And Goes On—Douglas
If Justice Black is an enigma, and Justice Frankfurter’s slippery slide back and forth across the bench makes it difficult for us to tag him, at least no such uncertainty surrounds Roosevelt’s fourth appointment to the Court—that of Justice William O. Douglas. He was born in Maine, Minnesota, in 1898, but grew up in near poverty with his widowed mother in Yakima, Washington. He had polio as a boy. It affected both legs and caused him to concentrate on books. His subsequent recovery he attributes to tramping the foothills of the Cascade Mountains near his home in Yakima. Douglas worked his way through Whitman College at Walla Walla. He wanted to come East to get his law degree, but had no money. A job tending a shipment of sheep got him to Minnesota. From there he rode the freights to Chicago and then borrowed the train fare to New York. Part-time teaching at Columbia and a job in a law firm enabled him to get his law degree. He went back to Yakima to practice, but Columbia offered him a full-time teaching job. From there he went to Yale, where he became a professor of law. Like many other professors of that day, he wound up in Washington with a government job in the Securities Exchange Commission, of which he later became chairman.
Justice Douglas is an out-and-out leftist—the darling of the radicals. He is also something of a publicity seeker who has broken all precedents in conduct of Supreme Court justices by engaging in partisan debate outside the Court.
It may be that his yen for public notice—as evidenced by sojourns to Russia, a 189-mile hike in Maryland decked out in a Western-style hat, being thrown by a yak in Kashmir (these and other adventures generally resulting in magazine articles and books)—stems from disappointment at once having had the presidency of the United States almost within his grasp, only to see it slip from him because he was too left even for the leftists.
Douglas had the whole left-wing faction of the Democratic Party behind him for the vice-presidential nomination at the 1944 convention. That was the convention at which Henry Wallace was dumped. It was also the convention at which the vice-presidential nomination was tantamount to the presidency, since the insiders doubted that Roosevelt had long to live. Douglas was Roosevelt’s personal choice for the nomination, as the Justice well knew. He was at a remote fishing camp in Oregon, waiting for the “call.” But the professional politicians in Chicago had other ideas. They couldn’t see themselves swallowing Douglas’s radicalism after having just got rid of Wallace. So Harry Truman got the nomination—and the presidency—and Douglas stayed on the Supreme Court.
Not once—either before or since that incident—has Douglas deviated from the left-wing position in any case involving the communist conspiracy that has come before the Court. One of his oddest acts—and one that very nearly resulted in impeachment proceedings against him—was the order staying the execution of the Rosenbergs. It was a fantastic performance—and seemingly a meaningless one. The Supreme Court on four separate occasions had refused to consider any further legal moves by the Rosenbergs’ attorneys. His action—taken alone while the Court was not in session—accomplished nothing save to give the atom spies a few more days among the living. As soon as Chief Justice Vinson could convene the full Court, it acted immediately to reverse Justice Douglas’s lone-wolf gesture—with Messrs. Douglas, Frankfurter, and Black dissenting—and the Rosenbergs went to their deaths.
Why, then, did Douglas make the gesture? He, himself, of course, put it on the high ground of the law without thus seeming to commit himself to the loud and blatant defenders of the Rosenbergs. But there are those who believe that Douglas has never quite got over being within a breath of the domicile at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. He is comparatively young, as Supreme Court justices go, and some of those “in the know” think he is banking on a wave of the not-too-distant future when the legions of the far left will be in the saddle and looking about for a presidential candidate. To these observers, Douglas—in the Rosenberg case as in many others—is simply building up for himself an annuity that will insure the dreamed-of mantle falling where it belongs—on his shoulders.
Whether this be true or not, the fact remains that Justice Douglas has gone outside the Court to plug for the admission of Red China to the United Nations and for American recognition of Red China. He has told a Sarah Lawrence College audience—after many of the exposures of native Reds and of what they had done to us and the world—that “an awful thing happened when the politicians decided to vie with each other in denouncing communism.” He wants the United Nations charter amended to permit the formation of a world government, and he has accepted a one-thousand-dollar award from the left-wing Sidney Hillman Foundation. On that occasion Douglas sang a paean of praise for the deceased Hillman, the labor leader who used goons and gangsters like Louis Lepke as the “enforcement” machinery for his leftist aims.
Justice Douglas makes speeches before CIO conventions. His horror at bigness in business does not seem to extend to bigness in labor. He told one CIO convention that labor should get into the international field, take over the job of the diplomats and become America’s ambassadors to a “new Europe.” Heaven knows, many of our State Department representatives abroad have not always been to our liking, to put it mildly. But picture, if you can, a diplomatic corps made up of Dave Beck, James Hoffa, Jimmy Petrillo, Mike Quill, et al.!
Justice Douglas also thinks Moscow-loving Nehru of India is “not a dangerous man but a great bulwark against communism.” He goes out of his way to stay in the good graces of the Russians. On one of his numerous trips, when he criticized the Soviet Asiatic republics as colonies of Russia, Pravda jumped on him, whereupon he took occasion to praise the cultural achievements of Asiatic Russia. At a press conference in Washington to which only Russian reporters were admitted—while the American press representatives cooled their heels outside his office—Douglas said he was very impressed by the progress he found among Russian courts, lawyers, and judges. No doubt this pronouncement, cabled to Russia as the statement of a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, provided cooling balm for those Russians who had seen their relatives and friends executed or banished to Siberia by those same courts and judges.
Douglas, too, had had no previous judicial experience when named to the Court. And so it was easy for him to tell another audience at Occidental College in 1949 that the only answer to communism was the Welfare State, with much less emphasis on property rights. However, pending the arrival of this propertyless state, which will “answer communism” by bringing it to power, the Justice keeps an anchor to windward. He was the only Washington official who attended the annual reception at the Soviet Embassy in 1956. Anger over Soviet action in putting down the Hungarian revolt was at its height and every important Western official stayed away. Douglas felt called upon to answer the storm of criticism which came down on him and said he didn’t know the reception was being boycotted. A year later, the Reds held another reception to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Once again, there was Justice Douglas; which led the National Review to ask if he had ever left the Soviet Embassy.
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