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General Motor’s Ralph Nader Files April 1st, 1966

on Apr 1st, 2009
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Ralph Nader - Author of 'Unsafe At Any Speed'
Ralph Nader Testifies – Author of ‘Unsafe At Any Speed’

Investigations: The Spies Who Were Caught Cold
Unsafe At Any Speed
Time Magazine April 1st, 1966

The president of the world’s most profitable corporation last week sat as an embarrassed witness before a Senate subcommittee. General Motors President James M. Roche, 59, candidly admitted that his company — without his knowledge — had hired a private eye to peer into the personal life of a young man who had written a book about automotive safety particularly criticizing a G.M. product. Said Roche: “I am not here to excuse, condone or justify in any way. To the extent that General Motors bears responsibility, I want to apologize here and now.”

The target of G.M.’s sleuthing was Ralph Nader, 32, a Harvard Law School graduate who last year authored a book called Unsafe at Any Speed, which devoted a chapter to telling about the dangers of driving a 1960-63 model of Chevrolet’s Corvair. Nader charged Corvair with sloppy—and therefore presumably unsafe—engineering in its rear suspension system.

His Life.
As of the time that Nader wrote his book, more than 100 lawsuits had been filed against Chevrolet for Corvair’s alleged deficiencies (to date, G.M. has won two such suits, lost one, and settled one out of court). Angered by Nader’s charges, some General Motors executives decided to counterattack. The corporation retained a Washington law firm, which in turn paid out $6,700 to hire Vincent Gillen, a onetime FBI agent turned private detective with headquarters in Manhattan. Gillen sent his agents a frank letter about what they were supposed to try to accomplish. “Our job,” he wrote, “is to check Nader’s life and current activities, to determine what makes him tick, such as his real interest in safety, his supporters if any, his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs, in fact all facets of his life.”

Under the pretense of making a routine “pre-employment investigation” of Nader, Gillen and agents made contact with almost 60 of his friends and relatives, dug persistently into his personal affairs. Nader’s parents were Lebanese immigrants; the detectives looked for signs of anti Semitism. They questioned why a 32-year-old man with adequate means should still be unmarried. Nader charged, and Gillen denied, that two attempts had been made to put him into compromising positions with lissome girls. Nader said that one girl approached him in a drugstore, invited him for no apparent reason to come to her apartment to talk about foreign relations; a second girl asked him to help move some of her furniture. Nader said that he declined both invitations, but added: “Normally I would have obliged.”

And the Senator Too.
Gillen’s investigation hit a high point last month after Nader agreed to testify before a Senate subcommittee headed by Connecticut Democrat Abraham Ribicoff, which is investigating traffic safety. For a week before the hearings, G.M.’s gumshoes followed Nader all around Washington, trailed him into the Senate Office Building—from which they were evicted by guards who suspected them of being exactly what they were. As it turned out, complained Ribicoff, they also started looking into the Senator’s own private life, presumably hoping to turn up information about some sort of connection with Nader. All of this understandably led Abe Ribicoff to make the understatement that, “there’s too much snooping going on.”

To Nader the Senator observed: “You can feel pretty proud. They have put you through the mill and they haven’t found a damn thing wrong with you.”

General Motors President Roche himself ended the six-hour hearings. After consulting with Theodore C. Sorensen, President Kennedy’s onetime aide and Roche’s blue-ribbon special counsel for the hearing, he returned to the witness chair to make a second apology. Said he, in a statement aimed as much at his own underlings as at the Senators or the public: “It will not be our policy in the future to undertake investigation of those who speak or write critically of our products.”

That was not enough to satisfy the Senators. The G.M. case, along with other recent instances of industrial espionage, has already upset them to the point where, starting next month, they plan a full-scale investigation into the whole problem.

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