In April of 1949 Life Magazine, one of the most influential media instruments of the time, ran a two page spread featuring fifty passport sized photographs – Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Aaron Copland, Langston Hughes, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Albert Einstein, Charles Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marlon Brando, Henry Wallace – 50 people, all accused of “toying with Communism.” It’s an astounding list! They represent the majority of America’s intellectual elite … scientists, clergymen, authors, classical musicians, congressmen, playwrights, labor leaders. Many of them were heroes to my parents and the very authors I was reading in school.
Life Magazine later published an enthusiastic picture story about a high school student in Orange County who secretly taped one of his teachers making anti-American remarks and sent them into the FBI. A text-book called Exploring American History, co authored by a Yale historian, told students, “The FBI urges Americans to report directly to its offices any suspicions they may have about Communist activity on the part of their fellow Americans. … When Americans handle their suspicions in this way, rather than by gossip and publicity, they are acting in line with American traditions.”
In 1950 the Republican Election Committee authorized Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy to give a virulent anti-communist speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. Enemies from Within, he called it, and attacked the intellectual elite that supported the New Deal. “The bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been worst … In my opinion the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.” Most dangerous of all was Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who was that “pompous diplomat in striped pants, with the phony British accent.”
My parents recognized the appeal to a mean-spirited, “known-nothing,” anti-intellectual streak in the
American character. “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” my father quoted Samuel Johnson. But events reinforced American fears. On June 25th, 1950, North Korean troops crossed the border into South Korea and Truman declared war. The Soviet Union announced the development of its own atomic bomb. Americans were persuaded that Communist spies must have given them the secret. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1951 for doing just that. My parents did not doubt Julius’ guilt, but they doubted Ethel was involved and felt bad for the two children. (With the release of previously secret documents in July of 2015, it turned out they were probably right; Ethel was not involved.)
Playwright Arthur Miller commented in 1996 that the early 1950s are “an America almost nobody I know seems to remember clearly.” It is difficult to recall how dark those times were. Miller continues, “I remember those years … but I have lost the dead weight of the fear I had then. Fear doesn’t travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth.” The truth, most people believed that those accused of communist affiliations “must have done something.”
If you believed in labor movements, workers rights, retirement benefits, educational opportunities, equality for women and minorities, world peace, a universal health care system, you kept quiet. If you acknowledged too many of these goals, or had ever joined a movement that fought for too many of them, you were a communist dupe. You’d lose your job and be ostracized by friends and acquaintances.
Former Nazis were rehabilitated and praised as Western cultural icons in the fight against communism. German conductors Kurt Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan became famous after the war despite their Nazi Party membership. Von Karajan had opened every concert during the Nazi era with the Horst Wessel song. Elizabeth Swartzkopf, a famous soprano, gave concerts for the Waffen SS on the Eastern front and starred in Goebbels propaganda
films. Verner von Braun, a Nazi scientist who used slave labor to manufacture V-2 rockets that attacked London, was put in charge of our missile program.
The Russians, who had been our allies in the war, were now our enemies and the Japanese and Germans were our allies. Playwright Arthur Miller later commented in his memoir Timebends: A Life “this wrenching shift, this ripping off of Good and Evil labels from one nation to another, had done something to wither the very notion of a world even theoretically moral. If last month’s friend could so quickly become this month’s enemy, what depth of reality could good and evil have?”