treachery, even treason, and the freedom of speech that denies freedom."
These are but a few of the letters and cards received. There are dozens and dozens more sounding a similar theme.
Grandparents, I wanted to read these letters especially to you, for you are the ones who will remember.
You see, these letters came not to me, but to Johns Hopkins president Detlev Bronk in 1951 and 1952 -- a half century ago. And yet, something about them is beginning to sound familiar to all of us today.
Grandparents, no doubt you remember those times. But perhaps a word of background is in order for our graduates.
Fifty years ago -- the Second World War having only recently ended -- the world was ill at ease. Then, as now, America was the world's undisputed superpower. And yet -- or maybe because of that -- there were some who wanted to overthrow that preeminence. Then, as now, there were those that hated us. Then, as now, we found to our dismay that despite our vast economic and military might, it was often not possible to control -- or even influence -- all world events to our liking.
What was considered our greatest foreign policy catastrophe occurred in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his government were forced to flee Mainland China by the communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. Suddenly, more than half the world's population was under communist control. Then, little more than a year later, Mao's forces crossed into North Korea and attacked and nearly defeated the U.S. Eighth Army. For a time, it looked as if the Korean peninsula would also fall to the communists.
Grandparents, you remember this time. You remember the feelings of shock and dismay that the world -- so recently won to freedom from the Fascists -- could so suddenly appear to be falling to the Communists. You remember the very real concern that another titanic struggle -- greater even than World War II -- was inevitable. You remember the fear. And you remember the dark times.
One of the most vituperative foreign policy debates in American history took place fifty years ago. It could be summed up in just three words: "Who lost China?"
Many Americans believed the people of China could not have freely accepted and supported the communists. They believed Mao and his forces were only puppets in a larger, more sinister enterprise, the World Communist Conspiracy. And their success could only have been achieved by the help and active support of communist sympathizers here at home. And so they went looking.
Led by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the government in Washington began identifying two types of Americans: those who were for us, and those who were against us. The loyal and the disloyal. Senator McCarthy had lists of individuals that he waved in his hands. He said, here I have the names of more than 200 Communist Party members working in the U.S. government.
And he made it clear to the American people that he knew precisely who had lost China to the communists.
That person was a man who had spent much of his life living as a foreign visitor in China. He had served briefly as an advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, but then had written articles criticizing what he saw as the autocracy and corruption of Chiang's Nationalist government. He warned against making support of the Nationalists the only course of American foreign policy. He suggested negotiating with the Soviet Union as equals. He predicted that events throughout Asia were largely beyond America's control.
This was the man who many Americans claimed was directly responsible for the loss of China.
In a leak to the press, Senator McCarthy named him the Soviet Union's top espionage agent in the United States. His name was Owen Lattimore. And he was a faculty member here on this campus.
Grandparents, it is difficult to convey to our graduates how fearful were those times. Many loyal Americans were tarred with the label 'traitor' simply for expressing their true beliefs. Lives were shattered. Careers were ruined -- often for the most indiscriminate and trivial of reasons. Aaron Copeland, Dashiell Hammett and Langston Hughes were called to testify if they were communists.
A General Electric employee by the name of George Frederick Moore was called before the committee because his foreman had reported him to the FBI for reading a library book about Siberia. Hundreds lost their jobs, or their reputations.
In my own family, those times brought grief and pain. My father's cousin was married to a New York newspaperman named Gordon Kahn. Gordon loved the life of a newspaper reporter. During prohibition he wrote a guide to New York's best speakeasies, illustrated by Al Hirshfield. The thing about newspapering, Gordon once said, "is you get to meet so many interesting people at such an uninteresting salary."
And then Gordon had a big break. He was invited to Hollywood to write for the movies. He worked on All Quiet on the Western Front and The African Queen. He wrote Roy Roger's first cowboy film, the one in which Roy met Dale Evans.
When I was a teenager, I met Gordon's wife -- my father's cousin -- for the first time when my family visited Boston. She came in to see us, but Gordon stayed outside in the car. We never met.
You see, Gordon was one of the infamous 'Hollywood 19' -- a group of directors, producers and screenwriters accused of being enemies of the state because of their politics. All of them were blacklisted for allegedly being disloyal Americans. None were ever charged with this treason; no evidence beyond hearsay was ever presented. Nonetheless, many of them went to jail for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs. Our family, not wishing to taint us children by this association, decided it would be better if we did not meet Gordon. And so he waited in the car.
Recently I spoke to Gordon's son, who has a successful career in public radio, about this episode. I said I couldn't believe in America people would need to do such things. But having lived through it all first-hand, Gordon's son had a different reaction. He said the FBI's file on his father was 3,000 pages long. He said our parents had reason to worry that any association with his father -- however innocent -- might get us in trouble.
When the world is divided neatly into two camps -- those for us, and those against us -- then guilt by association makes sense. That's how Senator McCarthy worked. His tactics were aided by a largely accommodating press that often repeated his innuendos without bothering to check the facts.
There was, for instance, no plausible evidence that Hopkins faculty member Owen Lattimore was a Soviet operative. Yet nonetheless, newspapers around the country published editorials and columns calling for his swift removal. The Baltimore City Council passed a resolution forbidding Lattimore from speaking in the public schools. From across the nation, President Bronk received many angry letters demanding he terminate Lattimore at once, a testament to the power of the media to incite.
No individual accused by Senator McCarthy ever went to jail as a result -- and few were even tried. But many, nonetheless, suffered the loss of jobs and reputations. Here on the Homewood Campus, Owen Lattimore spent five years of his life fighting to clear his name. In the end, his only offense was to speak his mind and his convictions forcefully, without apologies. Lattimore insisted upon saying things our nation didn't want to hear, at a time when we were unwilling to listen.
This morning I wonder: are we heading down that path again today? I open my newspaper and read of a father and son in suburban Albany arrested at Crossgate Shopping Mall for trespassing. Their crime was to appear wearing T-shirts that said "Peace on Earth" and "Give Peace a Chance" and to refuse to take them off when ordered by mall security to do so.
Believing in the innate strength of an open, diverse and free society, we have always welcomed students from around the world to study with us. Working together, we have jointly pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge. Many of you seated here this morning are not American citizens, but by belief and tradition America has always been open and welcoming to you.
Now, however, there are new and unprecedented restrictions on your visits, on your ability to travel freely and at will within the country, and even on what you may come here to study.
Majors including biology and chemistry, as well as civil engineering, geography and even landscape architecture are now considered 'sensitive areas of technology' that require government review and approval for non-U.S. citizens.
I cannot believe this is in our best interests as a nation, when so much of what has made us great has been the contributions of our immigrants. I think of an Algerian Muslim, born in an obscure mountain town, who emigrated to the United States when he was in his early twenties. He came with $300 in his pocket, and a passion for math, physics and biomedical research -- areas of study that today may have prevented his arrival.
In his work at Johns Hopkins he developed important new imaging methods used extensively for diagnosing cancer and cardiovascular disease. He became one of the world's leading experts in magnetic resonance imaging. He authored more than 150 papers. And he developed a novel technique that gave physicians their first detailed pictures of the beating human heart at work in their patients. That man is Elias Zerhouni -- a brilliant scientist, physician, and gifted researcher, now the head of the National Institutes of Health. He is also my friend, and I know our country is tremendously better off having welcomed him as we did thirty years ago. Will that welcome no longer be extended to others?
In a similar vein, even though the Constitution specifies that the government may not deprive "any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" the Supreme Court last month upheld a law allowing legal immigrants accused of certain crimes to be held without bail if they are facing deportation proceedings. It is hard for many Americans to reconcile such policies with their fundamental belief in the value of the writ of habeas corpus. As responsible citizens, we must always be willing to ask: In the desire to mitigate the new and omnipresent risk of terrorism, have we gone too far? Are we acting not from principles, but from fear?
In the days following the horror of September 11th, the President and Congress faced an unprecedented and difficult challenge: how to insure our nation's security in this new international climate of terrorism -- a threat that continues to this day. In newspapers, on radio and television across the country, American citizens of all political persuasions were calling for unity -- and for action.
Congress quickly enacted a broad and sweeping piece of legislation intended to help the government better defend itself against terrorism. They labeled the bill the U.S.A. Patriot Act, and passed it without time for serious debate, or the input of their citizen constituents. Now, voices are being raised in concern about the dangerous powers this bill grants the government.
In the Patriot Act and other anti-terror legislation that has followed September 11th, in Executive Orders and statements of various officials, the government has claimed broad new powers to decide to investigate whether you or I are doing something wrong. In some cases, they can do this without Congressional oversight, without public input, without judicial review. Your church affiliation, the books you buy online, your activities at the library, your thoughts in a letter to the editor are now all open targets for their active consideration.
Grandparents, I hear what the graduates are saying to themselves. They are saying: 'All this may be true, but it doesn't apply to me. I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't have anything to worry about.' Need we remind them that this has been said before?
The issue in defense of our civil liberties is not whether you believe you are doing something wrong. The real issue is whether someone in government thinks you are. In the current climate, it is what they define as wrong that counts.
Grandparents, having been this route before, are we willing to go there again?
I hope not, but I observe that this is largely a rhetorical question. For it is the graduates themselves that must decide this matter. It is up to them to decide how free, how open, how curious and brave and inclusive a society they wish to create. Let us hope they come down on the side of our better angels. Let us hope today, that they learn from our mistakes.
Thank you, and to all of our graduates, Godspeed.
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