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  • McCarthyism, Then and Now

    Posted by David Foster on March 10th, 2008 (All posts by )

    Tom Watson Jr, longtime head of IBM, writes (in his autobioraphy) about his personal encounter with McCarthyism in the 1950s:

    There was a moment when I truly thought IBM was going to lose its shot at defense work because of the kind of window blinds I had in my office.

    These were vertical blinds, which were not common at the time. An engineer who was in Watson’s office for a meeting made a sketch of the blinds, and inadvertently left it in his shirt pocket when he took the shirt to the dry cleaner. The laundry man thought the paper looked suspicious, and sent it to McCarthy. Pretty soon, a group of investigators came and said to the engineer, “We’ve identified this as a plan for a radar antenna, and want to hear about it. We want to be perfectly fair. But we know it is a radar antenna and the shirt it was found in belongs to you.”

    The engineer explained about the vertical blinds, and the investigation team then asked to see Watson. The chief executive officer of IBM showed them the blinds and demonstrated the way they worked.

    They looked them over very carefully and then left. I thought I had contained it, but I wasn’t sure, and I was scared. We were working on SAGE (the computerized air defense system–ed) and it would have been a hell of a way to lose our security clearance.

    Good thing that we don’t live in such hysterical times, and that nothing so crazy could happen today. Right?

     

    3 Responses to “McCarthyism, Then and Now”

    1. Tyouth Says:

      The cold war paranoia (at IBM, with respect to a drawing of unusual drapes that may have appeared, in a rough sketch, similar in appearance to a radar system) makes more sense than the politically-correct ignorance at Indiana U. It is hard for me to find much fault with the “McCarthyism” that Watson experienced.

      Apparently, as Watson hoped, after the investigators looked at the drapes the agency (FBI?) encompassed the situation, came to the correct conclusion, and took no action based on facts. In the case at Indiana U. the Affirmative Action Office came to a foolish conclusion (that one may not read a book whose title is offensive someone sitting nearby) based upon political correctness and, in the end, acted by writing foolish official letters about the situation.

    2. david foster Says:

      Tyouth…there’s a little more to Watson’s story that I think provides some perspective on the climate of the times.

      Shortly after the incident with the vertical blinds, Watson was invited to a lunch at Lehman Brothers, along with about 20 other high-ranking businesspeople. During the lunch, he mentioned his concerns about McCarthyism:

      “Of the twenty-odd people present, I was the only one who took that position. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that the following week I got letters from several people who had been there, and they all had a similar message: “I didn’t want to commit myself in publi, but I certainly agreed with everything you said.”

    3. Richard Cook Says:

      I wish there was another name for this kind of buffoonery. McCarthy got points off for style. Anyone familiar with Venona knows that McCarthy was right about his basic point (penetration of the Government by the Communists) beyond his wildest dreams.