Are You Unpopular Enough?

A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular.
-Adlai Stevenson

Starting in the mid-1940s the world was divided into Eastern powers led by the U.S.S.R. and Western powers led by the United States. Following the conclusion of the second World War, former national borders were unsettled, regional power was unbalanced and for the first time in history weapons had evolved to the point that global destruction was possible. The only thing larger than the weapons was the fear that they might be used.1

The race to advance weapon technology became the chief race between the Eastern powers and the Western powers. It would be hard to find someone at that time who didn’t think that the other side might get far enough ahead in the race to launch atomic rockets designed to destroy everything that mattered. Every day, somewhere in the United States, people were preparing for an attack. The only hope was to figure out a defense or counter measure before the other side.

The worst possible betrayal was to learn what our side knew and tell the other side – to give away our advantage. Simply sharing a secret with the other side might give them the critical information they needed to get ahead or might assure them that they were far enough ahead to launch a preemptive strike. The consequences could mean the death of an entire way of life. After an extensive investigation, Rudolf Abel was arrested for just such a betrayal – being a Russian spy. Rudolf Abel may have been the most hated man in the United States, he was certainly the most unpopular.

Several attorneys refused to represent Abel. The only thing that might be more unpopular than being an accused Russian spy would be to champion the cause of an accused Russian spy. The Brooklyn Bar Association asked James B. Donovan to represent Abel, in part, because he had served as an associate prosecutor on the personal staff of Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson during the Nuremberg trials. Donovan was pressured by his family (especially his wife) and friends not to represent Abel.2 In finally deciding to represent Abel, Donovan decided, “If the free world is not faithful to its own moral code, there remains no society for which others may hunger.”3 Donovan demanded a fee of ten thousand dollars which Abel paid. Donovan donated the entire fee to three universities.4

The jury found Abel guilty. However, Donovan argued against and he was not sentenced to the death penalty.

Ultimately, Donovan became an American hero when he exchanged Abel for two citizens of the United States that had been imprisoned by the U.S.S.R. In the many months before during and after representing Abel, however, Donovan was arguable the most unpopular man in the United States.

Donovan’s reputation as an American was so solid that the Brooklyn Bar Association was not concerned that Donovan’s patriotic loyalties would be questioned. During his career, Donovan built a body of work that convinced his colleagues that he would maintain his legal competence even if it was unpopular – how about you? Are you being called upon to do something unpopular? If not, is it because there are no unpopular causes? Or, is it because you have not built a body of work, a reputation, as someone who would do the right thing even if you were the most unpopular person in the country?

Nobility In Action. What’s Your Story?

  1.  ©2015 Brandon L. Blankenship. Image Credit: One White Odd Egg by Nan Palmero flicker CC by 2.0
  2. Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel, James B. Donovan, Scribner, 1964.
  3. The Milwaukee Journal.
  4. Strangers.
About The Author

Brandon Blankenship

Brandon L. Blankenship is a continuing legal education presenter and business educator. He is the author of Unmasking Hour. He writes weekly posts on the legal industry and is a contributor to the Nobility Academy. He and his wife Donnalee live on their hobby farm south of Birmingham, Alabama.