Our America: Lessons from the McCarthy Era


Late in the afternoon of January 13, 1954, less than a year after my marriage to Anne Halley, with a two-month-old son at home in our apartment, I was sitting in my half of an office in Folwell Hall, a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota, when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, an African American named Carl Rowen who was to go on to renown and a modicum of fame in later years. He informed me that I had been “named” as a Communist by a woman from Minneapolis—a former Communist at twenty-three, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee. Did I have anything to say? Well it didn’t seem wise to let on that I’d just felt a certain lurch in my stomach. I bade the reporter goodbye and hurried home to Anne to tell her the news.

The next day the story occupied the lead on the front page of the Star-Tribune. The “witness” had named twenty-seven people from the city. Only two were from the University, Eugene Bluestein and myself, both friends, both T.A.’s—Gene in American Studies, I in English. The story was careful to point out that I was editor of what they called “a student publication,” Faulkner Studies. That journal, actually somewhat longer and more ambitious than a newsletter, was later carefully spelled out, F-A-U-L-K-N-E-R. As it happened the other twenty-five named were ordinary folk who either lost or were threatened with loss of their jobs. Gene and I were luckier—though the months that followed were fraught with tension, fear of careers lost, or at least under a cloud, and many lessons: about friendships weakened and strengthened, the power of truth, and the importance of character rather than ideology.

It is difficult to communicate how the charge of being a Communist cast one as almost subhuman. In the era of fear of Soviet espionage and nuclear power, the fate of the Rosenbergs and the Hollywood purges of suspected Reds, the costly Korean War just ended, it was tantamount almost to a death sentence, as far as one’s life in America and as an American.

The most important strengthening of my resolve to see this through was the unfailing loyalty and belief in my innocence by my wife Anne, who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany, because her father had been guilty according to the regime of some egregious evil, because he was a Jew. She knew he was guilty of nothing and was a very good man. She honored me by feeling and saying the same to me. And then there were the arduous months to come.

he first night the story broke, after a nasty and threatening anonymous phone call, we left our apartment to stay with a friend, Norman Sherman (in later years he became Hubert Humphrey’s press officer) and his wife Jane, an admirer and friend of Anne’s who named her first daughter after her. There I received another phone call, from a friend, David Herreshov, a diehard member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, who had tried vainly to recruit me, but who had introduced me to valuable accounts of Stalinist atrocities. David’s advice that night: “You have nothing to lose but your chains, join us!” My reply: “David, you are a such a Jeremiah, and look what happened to him—he got thrown down a well!” I was also approached by a friend, another grad student, in the English department, who had tried to recruit me into the Communist Party, which I strongly refused to do. I told him to please keep his comrades from getting out in front for my defense, which would only cause a backlash. They held to that.

But then there was the University and its officials to deal with. My first visit almost immediately was to the Chairman of the department,  a gentleman and scholar named Ted Hornsberger. When I told him what was in the paper that previous day, he reached in his desk nervously for a cigarette. Then he was amazingly supportive. First of all, he said his daughter knew the woman, her classmate, who had given testimony in Washington, and she was known to be a pathological liar. Wow—that was reassuring. Then I said I thought I might consult a well-known civil libertarian in the Law School. Mr. Hornberger paused and said he didn’t think that was a good idea. That lawyer might win the case, but you might lose your job. Again, wow—I mentally gave the Chairman an A.

Then I was invited to the Dean’s office, which was a most interesting experience. Again I was in the presence of someone with character, though our conversation took some interesting turns. He asked me if I was or had ever been a Communist. I said no. If I had been and had left the Party, he would defend me. I responded, “How ironic!” I was not going to lie, then or thereafter, wherever the situation led—I never was a member. Then the heartbreaking clincher: he had supported Frank Oppenheimer, J. Robert’s brother, also a physicist, a few years earlier when Frank, then at Minnesota as a physics professor, was accused of and denied having been a Communist. But the night before he was going to Washington to be queried by the Senate Committee, he came to this Dean and said he had lied, he had been a member of the Party. I felt bad for the betrayal of this honorable man’s trust. Nevertheless, I could not lie to get out of the mess that was brewing for me.

That turned out to be not so bad, but very tense over several months. What happened was that the University president decided to appoint an all-star committee to investigate the case of these two T.A.’s. Unprecedented. When I wrote to Henry Nash Smith, then at Berkeley (who had been one of the best professors I ever had, and for whom Anne had been a T.A.), he replied, You were lucky they didn’t fire you out of hand! He knew what he was talking about—having been fired in his early teaching days at S.M.U. for teaching Dos Passos’s The Big Money. His unsentimental response also stiffened my spine and helped me be realistic about what was to happen. I told Anne not to worry, if I lost the job—and putative career—we would not go hungry: we could both continue writing, go to Mexico or England, or I could drive a truck or taxi to support us! Thank goodness it never came to that.

The committee that was to investigate us was led by the Chair of the Chemistry Department, a benign man who proudly wore an American Legion pin on his lapel, the Dean of the Law School, a senior member of the Political Science Department (no friend to Reds) and one or two others. They were called into being, I believe, for two reasons. One was that, a year or two earlier, a popular African American professor of philosophy had been denied tenure, which caused a massive student protest led by a Student Action Committee (chair of which was the aforementioned Sherman), where a thousand or more students turned out—in what had seemed to be quiescent 1950s! Secondly, Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin was continuing his rampages and was rumored to be coming in the Spring to investigate the situation in Minnesota. People were intensely worried about that, so the committee was to take its time and deliberate carefully, perhaps defusing any student protests. I was a popular teacher; a few weeks before I was “named” the student newspaper had a big picture of me on the front page teaching a class. After the story broke in the news, I walked into my silent class and simply wrote on the blackboard “I am not.” And the class proceeded harmoniously, and somewhat relieved, I believe.

I had asked to have an attorney with me during the weeks or months the hearings were to take place. I had a friend, Paul Skjervold, a law student, not yet an attorney, at my side, who never said a word during all the proceedings and whom I don’t believe I consulted with at any point. It was reassuring nevertheless, and an important instance in which character, not ideology, was important. Paul was a native Minnesotan Norwegian, much interested in Scandinavian literature as well as the law. He had married a former roommate of Anne’s and we knew and liked each other.

The situation dragged on—thankfully, because ultimately Senator McCarthy ran afoul of the Committee investigating him, especially where he overreached himself and went after the U.S. Army and not just the State Department. So there we were in the Spring of 1954, the committee finished its work and report; both Gene and I innocent. The Dean of the Law School was especially good. He got my dossier from the Minnesota Bureau of Investigation, and of ten items they had listed against me, nine were easily demonstrated to be false (e.g., a story in the student newspaper reporting on my activities on behalf of the NAACP had me saying the exact opposite of what was charged).

After my clearance I had a lot of pent-up energy and hope and soon passed my German language exam and then my Doctoral orals with the highest ratings by my committee. That got me promoted to a full-time regular faculty position that I held for two years, when I took a job at Boston University in 1956. I completed my Ph.D in 1958 and moved on, happily, to UMass in Amherst.

The thing that impressed me most throughout was how many good people, many of whom I hardly knew, and who were not primarily ideological, came to my support, whereas many people on the more or less left with whom I had been friendly took to the hills, more or less, fearfully hiding out. Character matters, more than ideology. Amen.

McCarthy fell, and I was lucky, but in a  real sense McCarthyism won. What followed was the disappearance of any viable American Left, the disempowering of Labor and its unions, increased corporatism, and war after war.

There are, of course, parallels to much of this today with the ascendancy of Donald Trump. The sense of dread, despair almost, and fear of what is to become of the nation—racism, bigotry, authoritarianism—is widespread. On the other hand, there is the spontaneous outpouring of opposition—demonstrations by millions of people led by women, including many women of color, and many others engaged in a variety of important causes willing to put their bodies and beliefs on the line to challenge the assaults on what has been best about our country. We shall outlast Trump!



This is a slightly altered version of a piece originally posted at the Mass Review blog. Thanks to MR for allowing us to repost here.