In Fact…


Recently, Washington editor David Corn examined contacts maintained by the Bush Administration and the National Endowment for Democracy with individuals and political parties in Venezuela who would become involved in the two-day coup there in April [see “Our Gang in Venezuela?” August 5/12]. The issue, he noted, is whether “discussions between Americans and Chavez foes–such as those involving NED–encourage[d] or embolden[ed] the coup-makers and their supporters.” A new report from the State Department Inspector General concludes, Well, sort of. The report does say the IG found “nothing to indicate that the [State] Department or Embassy Caracas planned, participated in, aided, or encouraged the brief ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,” and it declares that NED and the US government acted legally. But, the study maintains, “it is clear that NED’s, [the Pentagon’s], and other US assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to organizations and individuals understood to be actively involved in the events of April 11-14.”

The IG’s work was not comprehensive. For instance, the investigators decided not to interview any Venezuelans. Consequently, it heard from no witnesses who could challenge what embassy officials told the IG. Indeed, the report merely skims the surface of a very murky episode.


When each day brings a new attempt to erode our fundamental civil liberties, it is worth remembering the case of Junius Scales. Scales, who died in New York in August at 82, was the only American sent to prison for being a member of the Communist Party. A sixth-generation American, a veteran of World War II with a record of honorable service and a scion of one of North Carolina’s distinguished families–his great uncle had been governor of the state–Scales joined the party in 1939 while he was a student at the University of North Carolina. He later became a regional party leader, coordinating civil rights and labor organizing in several Southern states.

In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy period, Scales was arrested under the Smith Act, which made it a felony to lead or be a member of a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the US government. In essence, this infamous act–later ruled unconstitutional–criminalized political belief and advocacy. As The Nation observed in one of several articles at the time about the case, “in a country which took seriously the principles we profess to be defending, even present beliefs–Communist or any other kind–would not be punished.” In an irony of history and justice, as the case took seven years to wind its way through state and federal courts, a disillusioned Scales left the party after learning of Stalin’s crimes. Yet in 1961, largely because he refused to perform the ritual of repentance demanded by the FBI–informing on others–Scales was sentenced to six years in Lewisburg prison. In 1962, after many prominent American and international leaders petitioned for Scales’s release, President Kennedy commuted his sentence.

Upon his release, Scales became a proofreader at the New York Times, working the night shift in order to spend more time with his ailing wife and young daughter. A gentle man of quiet dignity, wry humor and integrity, Scales remained a true progressive until the end–his daughter Barbara says he contributed half his income every year to groups fighting for social justice and civil liberties. He was also a longtime Nation Associate, contributing the small amounts he could afford. About twenty years ago, Scales returned to Lewisburg prison for a documentary about the McCarthy era. With no bitterness or rancor toward the beloved country that had taken so many years of his life, he spoke outside the prison gates of the indispensable and enduring value of the freedom to dissent. At a time when our Constitution is again under assault, and America passes draconian legislation whose provisions far exceed those required to fight the threats facing us, Scales’s story is worth reflecting on.