'It Was All Around Us': The Law School during the McCarthy Era
Throwback Thursday is an occasional feature offering glimpses into the Law School’s rich history.
When Robert M. Lichtman, ’55, was applying for admission to the Illinois Bar, his Character and Fitness Interview took less than 15 minutes. The interviewers handed him a copy of the United States Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations and asked if he’d ever been a member of any of the groups.
He said no.
“And that was it—my interview was over,” Lichtman recalled.
Several years before, another Law School graduate, George Anastaplo, ’51, had refused on principle to answer the question and had been denied admission to the bar—a decision he fought, famously but unsuccessfully, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he represented himself. Justice Hugo Black had praised Anastaplo in his dissent, writing that Anastaplo’s life “has been one of devotion and service to his country—first, in his willingness to defend its security at the risk of his own life in time of war and, later, in his willingness to defend its freedoms at the risk of his professional career in time of peace.” Anastaplo, who died in 2014, went on to teach at the University of Chicago and other institutions.
Lichtman started at the Law School the year after Anastaplo graduated, and when the time came for his own interview, he simply answered honestly.
“I was not a hero the way Anastaplo was,” said Lichtman, who recently shared his memories of the Law School during the McCarthy era. “I’d spent three years in Law School, and I didn’t want it to all go down the drain to make a stand on principle. I wanted to be a lawyer. I answered truthfully—it was a pragmatic decision.”
It was also one that reflected the difficulties of that time in American history. During the 1950s, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers as part of a campaign by Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin—and the effects were felt both across the University of Chicago campus and in particular at the Law School, where students knew they’d eventually be asked about their affiliations during their bar interview.
Though housed in a different building, the 1950s-era Law School was, in many ways, just as it is now: a place of ideas, debate, and rigorous inquiry. Students weren’t afraid to challenge their professors or each other, and faculty were accessible and engaged. Lichtman fondly remembers professors like Harry Kalven, Jr., Karl Llewellyn, Soia Menschikoff, and Malcolm Sharp.
“I loved Harry Kalven, who became something of a friend,” he said. “I worked on his Torts casebook and we talked baseball endlessly. I would have jumped off a cliff if Kalven had asked me to.”
But as McCarthyism cast its shadow, a quiet discomfort trickled through the student body. Even conversations were measured: Lichtman said he’d talk about the climate of fear and suspicion with close friends but, beyond that, most students steered clear of the subject.
“The McCarthy period was a frightening time,” said Lichtman, a retired lawyer who later wrote two books on the era: The Supreme Court and McCarthy-Era Repression: One Hundred Decisions (University of Illinois Press, 2012) and Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era (University of Illinois Press, 2004). “People didn’t know where other people stood.”
Lichtman recalled some tension after Sharp, a professor whom he described as “radiating decency,” participated in the defense of accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the final weeks before their execution, assisting their counsel as they unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review their case. He remembers that some found Sharp’s participation to be controversial. Years later, one of Lichtman’s classmates told him that he’d once asked Sharp for a letter of recommendation, and Sharp had replied, “Are you sure you want one from me?”
Another one of Lichtman’s Law School classmates was Ira Kipnis, ’55, a former University of Chicago history professor who had lost his academic career after invoking the Fifth Amendment at a Senate hearing investigating supposed communist activity.
“I knew Ira pretty well, and we sat in a lot of classes together,” Lichtman said. “I knew the story but I don’t think I ever discussed it with him.”
Years later at their 40th Law School Reunion, Lichtman mentioned to Kipnis that he’d begun working on a book about McCarthyism—a comment that wasn’t particularly well received.
“I said, ‘Ira, you might be interested in this,’ and he did not change his expression—he changed the subject,” Lichtman remembered. “It was nothing he wanted to talk about.”
The McCarthy era is something many have wanted to forget, Lichtman said. “I think people’s choices during that era were complex.”
These days, the subject doesn’t come up much, but at the time “it was all around us,” Lichtman said. “I think it is embedded in people’s souls.”