Consumer advocate Ralph Nader was identified by Lewis F. Powell Jr. as the most effective progressive voice in the nation in a 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The soon-to-become Supreme Court Justice's memo is now seen as a battle plan for the 1 percent revolution that swept the nation over the past four decades.
Lewis Powell Jr. identified by name only a handful of "Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries" as enemies of American business in his now-infamous 1971 memo "Attack on the American Free Enterprise System." Foremost among them was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who, in the soon-to-become Supreme Court Justice's view, was the single most effective antagonist of American business. Nader was a "legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans," Powell wrote. He quoted a May 1971 Fortune magazine piece that cast the leader of Nader's Raiders in abject terms:
"The passion that rules in him -- and he is a passionate man -- is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power. He thinks, and says quite bluntly, that a great many corporate executives belong in prison -- for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. … He emphasizes that he is not talking just about 'fly-by-night hucksters' but the top management of blue-chip business."
To illustrate the danger posed by Chicago 7 attorney William Kunstler, whom a student poll had identified as the "American lawyer most admired," Powell cited a June 8, 1970, column by conservative William F. Buckley Jr. that quoted Kunstler: "You must learn to fight in the streets, to revolt, to shoot guns. We will learn to do all of the things that property owners fear."
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Indeed, Powell said, the New Leftists who followed Kunstler's advice were acting against military recruiting offices, manufacturers of munitions and a variety of businesses. As evidence, he quoted a story from the New York Times Service, reprinted May 17, 1971, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Since February 1970, branches (of Bank of America) have been attacked 39 times, 22 times with explosive devices and 17 times with fire bombs or by arsonists."
The assault targets portrayed by Powell in the memo written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were economic in nature: the American free enterprise system, capitalism and the profit system. "No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack," the memo said. "This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed and in the level of visibility."
Business, however, was but one front in what Powell said was a broader war. "The American political system of democracy under the rule of law is also under attack, often by the same individuals and organizations who seek to undermine the enterprise system."
Of particular concern to Powell, a Richmond lawyer who would join the nation's high court five months after he penned the 1971 memo, was the broad base of support progressive forces enjoyed at the time.
"What now concerns us is quite new in the history of America," he wrote to the business group. "We are not dealing with episodic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts." "No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack." - The Powell memo, 1971
The radical elements of the time -- those who would destroy the entire political and economic system -- were more numerous, better financed and increasingly more welcomed and encouraged by society than at any time in history, he said. But they weren't the principal cause for concern.
"The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians," he warned.
What was more, while those directly engaged in the attack remained small in number, they were often the most articulate, most vocal and most prolific in their writing and speaking.
"Moreover, much of the media -- for varying motives and in varying degrees -- either voluntarily accords unique publicity to these 'attackers,' or at least allows them to exploit the media for their purposes," Powell wrote. "This is especially true of television, which now plays such a predominant role in shaping the thinking, attitudes and emotions of our people."
The media, he said, were largely responsible for Nader's iconic status.
The New Leftists were indeed radicalizing thousands of the nation's young, Powell continued. But of greater concern was the hostility exhibited by respectable liberals and social reformers.
"It is the sum total of their views and influence which could indeed fatally weaken or destroy the system," he wrote.
High on Powell's list of respectable reformers were those who taught and spoke on college campuses. For support, his memo drew upon a quote from a May 18, 1970, Newsweek column by Stewart Alsop titled "Yale and the Deadly Danger."
"The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians." - The Powell memo, 1971
"Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of 'the politics of despair,''' Alsop wrote. "These young men despise the American political and economic system. … [Their] minds seem to be wholly closed. They live, not by rational discussion, but by mindless slogans."
A July 7, 1971, editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch cited a poll of students on 12 representative campuses that said nearly half favored socialization of basic U.S. industries.
Arthur A. Shenfield, a visiting professor from England at Rockford College, gave a series of lectures in 1970 titled "The Ideological War Against Western Society," in which he documented "the extent to which members of the intellectual community are waging ideological warfare against the enterprise system and the values of western society," Powell wrote.
In a foreword to the Shenfield lectures, University of Chicago economics professor Milton Friedman warned, "It (is) crystal clear that the foundations of our free society are under wide-ranging and powerful attack, not by Communist or any other conspiracy but by misguided individuals parroting one another and unwittingly serving ends they would never intentionally promote."
In the memo, Powell calls Yale professor Charles Reich's 1970 book The Greening of America a frontal assault "on our government, our system of justice and the free enterprise system."
Fortune magazine's 1971 analysis of Nader's influence, Powell wrote, included a reference to a Nader visit to a college where he earned a lecture fee of $2,500 for "denouncing America's big corporations in venomous language." A question asking if he planned to run for president brought "rousing and spontaneous" bursts of applause.
Citing an annual list published by the FBI of speeches made on college campuses by avowed Communists, Powell said the number in 1970 exceeded 100.
"There were, of course, many hundreds of appearances by leftists and ultra liberals who urge the types of viewpoints indicated earlier in this memorandum," he said.
Powell was particularly critical of those to whom his advice was directed.
"One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction," he wrote. "What now concerns us is quite new in the history of America. ... The assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued." - The Powell memo, 1971
College campuses were supported by tax funds generated largely from American business and contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business, he argued.
"The Boards of Trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system," he wrote.
The media itself, especially the national television networks, were owned and "theoretically" controlled by corporations that depend upon the profit system to survive. Yet the media routinely described tax incentives through changes in depreciation rates and investment credits as "tax breaks," ''loopholes" and "tax benefits" for the benefit of business.
"As viewed by a columnist in the Post, such tax measures would benefit only the rich, the owners of big companies," he wrote, referring to a June 28, 1971, Washington Post column by William Raspberry.
Powell called it dismaying that politicians made the same arguments, that such measures benefit only ''business'' without benefit to "the poor."
"The fact that this is either political demagoguery or economic illiteracy is of slight comfort," he concluded. "This setting of the 'rich' against the 'poor,' of business against the people, is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics."
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.