I wasn't a communist. But swearing to that fact felt wrong.

By Dr. Walter Reichman

In 1965, while the Vietnam war raged and an anti-war movement gained traction, I was in New York City, completing my doctoral dissertation at Teachers College of Columbia University. I dreamed of becoming a teacher; in particular, I wanted to teach psychology to college students at City College, which had educated me as an undergraduate at a cost of just $12 each semester. On the day I received my doctorate, the chairman of the department appointed me as a fulltime lecturer at City College. Yet on the cusp of achieving my dream, I faced a personal dilemma that pitted my values, beliefs, and ethics against the opportunity that I had longed for and worked so hard to achieve.

I was in my office filling out papers for the department of Human Resources that would solidify my position and give me all the benefits of a member of the faculty. I happily plowed through all the papers, checking and signing and enjoying the process until I came to the fourth sheet of paper. This sheet called for my swearing that I was loyal to the United States and was not a communist. My breath caught in my throat, my stomach churned, and I felt faint.

During my many years of study, I actively opposed the war, as so many others did. I was sympathetic to those young men leaving for Canada to avoid being drafted. I applauded those people who publicly burned their draft cards and I marched in opposition to the war at Union Square in New York. I also vividly recalled the 1950s, when Senator McCarthy terrorized most of America by uncovering communists under every tree and bush. Teachers were fired from my high school, friends of my family lost their jobs, and in Hollywood – perhaps the best remembered targets of McCarthyism – movie actors, radio personalities, and writers were blacklisted after being asked by Senate committees, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist Party?” If an individual said yes, they were held in contempt of Congress unless they revealed the names of others they knew to be communists. This hit close to home: My father belonged to an organization that was placed on the Attorney General’s list of suspected communist front organizations. My father was politically very liberal but would never think of undermining the country that gave him sanctuary from the anti-Semitism that pervaded his life while in Russia, both before and after communism. My father railed against McCarthyism because it presented the same irrational scapegoating from which he escaped, and I agreed with him.

Many years had passed since this time, however, and McCarthy was dead. Most of McCarthy’s irrational fears had abated; yet here I was, faced with this moral dilemma that was a vestige of the era. The Feinberg Law had been enacted during the height of McCarthyism to protect immature children from being subjected to subversive propaganda from their teachers. Since City College was a public institution supported by the state, all new faculty were required to sign that they were not communists. The law had been found constitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court over the dissenting opinions of Justices William.O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Felix Frankfuter who argued that this law turned the New York School system into a spying project.

The document was sitting on the desk in front of me. I wasn’t a communist, but I disagreed with their right to make all teachers swear that they were not either. My pen was in my hand and I thought of what my father would say to me if I asked his advice. I didn’t need to actually ask him; he would have said, “Do what you want, but in my opinion, principle is what matters.” With that thought in my mind, I signed the document and never told my father about it. I had the career I always wanted, but still after all these years, it haunts me.

The Feinberg Law remained in force until another Supreme Court decision in 1967 declared most of its provisions unconstitutional.

This history - both the country’s and mine in particular - come to mind as I look at the political landscape and fear a replay of the same self-serving irrationality that gave rise to McCarthyism, the Feinberg Law, and my ethical dilemma. With our nation becoming more polarized and heading toward a zero-sum game of might is right, will there be room for disagreement with power without risking one’s career and dreams? I fear my ethical dilemma will become common place in the years to come.

Dr. Walter Reichman is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, the president of the Psychology Coalition of the United Nations, and the main NGO representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations from the International Association of Applied Psychology. He is also a Professor Emeritus from Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Walter is the editor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Help the Vulnerable: Serving the Underserved. Walter has an MBA from City College of the City University of New York and an MA and Ed.D from Teachers College of Columbia University.

This article is part one of a new series on the life of Dr. Walter Reichman.

Email Dr. Reichman directly for more information.