Labeling a Social Worker a National Security Risk: A Memoir

By Schreiber, Meyer S. | Social Work, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Labeling a Social Worker a National Security Risk: A Memoir


Schreiber, Meyer S., Social Work


A recent flood of revelations about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics's Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) focused attention on the ways in which democratic as well as authoritative governments have used political repression as an instrument of the state. These revelations detailed the huge amounts of information - "files" - the government amassed about citizens using methods that defy imagination. Friends, relatives, and colleagues were used to build up files in violation of fundamental civil rights. I have a FBI file (FBI, 1987). It has been estimated that there are several million such files in existence (Schrecker, 1992).

Few social workers today realize that their values, views, perspectives, and ideology about society and social work and social welfare would have landed them in difficulty with federal and state governments from the 1930s through the early 1970s. The voluntary sector in social work and social welfare responded in the same punitive way (Fisher, 1986), as did other U.S. institutions such as education, trade unions, and arts and entertainment. Merely being accused of being a communist or a sympathizer could lead to the loss of one's work. Many social workers and other citizens who had basic commitments to social justice, equality, and opportunity suffered from the fallout of an international struggle relating to world Communism and the cold war; the government defined many people's actions as "subversive" and "disloyal" to the United States.

When Congress decided that Americans were entitled to peek through the FBI curtain to learn what their government was compiling about them, I exercised my rights soon after the passage of the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-570). I was determined to find out what happened during a security investigation regarding my job as a social work consultant with the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1964. I wished to see the government's strange and intimidating picture of me.

Effects of the Cold War on Americans

The United States has had a long history of labeling certain citizens a threat to national security. Americans who had or were perceived to have a radical political orientation were defined as "dangerous" to the community by the power elites. The obsession with so-called threats to the American way of life from "inside our country" was at its height during the Palmer Raids of 1919, the "red" baiting of the 1930s, the start of the cold war in the 1940s, and the communist witch-hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s:

Bestirred by the threat of communism as represented by the USSR and as fanned by McCarthyism, Americans developed an obsession with American communism that outran the actual threat and gnawed at the tissue of civil liberties. . . . In the barrage of accusations that rumbled through the late 1940's and the early 1950's, reputations were made or ruined, careers blasted or created, lives and families shattered. (Fried, 1990, p. 1)

During the Truman administration the cold war was heating up at a considerable pace. Early in 1947 Truman issued Executive Order No. 9835 establishing a loyalty program for federal employees that asserted that a person perceived to be "disloyal" could not hold a government job; "loyalty" was not defined (Bernstein, 1989). The executive order came after Winston Churchill's famous Iron Curtain address in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 and was the Truman administration's answer to the times. Clark Clifford, Truman's legal advisor, admitted that the loyalty program "was a political problem . . . there was not a serious problem. . . . A problem was being manufactured" (Bernstein, 1989, p. 197). Truman's executive order

established in American jurisprudence a doctrine of imputing guilt because of association. No provision was made for judicial review. The individual was accused with no presumption of innocence to protect him or her. …

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