As he greeted delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago -- in his home state of Illinois -- the bald, paunchy, slightly rumpled man at the speaker's podium in the old city amphitheater near the stockyards remarked: "Here, my friends, on the prairies of Illinois and of the Middle West, we can see a long way in all directions."
The man paused, and then casually offered an observation that set off a stampede: "Here there are no barriers, no defenses, to ideas and aspirations. We want none; we want no shackles on the mind or the spirit, no rigid patterns of thought, and no iron conformity."
"We want," Adlai Stevenson continued, "only the faith and conviction that triumph in free and fair contest."
Noble-sounding sentiments that could have come from the pen of Franklin or Lincoln or Whitman were valued for more than just their oratorical beauty in the summer of l952. As the nation, in the early and dark l950s, consumed itself with one of the most dismaying orgies of hysteria and self-loathing it has ever endured, words that confronted the efficacy of that iron conformity were greeted like rays of sun and were enough to win for Stevenson, several days later, a presidential nomination he had not even sought.
Up from New Orleans on a train of heavy-drinking Louisiana Democrats -- most of whom wore white and stain-soaked seersucker suits -- the young congressman from the Second District was entranced. Hale Boggs, after hearing the governor's opening remarks, told a reporter that Stevenson was a "remarkably good choice" in a very bad time. Weeks later, when Stevenson brought his poetry and idealism to a late-night rally at Congo Square in New Orleans, Boggs was ecstatic enough to jump on board the presidential candidate's plane and accompany him on a whirlwind tour of the mainland that ended in a massive, ecstatic rally attended by more than 17,000 people in Madison Square Garden.
For those who knew Boggs, it was no surprise that he was so nearly transfixed by Stevenson, who would go on to lose the White House in l952 while winning the hearts of millions. Throughout his life, Boggs, too, was an idealist, a man deeply susceptible to utopian visions and romantic notions. These qualities dated back at least to the 1930s when Boggs, then a student at Tulane University, engaged in passionate debate with his colleagues over the relative merits of the New Deal, socialism, and even communism as possible philosophical and programmatic solutions to the nation's ills.
"The Tulane campus then was magnificent," a former student, Floyd Newlin, would later recall. "It was active, my God. It was wonderful."
Students then would skip classes, but not to sleep in the sun. Rather, they hoped to sneak into the already-packed lectures being given by one of the university's most controversial professors, Mack Swearingen, who urged students in the fleeting years before World War II to become active pacifists, determined agitators for peace at the very moment when the world's lips dripped with the rhetoric of war.
Meeting on the Tulane campus and in an unremarkable flat on the top floor of a three-story red-brick building in the French Quarter, the students formed a local chapter of the Socialist party, gave moral support to the longshoremen who were trying to organize down on the docks, and even -- a social heresy for the time -- entertained the notion that racial segregation was wrong. In fact, as early as l932, when he was only 18 years old, Boggs himself had questioned the South's rigid racial mores, a skepticism that would eventually earn him the enmity of segregationist fire-breathers.
Soon the students would even take part in an annual Student Strike for Peace, largely put together by a national organization called the American Student Union, which counted among its members the young would-be novelist Gore Vidal and future CBS commentator Eric Sevareid. "We began to detest the very word 'patriotism,'" Sevareid later memorably said, "which we considered debased, to be a synonym for chauvinism, a cheap medallion with which to decorate and justify a corpse."
Such are the sentiments of the young. But a decade and a half later, most of the young student idealists came to regret their earlier activism. As the l950s dawned, America faced an opponent considered even more implacable and dangerous -- if that's possible -- than the faceless, live-off-the-land terrorists who threaten our shores today. Communism as a proposed system of economic distribution and political thought has nearly always enjoyed an enthusiastic subscription among the young and intellectual. But communism to most Americans in the early l950s meant one thing: the Soviet Union and an oppressive way of life, shorn of freedom of religion, voice and thought, that threatened to somehow take over the United States.
Fifty years later, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans are feeling similarly wobbly, willing to quickly abandon -- in an alarmingly pell-mell fashion -- their cherished civil rights, revealing once again a stubborn weakness in the American character that transforms those who say they believe in freedom into partisans who think it can be dickered away, depending upon the circumstance, piece by piece.
Consider this: since that attack, the Cactus Cafe, a small and previously unremarkable diner in Denham Springs, has been vandalized because its owner was born in Iran. Across the belly of the state, crudely produced fliers have appeared calling for a boycott of more than 40 central Louisiana businesses owned by Muslims.
At the University of New Orleans, a tradition of open discussion and vigorous debate has been supplanted by an atmosphere of fear. School officials fret: there is a small number of students at UNO who are Muslim, and their safety may be in danger. Said students, the university has warned, should travel from class to class in groups and avoid engaging in discussions with non-Muslims on matters of political controversy.
We have been here before. In the early l950s, New Orleans was similarly bathed in fear and self-loathing. School children were required to read and commit to memory a pamphlet titled One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism, while also being encouraged by school officials to report anything about their teachers that "seemed suspicious."
A Dillard professor, fingered by a local prosecutor as a communist, was let go; so was Professor Swearingen at Tulane. Dock organizers suspected of being reds were either fired or imprisoned; while the president of Tulane was forced to make an incredible disclaimer: "Tulane does not and will not tolerate Communism. We appoint no Communists to the faculty. ... There is no place for Communists here."
Meanwhile the state legislature quickly rubber-stamped what seemed like a good idea at the time: every professor in the state who wished to remain a professor would be required to sign a loyalty oath declaring fealty to America, but more important, enmity for communism.
The tidal wave of fear even washed over local entertainment: the Orpheum Theatre abruptly cancelled its showing of Charlie Chaplin's brooding film Limelight after a local chapter of the American Legion pointed out that Chaplin was, if not a Red, at least bright pink. Similarly, the management at the Monteleone hotel yanked its new show, starring Larry Adler, "the World's Greatest Harmonica Virtuoso," from its bill after the Legion recalled that Adler had once belonged to a far-left peace group in the l930s.
For Boggs, the anti-red crusade abruptly became less a news item in the headlines and more a matter of personal urgency. It was 50 years ago last week, the night of Oct. l5, 1951, when Boggs was presented with documents claiming that he, too, was a communist. On that night, Boggs was delivering a live pitch in the television studios of WDSU just weeks after he had announced his candidacy for governor. It would be a historic night for TV, as the first program of I Love Lucy was aired on another channel. (Ball, too, would also eventually be tagged as a communist, but she was saved by adoring fans who rallied and laughed when her husband, Desi Arnaz, remarked: "The only thing red on Lucy is her hair, and even that isn't real.")
Boggs, who had served as one of New Orleans' two congressmen for most of the previous decade, was seen by political observers as the frontrunner in that year's gubernatorial race. But one of his most dogged opponents in that campaign, Lucille May Grace -- in her own way, as the register of the State Land Office for the previous 20 years, something of a state legend -- claimed that Boggs had joined the American Student Union nearly two decades earlier, and as virtually every investigation had since shown, the ASU was clearly a communist-front group.
Boggs "has publicly and in writing stated that communism should be adopted as a solution for our national problems," said Grace, who was put up to the idea of attacking Boggs as a Red by Leander Perez, the long-time boss of Plaquemines Parish, and one of the most powerful men in the entire state.
"When the truth about Boggs' communist-front connection is bared for the people of the state," Perez loudly predicted, "I say he will be ready to quit the governor's race."
Boggs, however, refused to quit. He gamely fought the charges, while necessarily avoiding the issue of whether or not he had ever actually joined the ASU. But he could no more prove a negative than most of the other people of the day who lost jobs, careers and reputations -- based very often on the rumors and whispered suspicions of unseen enemies.
For the rest of his long career -- Boggs presumably died after a single-engine plane he was riding in disappeared over Alaska in the fall of l972 -- Boggs was plagued with rumors that he was a communist. In almost every one of his New Orleans races for Congress, up into the l960s, fliers magically appeared around the city showing Boggs giving what was called the "communist clenched-fist salute" at a Tulane peace rally in the l930s. Repeatedly it was pointed out that the congressman had some sort of connection with the nefarious ASU and just as often it was at least inferred that therefore Boggs himself must have once been -- and perhaps remained -- a communist too.
When the rusty old Soviet Union finally imploded in l99l, the KGB began the arduous process of declassifying its records. To the dismay of some and the ultimate satisfaction of others, there was finally paper proof that there were, in fact, Communist agents in the United States, ready to do the bidding of their higher-ups in Russia, and absurdly dedicated to the idea that they could somehow someday take over the United States from within. This archival revelation was, at the least, a paper victory for the aging Red-baiters both in New Orleans and across the country who had always maintained that the threat of subversion was greater than their detractors claimed.
So it was, in the end, true: spies, enemy agents, people who would tear on the Constitution on a moment's urging, really did live and thrive in our midst. Perhaps it may very well soon be revealed that some Muslim faction, more likely an individual Muslim, may have a tenuous or even very real tie with the terrorist cells that attacked the United States on Sept. 11 and would do so gladly again. The truth is, we don't know, because we can never really gain entry to a man's heart and soul. In the end, only provable actions determine sedition.
Yet that is still scant reason, as it sadly was half a century ago, to paint with a broad brush an entire people. Those who manipulate our fears, who maliciously set one group against another, Stevenson remarked in l952, "are committing spiritual treason against our institutions." With an admiring Hale Boggs in the audience, Stevenson continued: "They are doing the work of our enemies. Even worse, they undermine our basic spiritual values."
Perhaps Boggs even nodded and smiled when Stevenson, not always the author of his words, concluded: "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"