Leo, J. Edgar, and Ruth

Hoover or DiCaprio?

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of J. Edgar Hoover opens nationwide tomorrow.  The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis liked it, and liked Leonardo DiCaprio in it.  So, if you can’t wait until the April release of Titanic 3D to get your Leo fix, this is your weekend.  Of course, J. Edgar is no Jack Dawson.  So you may need another reason to see the film.

Here’s one.  According to the Times review, the film begins with a voiceover by the title character: “Communism is not a political party — it is a disease.”  Strong words, but strongly felt by many back then (and a few even now).  And that’s a point worth remembering today as we continue to fight the sadly named “GWOT” — the Global War on Terror. 

Consider the year 1952, the midpoint of Hoover’s reign.  The Soviet Union had successfully tested three atomic bombs.  The Korean War was entering its third year, with hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties.  President Truman’s proclamation of a national emergency to fight the “world conquest by communist imperialism” led Congress to pass the Emergency Powers Continuation Act, extending the statutory duration of a wide variety of exceptional presidential powers.  Senator Joseph McCarthy had discovered communists infiltrating the United States Government.

Of course, Hoover wasn’t alone fighting communists.  Besides politicians like McCarthy, Hoover’s contemporary for much of his career was Ruth B. Shipley, the Chief of the State Department’s Passport Office.  (As it happens, Ruth’s older brother, A. Bruce Bielaski, preceded Hoover as the Director of the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI.)  As I detail in a recent article in the Connecticut Law Review based on materials from the National Archives, Shipley controlled travel then with paper files and miles of file cabinets, but her method resonates with how we control travel today, using computerized terrorist watchlists.  Mrs. Shipley took second to no one in her zeal to keep communists and other subversives grounded.

Ruth B. Shipley, not Kate Winslet

In my forthcoming book, Mrs. Shipley’s Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2012), I argue that Mrs. Shipley’s approach was just an analogue version of the digital No Fly List used today.  The legal and policy premises are exactly the same: some people are too dangerous to travel, but for various reasons can’t be charged with a crime or otherwise detained.  (The No Fly List is just one of many watchlists; for example, there is one for maritime travel, too.)  It is up to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center to craft the lists that contain their names, just as Mrs. Shipley’s Passport Office red-flagged (ironically enough) the passport applications of Americans deemed too dangerous to travel.  Your chance of obtaining redress against this system for claims of mistake or misjudgment are as slim today as they were back then, also for many of the same reasons.

A recurring criticism of my argument is that this historical analogy doesn’t work.  I’ll revisit the issue later this month (I’m about to fly — FBI-permitting — to the University of Connecticut School of Law to present my case there).  But for now, as a simple test, ask yourself whether the words of one of the country’s most successful Supreme Court lawyers describe your (and Leo’s) world or the world of Ruth and J. Edgar:

“In short, several officials gather secretly behind closed doors, peruse secret intelligence reports and purport to arrive at a fair judgment affecting not only the citizen’s right to travel but also his reputation and possibly his livelihood and financial well-being.”

The year was 1952.  The source is Eugene Gressman, The Undue Process of Passports, 127 New Republic 13, 14 (Sept. 8, 1952).

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8 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    ” “Communism is not a political party — it is a disease.” Strong words, but strongly felt by many back then (and a few even now).”

    More than a few, and quite properly so. Revelations since the Cold war ended have only underscored this.

  2. Joe says:

    Don’t see the disease thing. What does that even mean exactly? What medicine was necessary there?

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    It’s a metaphor.

    The CPUSA was never a real political party, it was more of an intelligence operation by the KGB. It imploded the moment they stopped funding it.

  4. Joe says:

    A word might be a “noun,” but that doesn’t really tell me THAT much about why it is given a certain label.

    The fact it was a “intelligence operation” doesn’t tell me why it is a “disease.” Also, “communism” was around long before the “KGB” or the Soviet Union existed. It is not the same thing as the “CPUSA.”

    I’d note that “communism” also was and in some ways still is — back to the 19th Century — a broad term applied to any number of things. The federal income tax, e.g., was deemed “communistic.”

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    It’s the same thing as the CPUSA if you’re denying, in the US, that “Communism” is a political party. And Hoover didn’t live in the 19th century. He lived in the 20th century US where we were locked in an existential struggle with a block of ‘communist’ nations which were without exception hideous police states, worse than anything J. Edgar would have created, and I’m no fan of the guy.

    Sure, hie back to when “communism” didn’t have a track record. Just don’t expect those of us who lived through the Cold war to play along, or find “communists” to be amusingly eccentric. I think “more of a disease than a political party” is actually a pretty good metaphor for communism.

  6. Joe says:

    Hoover developed his beliefs in the WWI era, when anti-government violence arose from radical groups [right and left leaning] that had a violent element from the late 19th Century. Such “isms” were shared by millions of Americans, often in many peaceful ways. The Scottsboro Boys, e.g., was defended by communists.

    The inability to differentiate between “communism” as an ideology and control of the party — so that someone who went to some 1930s rally could rely on not losing her job as a college secretary fifteen years later — from the CPUSA led to excesses.

    You still haven’t actually explained to me WHY it is a “disease” [metaphor wise, the disease very well could be said to be the societal problems that led millions to think it a possible solution; it in that sense, more a symptom] and continuing to respond in ways that don’t actually answer my comments doesn’t help. I didn’t say anything about “amusingly eccentric,” for instance.

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    Actually, I have explained it. The whole “existential struggle” bit, the “every communist nation being a hideous police state” bit. When a political philosophy results in horror every time it’s implemented, you can’t brush that off so easily.

  8. Joe says:

    How is an “existential struggle” a “disease” as such? A disease is a sickness. An existential struggle can be positive or negative.

    Also, again, “communism” is a belief structure. “Communist nations” or the CPUSA or whatever re individual organizations or units. They are not the same thing. I’m not “brushing” anything off so easy. As with “amusing eccentric,” I don’t know who you are responding to there, but it isn’t me.

    A pure form of communism as a governing philosophy was never actually implemented and it’s not a very good idea to do so. Various ideas seen as communism, as noted, is different and have been put in place.