The loss of freedom of speech

Professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University are two very senior scholars who are currently taking very intense heat.

Next month, their book “The Israel Lobby” will be published. They argue that the United States is too closely allied with and too accommodating of Israel. Predictably, their viewpoint has generated very hostile criticism. Several organizations that had scheduled appearances by the authors have canceled under pressure, including at least one East Coast academic institution. That is regrettable.

Some years ago, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, where I worked, received extremely intense organized pressure to cancel an event with a PLO official. We did not do so. Our chairman, John D. Gray, chairman of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, demonstrated courage. The Council Board of Directors at that time also was strongly supportive.

Over the years, there was diverse pressure to cancel speakers or alter formats. Those unhappy with the Council’s program included local representatives of foreign governments, among them Canada and Japan, opponents of reconciliation between Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants, and others.

When a telephoned bomb threat disrupted a lecture by then-U.S. Rep. Paul Findley, R-Ill., a critic of Israel’s policies, we went on with the meeting in an adjacent stairwell. When troubled young followers of radical Lyndon LaRouche tried to break up a meeting on international banking, they were effectively escorted from the premises. We never gave in to bullying.

These examples relate to a much more profound lesson, essential to the survival as well as success of our society. Winston Churchill evolved over the years into a genius at collecting all sorts of information, and also people. One of the most pivotal of the latter proved to be Frederick Lindemann, a brilliant Jewish East European emigre who held a chair in physics and philosophy at Oxford. Despite Lindemann’s impressive professional success, especially in a foreign country, he remained a social outcast. No doubt anti-Semitism was one factor in 1930s Britain.

Lindemann’s primary problem, however, was Lindemann, who was a relentless know-it-all and generally obnoxious. Churchill’s granddaughter, Celia Sandys, politely described him as “anti-social.” Even Churchill’s endlessly patient, tolerant wife, Clementine, resisted having the Oxford don as a weekend houseguest, but Churchill insisted.

When Churchill returned to government as head of the admiralty at the start of World War II in Europe, he immediately recruited Lindemann, who was given freedom in selecting his staff and generally in choosing his work projects. The scholar, who was particularly talented at statistical analysis, had one mission: to undermine the conventional wisdom and established naval plans of the government.

After Churchill became prime minister with the fall of France, Lindemann’s role expanded to general strategic oversight and review, but his basic task in the midst of the enormously complex war remained continuous. He was to undercut whatever was proposed by the admirals and generals, the civil servants and politicians, and the members of government — including the prime minister. Churchill assumed that Lindemann would enjoy his role but also expected him to excel, as indeed proved to be the case.

World War II could easily have turned out differently. Imagination, resulting in the ability to do the unexpected, was a crucial ingredient of Allied success. Reliability of information was another. Lindemann drove these dimensions.

Defend open forums and free speech. The legacy of Churchill, Lindemann and others who saved our freedom demands no less.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). He can be reached at acyr(at)