A Survivor Remembers: America’s Most Recent Major “Witch Hunt”

A Survivor Remembers: America’s Most Recent Major “Witch Hunt”

by Patricia Lynden

The House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) had been in existence since 1937, but it was not until 10 years later that it came into its own. World War II was over and the Soviet Union and the United States had begun their “cold war” for the rest of the world.

In the spring of 1947, “the list” was drawn up by the Justice Department as an internal guideline to help administer Truman’s new loyalty oaths and to screen prospective government employees. It held the names of all organizations with ties to communism, fascism or other “subversive” ideologies. Later that year, in a serious breach of civil rights, the Justice Department allowed the “Blacklist” to be published.

It wasn’t long before the public, made increasingly anxious by Washington’s propaganda blitz about the Communist “enemy within,” came to see the List as a guide to dangerous people and groups. Blacklists sprang up in many industries and they carried the names of anyone who had become tainted by the donation of money or attendance at a meeting of “un-American” organizations even decades before. Those included civil rights groups, peace groups, anti-fascist organizations and socialist groups. Guilt by association was established and the witch hunt was on. By 1950, Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, saw the opportunity to make his name and, as chair of the senate committee that investigated “un-American activities,” announced his first batch of “subversives.” Soon he was out of control, casting suspicion on anyone who disagreed with him. His rabid pursuit of communist “witches”gave the era its name.

In 1953, the United States had its modern version of a burning at the stake. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted forgiving secret information to the Soviets during wartime. It was a sign of the times that those in power overlooked the fact that the Russians had been our wartime allies. Had the Rosenbergs committed their crimes in peacetime, by law they would have received a lesser sentence.

Throughout the McCarthy era, many people testified against friends and neighbors to safe themselves; others seized the opportunity to settle old scores. At great personal cost, some people refused to incriminate others in order to protect themselves. They used the privilege under the Fifth Amendment. One was writer Dashiell Hammett who chose instead to go to prison. Playwright Lillian Hellman told the Committee that she would answer any questions about herself, but would not talk about anyone else. In a memorable letter to the Committee she wrote, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

The resume rings were friendly businessmen who would say, “Yeah, he worked for me for 10 years”

By 1954, McCarthy’s rampage had peaked. The senator himself was under investigation for using his influence to procure favors from the Army for his young friend, G. David Shine, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower made it clear he had had enough of his fellow Republican. But by then many lives were ruined, careers were finished, families broken. The legacy of a witch hunt.

Throughout my childhood, a profile of Stalin, hammered in relief out of copper, stood atop the china closet of my maternal grandparents’ dining room in southern California. As a child, I wasn’t sure if it portrayed the Soviet leader or my Russian-born Jewish grandfather as a young man. I never asked, I suppose, because to me my grandfather and the USSR were one and the same. My grandfather was the embodiment of the Soviet ideal and the love I had for him mirrored the admiration that my sizeable left-wing family, as well as the large American left subculture that we belonged to, had for its “great socialist experiment.”

My generation was born in the 1930s and ’40s to parents who either stayed in the Party after World War II when it was no longer safe to do so, or who left the Party before the cold war began but remained sympathetic to communism’s version of a just society. Jokingly called “red-diaper babies” by our parents, we grew up outside the American mainstream. That was partly through our own choice – we had been raised to reject much that capitalism had wrought – but in large measure it was because, during the scary and depressing post-war decade of the Blacklists, doors were closed to us and our parents.

In the 1930s and early ’40s, when they were young, my parents, and virtually all of my aunts and uncles, were either Communist Party members or “fellow travelers” – to borrow a favorite phrase of Joe McCarthy. But by 1950, all except my late uncle Archie Brown, a fiery, dedicated life-long Communist, and one aunt, had left the party. They didn’t do it dramatically. There were no denunciations, no wallowing in self-pity over years ill-spent, no rush to embrace the mores of capitalism. They simply dropped out for reasons I never heard about. They never became Red-baiters. Most of them continued to believe in socialism, and a number of them, including my father, continued their work for radical social change in active and visible roles.

In 1956, the year I started college at Berkeley, the bust of Stalin mysteriously disappeared from its place on the china closet. I made no inquiries, figuring that I wouldn’t get a straight answer anyway, but I was impressed – times were changing. That was the same year that Khrushchev made his historic report to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union to acknowledge what the world already knew: That Stalin was a paranoid and murderous tyrant. It was also the year the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. Because of that, 30,000 people left the American Communist Party in a last-straw response to years of creeping disillusion. Those who remained loyal were a very few thousand unshakable believers. Finally, 1956 was a year in which McCarthyism at last was on the wane.

The following year, Joe McCarthy died, formally ending the dismal and infamous decade that took his name.

Nearly 40 years have passed, but the emotional legacy of those days remains deeply embedded in my psyche and the psyches of everyone I have ever known who was a kid from a left-wing family in those days. And the legacy is powerful.

On the positive side is the pride in a political tradition that stands for egalitarianism, the rights of minorities, economic justice and civil liberties. But we are also a subculture that will always feel vulnerable to the powers that be. We will always believe that we are irrevocably outsiders; we often wonder when the government will, once again, need political scapegoats and choose us. As a consequence, we have very little faith in, or regard for, duly constituted authority. We also know that friends are often friends only to a point. I’m sure many of us wonder from time to time – as I do – whom among our good friends we can really trust; which of them, if pressed, would point a finger at us to save their own skins as, for example, choreographer Jerome Robbins, director Elia Kazan, actors Lee J. Cobb (who even named his ex-wife), Jose Ferrer and Lloyd Bridges, and playwright Clifford Odets (to name a few famous ones) all did before the Un-American Activities Committee.

“They’ll be tapping the phone,” said my father, “so don’t use it to discuss anyone in the family, and be careful of neighbors”

One of the most central and sobering lessons of my youth occurred in the early 1950s and was the result of my uncle Archie’s Communist Party membership. It was my first and most dramatic experience of being an outsider. One afternoon, when I was about 13 and the McCarthy era was at full tilt, I was called into our living room by my father. Archie was about to “disappear,” he told me; in fact, he was probably gone already. “What do you mean ‘disappear’?” I asked. “The Party has chosen some leaders to stand trial and go to jail, and others to stay free. But they have to go underground so they won’t be arrested,” was my father’s reply. “Where’s he going?” “There’s an old revolutionary principle,” my father said quietly, “that you should never know more than you have to about what your fellow revolutionaries are doing. If they arrest you and torture you, you can’t betray anyone because you can’t tell what you don’t know. It’s better that way. I don’t want to know either.” Few conversations have impressed me more.

That night, as my father predicted, the FBI showed up. There were two agents, in fedoras no less, sitting in a pale blue car parked in front of the house. “They’ll be tapping the phone,” said my father, “so don’t use it to discuss anyone in the family, and be careful of neighbors who ask too many questions because the FBI has probably found stooges among them.” Even at the rebellious age of 13, I knew enough to listen well and do as he said.

Such conversations were universal among parents and children of the left in those days. We all recall the gratuitous harassment, so frightening to a child, of strange, unfriendly men in dark suits ringing the bell and asking to speak to our parents, tailing family members, sometimes even us, bugging our phones and making spies of our neighbors. One of my friends remembers an awful night when the FBI shone a powerful beam of light through the windows of her house, and with it scoured every piece of furniture, the floors, and walls of every room that wasn’t curtained. “Even the ceilings,” she later said indignantly. “Maybe they thought we had the atom bomb secret hidden in the chandelier?”

The biggest fear, though, was whether your father would lose his job. My father, Richard Lynden, was an elected official of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, the small, independent, politically radical union founded, and for many years led, by Harry Bridges. His job was safe, but that was not enough to make us feel secure – even if we put up a pretty good front.

The night the FBI came to camp in front of our house, my father grandly announced that he was taking us all to dinner at Amelio’s, then one of San Francisco’s finest restaurants. He took a long, out-of-the-way route there while my sister and I, in our finery, made faces and stuck our tongues out at the two agents in the car that never got more than 20 feet behind us. Playfully, my father drove as though he were being elaborately courteous to two nitwits, very, very slowly to the outskirts of the Mission district and then up a lonely dirt road. At the crest of the hill, which was flat and just big enough for two cars, he drove around and around and around in a circle. You couldn’t tell who was following whom, and my father played the game for 10 minutes, chuckling as he occasionally slammed on his brakes, forcing the agents to do the same to keep from rear-ending us. Finally, he took us to dinner. The blue car stayed with us for a month, and left.

For those kids whose parents did lose their jobs, the feelings of persecution and terror were a constant in their lives for years. “Dangerous,” is how my friend “Marcus,” now a tenured professor, sums up his view of the world. “I still have a very strong sense of it.”

That is why he requested a pseudonym for this story. He was once a member of the Labor Youth League, the youth organization of the Communist Party, but these days he keeps a low political profile. Both of his parents were once Communists. “I still have, even today, an intrinsic notion of myself as a minority person who is an easy target for persecution.” Marcus’ parents were blacklisted in the late ’40s, his mother from the New York public school system, where she was a teacher, and his father, a well-known Party intellectual, from the literary profession. Marcus’ father finally got work thanks to a “resume ring.” “Someone like my father had to create an entire history that would stand scrutiny,” says Marcus, “and the resume rings were friendly businessmen who would say, “Yeah, he worked for me 10 years.’ My father worked in Manhattan under an assumed name never knowing when he might come to work and have his boss call him in and say ‘We know who you are,’ and can him. Why couldn’t it all happen again?” And, he adds, “That’s the kind of baggage I carry.”

Bettina Aptheker’s father was too famous to disguise himself. He was the Party’s star intellectual. Columbia-trained in American history, Herbert Aptheker was blacklisted in 1938 after which he could find no work outside the Party. Except his World War II service in the Army. For that, the U.S. government promoted him to the rank of major and let him lead still-segregated Black troops in the European theater. Bettina, a lesbian feminist who is professor of women’s studies at the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, recalls that her mother worked as a travel agent to meet the family’s financial needs. “After the war my father went to Columbia for employment because he had graduated from there and been one of their top students and the university had published his dissertation on slave revolts. But they told him right up front, ‘As long as you’re a member of the Communist Party, you’ll never get a job anywhere.’ And he never did.” That is, not until 1965. That year, recalls Bettina, who was herself a young, nationally-known Party activist at the time, “some Black students at Bryn Mawr conducted a sit-in and got him a job. He was a visiting professor there for a couple of years.” By that time the Blacklist, which outlived the McCarthy era, had finally run its course.

The social consequences were tough for some of us, catastrophic for others. My father, who had been radicalized while he was an undergraduate at Stanford in the early ’30s, helped organize the workers in his father’s wholesale grocery business. My grandfather was a bedrock conservative who disagreed violently with my father’s politics, although he never disowned him, as some other parents did. But I was always acutely aware of the tension between them, which sometimes erupted into furious fights that made my grandfather cry and caused my father to go on weeks-long drunks.

I will never forget the day my father’s subpoena to appear before HUAC was delivered. It was brought by a middle-aged woman carrying a shopping bag. She looked like one of those ladies who often came around in those days to collect money for one cause or another.

They had furious fights that made my grandfather cry and caused my father to go on weeks long drunks

“Hello, dear, is your daddy home?” she inquired sweetly. I said I’d call him. When he came to the door, she reached into her bag, threw the subpoena at him and, with bitchy saccharinity, said, “I’m sorry it had to be this way, Mr. Lynden.” I was miserable. I felt as though I had betrayed my father and my guilt lasted for weeks.

We children were not left without means to protect ourselves in socially troublesome situations. Our parents taught us a political perspective, some theory and history to back it up, and we were secure that ours was the right view of the world. With that we were armed with feelings of both intellectual and moral superiority. When my father’s appearance before the HUAC came, I was well prepared with my knowledge of the history of the Fifth Amendment.

At school, after my father’s unfriendly testimony made the front pages of the local newspapers, there were just a few unpleasant remarks from schoolmates. Only Miss Quinn, until then my favorite teacher, said, “Aren’t you embarrassed?” I was humiliated and enraged. My best friend was forbidden to come to my house anymore, but she lied and came anyway. Although these memories are fresh today, I know they are nothing compared to what other kids went through.

Julie Garfield believes the Blacklist killed her father. He was John Garfield, one of Hollywood’s top stars and money-makers for almost two decades until he suddenly found himself blacklisted. Unable to get work, he left Hollywood and returned with his wife and two young children to his native New York. He did find a few small stage roles, but he was deeply depressed. In a short time his marriage failed, and not long after, at the age of 39, he had a fatal heart attack. Julie, herself an actress, still grieves over the unfairness of his persecution. “My mother was a Communist. Everyone knew it. But Daddy wasn’t. They kept hounding him about her and he refused to talk about her. He refused to talk about anyone.”

Julie, now in her 40s, was only six-and-a half when her father died. Although she has almost no actual memory of him, she has a strong rush of emotions when she speaks of him and those years. Her well-trained and normally confident voice breaks into anguished, high-pitched, frantic repetitions. “I don’t know a lot of facts about this stuff,” she says, her face suddenly haggard and strained. “Whenever I do hear any facts about it, I have a tendency to forget the facts. It’s sort of a major blockage. I think it was 1951 when he died. Because he was blacklisted he was, in a way, heartbroken and it killed him.”

Suspicion of strangers is another part of the leftist legacy from the ’50s. “How do I know who you are?” demanded Josh Mostel, the actor-director son of the late Zero Mostel, who was also blacklisted. It was a question he repeated again and again during our interview. But no one was more hostilely suspicious than Janet Ades, a Bronx-reared lawyer and social worker who lives in New York’s Upper West Side. Then, surprisingly, moments later, she suddenly wanted to talk – that very afternoon.

More than anyone else I spoke to, Janet was devastated by her experience growing up in the left-wing movement. But it wasn’t just the government agents who made her life miserable. It was the Communist Party, and her parents whose loyalty to the Party was greater than it was to her. Today, she is fiercely antiCommunist and the deep wounds re-open easily.

Jokingly called “red-diaper babies” by our parents, we grew up outside the American mainstream

In a low, angry, monotone, she told of growing up in the Sholom Aleichem Houses, one of the three left-wing, mainly Jewish and mainly working class co-ops in the Bronx. As a child Janet wanted to please the father she adored, a lawyer-accountant and prominent Party functionary named Bernard Ades. So Janet joined the Labor Youth League (LYL) and became a hot-shot youth organizer in the Bronx. Like any intelligent student, the more Janet learned, the more she questioned. Finally, when she was 15 and a 10th grader at the Bronx High School of Science, she recalls, she asked one question too many. “I knew they had it in for me,” she recalls. She was called to the home of her LYL youth advisor, and told, “If I wanted to be a good Communist I would have to toe the line.” Rebelliously, she recalls, “I said I didn’t know if I wanted to be a good Communist.” And she was out.

When Janet got home, no one spoke to her. Her parents would no longer discuss political matters with her. At school, where all her friends were in the LYL, “nobody looked at me, nobody spoke to me, nobody telephoned, even my best friend would not call me.” On top of that, the FBI was always watching, listening in on the phone, talking to neighbors. Simultaneously, the rabidly anti-Communist columnists and radio personalities, Westbrook Pegler, Walter Winchell, and Victor Reisel, regularly broadcast Bernard Ades’ name as a “Communist in our midst.” Janet was an outcast everywhere.

Conrad Bromberg, a New York playwright, is the son of Joseph Bromberg, the acclaimed character actor who also died too young because of the Blacklist. Like Garfield, he too was a Hollywood prince, though not as big a star. Bromberg was blacklisted in 1948. He died in 1951 at the age of 47. Conrad, now in his early 60s, whose preoccupation with his father’s fate is expressed in his play, Dream of a Blacklisted Actor, that has had several off Broadway incarnations, recalls how the Blacklist worked in Hollywood. His play, he says, is the story of his father, but the main character is a composite of Garfield, Bromberg and Edward G. Robinson. “Robinson was vaguely left,” recalls Conrad who went to high school with his son Manny Robinson. “He signed petitions for this or that. I heard from my mother and her friends that he bought his way out of the Committee.” But Garfield was in a different situation. “Garfield was the first actor who ever started his own movie company and the big studio heads saw him as competition.” Those moguls were also loudly anti-Communist. Bromberg continues, “In my play I call him ‘Boxcar Johnnie, a gutter guy you can’t beat.’ He fought back. But, the Committee was on his tail right up to his death. That motherfucker Victor Reisel was always putting stuff in his column like, ‘Is it true that John Garfield gave money to the Stockholm Peace Appeal? John, who are your friends?’ The whole New York and Hollywood entertainment communities read that stuff.” It was impossible for Garfield to fight that.

There was also what Bromberg calls “this terrible contradiction of being Communists in Beverly Hills.” There was a rule among moneyed left wingers, he remembers: “Communists don’t invest in capitalism.” The Brombergs tried to follow it. “My parents were naive enough to try and act on it, and to get into terrible trouble with it. A lot of their friends who weren’t quite as honest got blacklisted and had no problems. They had made a fortune in investments and walked away cool. I remember a lot of conflict over that.” Unable to get work, Joseph Bromberg gradually went nearly broke.

One law that all of us left-wing kids lived by, and that I have lived by until now, is that you never, never discuss who is a Communist and who is not.

Consequently, it has been with considerable anxiety and guilt that I have written here that my uncle Archie, even though he died in 1990, and one aunt, never left the Communist party. Growing up, we were all taught that belief in Communism and Party membership is a Constitutionally protected right; that our system isn’t worth anything if it only protects people with safe views.

During the McCarthy years, anyone who “named names” was to us that lowest form of humanity, a fink. I still believe that. But right up to his death, Archie was a proud and outspoken Communist, and my aunt was too, though she was never a public figure. If Archie didn’t mind talking about it, why should I? So why have all these feelings come rushing back, and why doesn’t my nausea about writing this go away?

Like many kids from the left, I have no tolerance for the sustained political activism that was crucial in the lives of my generation’s parents. But its lessons live in me. In the broadest terms, it boils down to two basic principles. Josh Mostel elucidates one of them when he speaks of his father’s decision not to testify before HUAC. “See, my father was not a Communist Party member,” he says. “But he had to take the Fifth because he did not want to inform on anyone. For him being up there before the Committee was not even political. It was a human gesture. He just couldn’t do that to another person. I have always loved that about what he did.”

The other one is well said by Janet Ades, of all people, who, in spite of her bitterness, has found much of value in her left-wing background. “It is a respect for working people, for their needs, for what they suffer and what they have accomplished. They are people whom history usually doesn’t count, and yet large-scale unionization of the American working class is a major achievement. They do count. Egalitarianism is my heritage, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Nor would I. It’s a heritage to be proud of.

Portions of this article are adapted from one that appeared in New York Woman magazine, August 1988.