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The 50th Anniversary of the Case of Milo Radulovich, Victim of McCarthyism

The First Amendment can always use another ally. Some if its best friends put themselves at risk a half century ago this month when an Air Force lieutenant battled desperately to clear his name.

While the name Milo Radulovich may not be immediately familiar the controversy surrounding him was a turning point in American history, says Michigan author Mike Ranville, who describes the remarkable events in his book To Strike at a King.

The story begins in 1953 when Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin, shattered lives and trampled individual freedoms in his rampage against communists. Radulovich, a reserve Air Force weather officer in Dexter, Michigan, was being discharged because his father and sister were accused of being communist sympathizers.

Officials even took issue with a family member’s newspaper subscription. The senior Radulovich, an immigrant only fluent in Serbian, kept up on events in his native Yugoslavia by reading publications from back home. One of the papers was associated with the American Slav Congress, which had been designated as communist by the U.S. attorney general.

Milo Radulovich

The lieutenant decided to fight the charges and demanded an Air Force hearing. He needed legal assistance, but any attorney helping Radulovich ran the risk of also being labeled a subversive. Eventually Charles Lockwood, a semi-retired lawyer and former Detroit College of Law professor, came to his aid.

Lockwood decided to fight the case in the media. He contact Russell Harris of the Detroit News, who explained the situation to his readers. Among them was a young attorney named Ken Sanborn, who remembered Radulovich from their days in the Aviation Cadet Program at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University).

The politically conservative Sanborn, a first lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, risked everything to defend his old classmate. Like Lockwood, he accepted no fee.

"Ken Sanborn deserved a medal," Radulovich said years later.

Despite such heroic legal services, the hearing’s outcome was predetermined, and the Air Force stripped Radulovich of his commission. Again, the Detroit News told the tale. This time, a famous broadcast journalist happened to read the story. It was the legendary Edward R. Murrow, host of the popular"See it Now" program on CBS. The show focused on"the little picture" explaining a news event through its impact on one person.

For months Murrow and his partner, Fred Friendly, had debated how to address McCarthy’s witch hunt. The curious Murrow prowled many out-of-town dailies and his prolific reading paid off. One day Friendly encountered Murrow at the elevator. Murrow pulled a crumpled newspaper article from his overcoat and thrust it at Friendly, saying"this could be the little picture for your McCarthy story."

A camera crew was dispatched to Michigan. By the next day, the centerpiece interview with Radulovich was done, and the footage was powerful. The young lieutenant, his wife and their neighbors spoke with passion.

As the Oct. 20, 1953 broadcast drew near, CBS was unwilling to promote the show. Convinced it was a landmark effort, Friendly and Murrow dipped into their pockets and spent $1,500 for an ad in the New York Times.

It was money well spent. Supporters flooded switchboards after watching"The Case Against Lt. Milo Radulovich, A0589839." Most viewers agreed with Murrow that"the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, even though that iniquity be proved beyond all doubt, which in this case it was not."

The little picture had shown the big picture of a nation ignoring individual liberties and declaring guilt by association. The image of this innocent man and his immigrant father focused America on the evils of McCarthyism.

Radulovich was reinstated one month after the broadcast. Several months later, the March 9, 1954 installment of"See It Now" consisted almost entirely of McCarthy film clips. The effect was devastating, as McCarthy’s own words and pictures illustrated his tyranny. By year’s end, the U.S. censured him. Friendly said,"We never could have done the McCarthy program without the Milo Radulovich program."

America depends too often on a few patriots to battle demagogues like McCarthy. For fans of the First Amendment, the Radulovich case is a legal and media milestone worth remembering.