Loyalty, Security, Suspicion
Sidney Dickstein ’47 Gives Students Tour of McCarthy Era
In a third-floor classroom in Franklin & Marshall’s Stager Hall on March 20, a group of students learned more about disloyalty than they probably ever imagined—from one of F&M’s most loyal alumni.
Sidney Dickstein ’47, founding partner of the Dickstein Shapiro law firm in Washington, D.C., and emeritus trustee of the College, visited an F&M history class to share his personal account of the McCarthy era of American politics in the mid-20th century. In the early 1950s, Dickstein successfully defended numerous individuals accused by the federal government of disloyalty to the United States as national tensions and suspicions unfolded during the Cold War. The McCarthy era, which spanned 1950-56, is named for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who suggested that a significant number of Communist sympathizers worked for the U.S. government.
Dickstein painted a picture of the era for 20 students in Associate Professor Van Gosse’s “History of the United States” class before answering questions about his personal experiences as an attorney in the loyalty-security reviews of the 1950s.
“It’s important to remember that what was playing out politically occurred against the backdrop of what appeared to be a real threat from the Soviet Union,” Dickstein said. “The race for nuclear power and the threats that implied were rampant. I recall that schoolchildren were taking part in air raid drills. This permeated American culture.”
Dickstein spoke of a time when disloyalty to the American government was perceived in many circles to be a significant security risk.
“When someone was accused of being disloyal or a security risk, they were suspended without pay when the charges that launched the proceedings were first filed,” Dickstein said. “We’d get a percentage of the back pay if we were successful in defending the client. That kept my partner and me alive in the beginning.”
F&M student Hayley Steffen ’13, a government major from Silver Spring, Md., was fascinated by Dickstein’s personal account of the McCarthy era.
“He defended people who had the right to be defended,” Steffen said. “Today you’re supposed to get legal help from the justice department, but the attorney general was the one who was creating these lists [of disloyal Americans]. It gives you faith in democracy that people like Sid Dickstein were defending them.
In June 2012—his 65th Reunion at F&M—Dickstein received the College’s Nevonian Medal, presented annually to a member of the Nevonian Society who has demonstrated extraordinary and sustained dedication to the College. The society comprises alumni who have celebrated their 50th Reunions. He received an honorary Doctor of Law degree at former President John Fry’s installation ceremony in 2003.
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