3/22/2013 Chris Karlesky

Loyalty, Security, Suspicion: Dickstein '47 Gives F&M 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 time period, 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.

  • Sidney Dickstein '47 F&M alumnus Sidney Dickstein '47, founding partner of the Dickstein Shapiro law firm in Washington, D.C., speaks to F&M students on March 20 about the loyalty-security reviews during the McCarthy era. (Photo by Alexander Monelli)

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. Thousands of people were arrested during that time. Among the most frequently targeted were government employees, entertainment industry leaders, educators and union activists.

"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. He recounted how his own legal career took shape during the controversial period.

"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.

"I want to go into law in D.C., so I was immediately interested in his visit to our class," Steffen said. "He defended people who had the right to be defended. 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."

Dickstein's visit to Gosse's class was the latest example in a long history of engagement with F&M. 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.

In addition to nearly two decades on the F&M Board of Trustees, Dickstein has served as president of the Regional Alumni Council; chair of the Alumni Admission Volunteer Committee; member of the President's Regional Advisory Council; and chair of his Reunion Committee. As a student, he served as treasurer of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, and  as secretary and treasurer of the International Club. He also was active with The College Reporter, Green Room Theatre and John Marshall Law Club.

Dickstein enrolled at F&M in 1942 before joining the Navy the following year. After picking up additional course credits during his military service, he returned to F&M in the summer of 1946 and graduated in 1947. He credits the College for helping to launch his legal career.

"I took a course in constitutional law with Professor Art Kunkel, who was an archconservative," Dickstein said. "You might say I was an audacious liberal, and tended to be somewhat outspoken. Much to my surprise, I received a prize in government awarded by Professor Kunkel. That course at F&M had a significant influence on my career in constitutional law."

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