Witch-Hunting Then and Now

SUMNER T. PIKE, one of the five members of the Atomic Energy Commission, has a deep feeling of responsibility for the scientists and the government employees — more than 40,000 — who are now carrying on the research in our atomic power plants. Aware of the rising emotions in this country, he warns us against the witch hunts which have assailed Americans from time to time in the past and of which we have been ashamed afterwards. A Yankee industrialist from Maine, Mr. Pike established himself in public utilities before becoming a government official.


INTOLERANCE has a long history in this country, frequently an ultra-respectable one, and sometimes it even appears honorable. As a corollary to our weaves of intolerance, we have frequently had attempts at “terrorization by epithet.” These phenomena are no credit to us as human beings or as a nation. Perhaps the best comfort we can extract is that we are usually heartily ashamed of ourselves after the emotional tension has eased. These outbursts are no monopoly of the rich or the poor, the radical or the conservative, and I might add that they are not confined to the American people. They probably find their origin in the darker recesses of what we call “human nature.” Whatever their origin and however inevitable they may be, it is not pleasant to think that we are thus fouling our own nests.

The best known of the early outbreaks came in Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century in the famous Salem witchcraft cases which were probably only the inevitable harvest of the seeds sown by the Puritans whose idea of freedom appeared to be that everybody must do exactly what the authoritarian theologians prescribed.

Personally, I take a good deal of pride in the fact that the first two generations of Pikes over here were in continual trouble with the rigid Puritan discipline and that the second of them, Robert Pike, is generally credited with being most instrumental in lancing the boil of witchcraft fanaticism in 1692.

Skipping over a good many ugly movements through Colonial and pre-Civil War history, it is easy to recall, personally or from the books, the Ku Klux Klan movement in the South, the Anarchist, Socialist, and I. W. W. scares of the 1890’s and early twentieth century, the Mitchell Palmer “red” scare of the 1920’s, the Wall Street banker hatred of the early New Deal, and currently, the Communist scare into which we seem to be moving.

At the height of these emotional outbursts, it was often positively dangerous to take an opposing side. On the other hand, selfish interests would attempt to gain sordid ends under the cover of self-named patriotism. Flag-waving tactics were a screen for drives to impede or reverse social progress.

This is all familiar enough and I think most of us see possibilities of the same sort of thing going on today, but it is a fair question to ask, “How does this bear particularly on the work of the Atomic Energy Commission?” Well, I think it does have a rather special bearing on our work. The degree of success in our job depends fundamentally on considerable numbers of scientific minds of the highest quality to carry on exploration into unknown or dimly perceived fields of research. Such minds must be brilliant, curious, skeptical, and roving. They do not take things for granted. They must examine and re-examine conclusions reached by others before reaching their own decisions. They are usually deeply immersed in their own specialties. Sometimes this means in other fields a degree of unworldliness and naïveté, particularly in political and social subjects. The qualities which are most valuable for their main work frequently lead them to be joiners of apparently good causes without realizing that they are joining under bad leadership. Being used to scientific freedom of expression, they are apt to be outspoken on social injustices and unnecessarily tactless in exposing our own troubles here at home. We already have a good many of these top scientists and we shall need more, many more before we are through.

It is characteristic of these people that they were against the Spanish Franco before he was officially anathema. Some of them joined the American League for Peace and Democracy in the 1930’s and a few of them have actually been reading the New Republic, the Nation, and PM. Ordinarily Americans will not as a group take their cues for action or thinking from Martin Dies and his ilk. On this Commission we flatter ourselves that we are levelheaded enough not to feel more than a slight irritation at their mouthings. At the present time, however, large numbers of people and part of the press seem to take them seriously, and there is reason to believe that this number is growing.

The heightening tension of our relationships with Russia and the infiltration of busy Communists into such organizations as labor unions and groups for social betterment may well add enough fuel to the fanatic’s fire to bring about a public attitude of thoughtless panic and lead to what I have been calling “terrorization by epithet” by people whose motives are as un-American as those of the Communists themselves.

For myself I am pretty deeply disgusted with the tactics of the Russian government and the policies of encouraging world-wide turmoil and disorganization which apparently underlie those tactics. I do hope most fervently, however, that those who feel likewise will not allow their dislike of Russian methods to lead to the smearing and discrediting of fine, invaluable men who have at one time or another allowed themselves to be drawn into groups which have turned out to be more than the liberal movements which they appeared to be. Freedom of thought and inquiry is one of our most precious treasures. It is always subject to attack by people who have other bills of goods to sell.

In the emotional atmosphere which we now seem to be entering, it increasingly behooves us to be on our guard against that strident minority which would have us abandon our fundamental birthright of intellectual freedom for a sorry fascistic mess of pottage.