We’ve known for a long time that the early 1950s was a nightmarish time in this country. It was the time of the arch-demagogue, Joe McCarthy. It was the time when the Cold War was at its coldest, a time when Americans confused dissent with disloyalty, when people were gripped with the fear that that alien doctrine of communism would infiltrate our open society and destroy us.

We now have another view of just how scary that era really was. The New York Times reported that a newly declassified document shows that J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison some 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty.

According to the declassified material, Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950. This was 12 days after the Korean War began. Hoover’s plan called for putting suspect Americans in military prisons.

Hoover urged President Harry S. Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage.” The FBI would “apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous” to national security. The arrests would be carried out under “a master warrant attached to a list of names” provided by the bureau. The names were part of an index Hoover had been compiling for years. “The index now contains approximately 12,000 individuals, of which approximately 97 percent are citizens of the United States,” he wrote. “In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the writ of habeas corpus.”

Truman did declare a national emergency, but he had the great good sense to reject Hoover’s advice for the United States to adopt one of the worst of communist characteristics — to create an American gulag for thousands of people unfortunate enough to find their names on Hoover’s lists.

This cautionary tale comes at a time when the Bush administration, in effect, has suspended habeas corpus for those suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This has become a contentious issue for Congress and the Supreme Court.

Hoover’s plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison 12,000 Americans serves to remind us of how fragile our civil liberties are. They can be defended only so long as we still have them. For a time there in that red-scare time of the 1950s, we were in danger of losing them completely. Yes, there was a threat from within — and it came from the likes of McCarthy and Hoover and those who would have sacrificed our civil liberties in the name of defending America.

(From the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, Texas; www.caller.com.)

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