Liberty and justice back then

As The Times prepares to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time in over 35 years, the editorial board will examine the candidates' takes on essential American values while presenting its own philosophy on the issues as well. How much have The Times' values changed since its 1972 endorsement of Richard Nixon? We'll find out by looking through editorials from that year. Last time, we went through The Times' positions on life, today we look at Times editorials on liberty and justice.


Today's editorial raises the issues central to today's debate on preserving liberties — rights for detainees and privacy protections for Americans. Those issues were the big ones in 1972 as well — except that electronic surveillance was a new-fangled tool, and detainees were properly called "prisoners of war," and they were Americans.

On Jan. 9, The Times noted the unusual role of prisoners of war in the Vietnam War:

The release of prisoners of war normally is a result of peace, not a factor of negotiating an end to hostilities. But the Vietnam war has few norms….it is for Mr. Nixon to clarify both for Hanoi and the American people the terms for withdrawal, including the time-table for total withdrawal in exchange for release of the prisoners.

The prisoners of war would remain a concession in negotiations for that year. On Sept. 5, striking a familiar note to many contemporary editorials on Guantanamo inmates, The Times worried that the prisoners' confinement would stretch too long in the seemingly endless conflict:

One of the sadder consequences of the war in Vietnam is the fate of the American prisoners of war in Hanoi. In other wars, it was taken for granted that the prisoners each side took would be returned when the war was over, but not before. But in this unorthodox war, undeclared but so bitterly fought, the prisoners of war have become a political and diplomatic issue for both sides. And as the war drags on year after year, the prisoners languish year after year.

And as it does today, The Times objected to the president's distaste for dissenting opinions on Oct. 19:

In his extemporaneous remarks to relatives of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, President Nixon betrayed a serious misconception of the meaning of free opinion in a democracy. By denouncing the "opinion leaders of this country" for their failure to approve unanimously his decision last May to mine Haiphong Harbor and to bomb Hanoi, the President seemed to be saying that the people have no right to express their disagreement on policies that could affect the fate of this nation…. The President apparently does not understand that the robust expression of public opinion is most vital when great issues are at state… Mr. Nixon also has a curious way of intimating that those who disagree with him, if not disloyal, are somehow suspect in their motivations.

The 1972 election season also featured debate over government surveillance of private citizens. Dissenters had been the target of Army surveillance for years, as The Times noted back on March 2:

Five years ago the Johnson Administration ordered the Army to use its internal counter-intelligence units to gather information on student radicals, black activists, civil rights militants and organizations opposed to the war in Vietnam…. The Army conceded later that the investigation had strayed into watching legitimate political activity. It has now come to light that the operation was more extensive than had previously been revealed. [Sen. Sam J.] Ervin [Jr., D-N.C.] said much of the data collected by the Army was worthless for the stated objectives of the investigations, which often exposed, he said, irrelevant information on an individual's "sexual activities, personal beliefs and associations"…. The very existence of political dossiers in the Army's possession would have an inhibiting effect on the American people. The government has ample power to protect national security without invading constitutionally protected freedoms.

On Oct. 17, the slightest bit of good news soothed The Times' surveillance fears:

Finally, a bit of good news — not much but some — about the shrinking area of personal privacy in a data-obsessed society. Data banks don't yet know everything about the personal affairs of individuals. This encouraging word comes from a three-year study by the National Academy of Sciences, on the effects of computerization on civil liberties…. As technology advances, the threat to privacy increases from wiretaps, bugs and the rest of the electronic paraphernalia available to those who want to use them…. The process, according to the NAS study, is not irreversible. Whether it becomes irreversible depends on public understanding. A complex, technological society requires huge amounts of information, yet the privacy of individuals must be guarded to preserve what one of the wisest of Americans, Justice Louis Brandeis, said was "the right most valued by civilized men" — "the right to be left alone."

But by Christmas Day, The Times sounded the alarm again:

The Fourth Amendment was written by men who knew the history of oppression. In just 54 words, they erected one of the great safeguards of liberty…. Through wiretapping and other means of electronic surveillance [the] wall can be breached and the privacy of a citizen's home can be invaded without the midnight knock on the door. The victim will not be aware that his innermost thoughts, expressed in the privacy of his home, are being recorded in a secret file locked in some government agency…. The true extent of electronic surveillance is not known by the public because eavesdropping in national security cases need not be reported under the law.


In today's editorial on justice, the board emphasizes extending protections based on gender and sexual orientation, and expresses thanks for living in an era when presidents don't have to use force to end discrimination. In 1972, the board was busy advocating the full application of the Civil Rights Act and an Equal Rights Amendment for women.

On Jan. 4, The Times agreed that southern states' election law changes should be approved by the federal government:

Racial discrimination, as events of the past decade have demonstrated again, is not limited to one section of the nation, and all law should be applied equally…. The right to vote is the fundamental right in a democracy. Since enactment of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, 1.5 million blacks have registered in the South. Before 1965, fewer than 100 blacks held office in the 11 Southern states. The number now is approaching 800. Fraud at the polls poisons the springs of democracy. It makes a mockery of appeals to blacks, to other minorities, to all the dispossessed, to work within the system for change. Whether in Mississippi or Chicago, it cannot be tolerated.

On Jan. 31, The Times pressed for expanded authority for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, once again bashing the South for trying to block civil rights legislation:

Talking and preaching have not made discrimination disappear in the United States. Progress has been made, much of it through tough laws. But many millions remain victims of discrimination because of their race, religion, sex or national origin. The weakest link in the federal program to protect civil rights is in employment…. There is hope, however. The U.S. Senate has given preliminary approval to new legislation to make effective the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission…. Once again there is evidence of a filibuster. There are thunderous assertions that the constitutional protections of the states rights are to be violated. All of this has a familiar ring, but also a tragic ring, the more tragic because these seven years have left so many so unyielding on what are such elemental human rights.

The Times settled on Feb. 24 for a compromise on the commission, which would have allowed it to go to court to pursue claims, and extend its anti-discrimination measures to government, education, and small businesses. It came down hard on the South again:

Bussing isn't the last frontier in civil rights. The fundamentals are still under attack. Just look at what the U.S. Senate has been doing these last five weeks, struggling under a Southern filibuster aimed at keeping in a crippled condition the federal commission concerned with job discrimination. A compromise has finally emerged. Not a bad one, either. But it is a sad commentary on the state of civil rights that the nation must take second best on a matter of such fundamental justice…. It is worth noting that much of the Southern opposition was directed at provisions that will allow the commission to act in cases of discrimination by local governments, including fire and police departments and school boards. And why not? Yet a significant number of white leaders of the South still see nothing unreasonable in all white state and local police forces, fire departments and school faculties. We keep talking about the South because that is where the commission has been busiest….

On April 17, The Times mocked opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment:

The scenario is tragic. The poor innocent girl is drafted by a heartless nation and dispatched to the front lines of Southeast Somewhere. The pregnant housewife, struggling to keep her children from starvation, is driven to perilous labors on an unending assembly line, deprived of all protections. Horror of horrors, we are told, they are victims of equal rights, victims of a constitutional amendment that would end discrimination by sex. So the picture flickers in the 19th-century minds of some of the 20th-century legislators in the State Capitol. Never, no never, they cry, shall the Constitution of the United States be desecrated with words that surely would drive gentility and gallantry from the land. But it is not so…. The equal rights amendment is a simple and straightforward assertion that there shall be no discrimination based on sex. This is not a test of women's liberation or gentility or anything else except justice. It was approved by the Congress, signed by the President and circulated to the 50 states not as a luxury but as a necessity. Women have been consistently denied equality before the law despite the 14th Amendment and other protections of the law. They are entrapped in elaborate state legislation which denies them the most elementary rights, including in some cases the right to keep and control the money they earn…. We want California to be among the first of the three-fourths of the several states which must ratify this worthy amendment.

Nine days later, The Times said it would want busing were necessary:

Busing is not the sole answer to desegregation of schools; it works well in some communities; in others, especially some of the great cities, its utility is more limited, but it should remain available for situations where it can be effective…. Segregation inflicts on minority children doubt of their own intrinsic worth. This can be a mortal wound and is not worthy of a civilized society.

The board returned to the ERA on May 1, again dismissing objections that women would end up on the frontlines, or working deep in coal mines:

Labor unions, with a long history of support for legislation to protect women as well as all workers, have led the opposition to this explicit prohibition of discrimination based on sex…. The opponents are correct in anticipating remarkable change in the existing legislation which grants special privileges and immunities to women. These privileges and immunities are being abolished already, however…. Sponsors of the equal rights amendment are, in effect, proposing nothing novel but rather a surer and simpler device to streamline the legal proceedings involved in bringing up to date the concept of women before the law.

Two years ago, The Times happily applauded a court ruling forbidding a country club from discriminating against a lesbian couple. On June 15, 1972, The Times seemed more conservative about extending discrimination rules to private clubs:

Some broadening of the Sixth Amendment was expected, but the court went further than had been anticipated. No indigent person may now be jailed on a misdemeanor charge unless he has been furnished with counsel or has waived that right…. In a much more difficult area, the court divided six to three in deciding that it is constitutional for states to grant liquor licenses to private clubs that practice racial discrimination….Whether the law can or should attempt to reach discrimination in a private organization is a troublesome question. The right to privacy and free association are fundamental liberties and whether they are decently practiced may be more a matter of education than of law.

Four days later, The Times stopped focusing on the South to see how anti-discrimination laws were faring in Los Angeles after the U.S. attorney general called on the city to employ more minority firemen:

It is no surprise that the Justice Department would single out Los Angeles…. There are now 40 blacks and 73 Mexican-Americans among the city's more than 3,000 fireman…. The reasons for the small number of minority firemen in the past were not complex. They were not encouraged to apply. They were not made welcome if they managed to get hired. Neither reason holds true today…. Yet their numbers remain outrageously small in contrast to their percentage ration in the population.

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