May 20, 2013
By Nina C. Ayoub
She looks harmless enough. A photograph shows an elderly woman at a desk in what appears to be paisley and pearls. Her hair is in a matronly updo, her glasses—pince-nez?—frame her gaze downward as she studies a small booklet. It isn't immediately obvious it's a passport.
Mrs. Ruth Bielaski Shipley was chief of the U.S. State Department's Passport Office from 1928 to 1955 after having started as a clerk in 1914. Her power is difficult to overstate. "A wonderful ogre," she was called by one appreciative boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While much of her bureau's business was conducted without issue, she single-handedly delayed, thwarted, or otherwise constrained the travel plans of thousands of Americans. Among them were household names—Paul Robeson, Linus Pauling, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman—whose battles with Mrs. Shipley warrant a page or three in their biographies.
Others were unknowns. During the cold war, what many of her targets had in common were their politics. If you were a Communist Party member, or a fellow traveler, or just too pink for the lady, you could be refused a passport. But there was a vaguer category of those who might offend. As Readers' Digest put it in a 1951 profile of Mrs. Shipley: "No American can go abroad without her authorization. She decides whether the applicant is entitled to a passport and also whether he would be a hazard to Uncle Sam's security or create prejudice against the United States by unbecoming conduct." On Mrs. Shipley's watch, embarrassment to the United States could be grounds for grounding.
Despite her once modest fame, Mrs. Shipley has long been lost to history. But readers can newly make her acquaintance in a book in which "Red Scare" meets "war on terror" and neither appears to pass constitutional muster.
For Jeffrey Kahn, author of Mrs. Shipley's Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watch Lists (University of Michigan Press), "this extraordinary civil servant is the intellectual ancestor of the No Fly List," a shadowy roster that has been in effect and expanding since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The scholar, an associate professor of law at Southern Methodist University, came to his topic in 2006 by happenstance, reading The New York Times. ...