My earliest memories date back to what is now called the McCarthy Era,
though I didnt pay any attention to politics while it was going on. I dont
even remember noticing McCarthys death forty years ago, when I
was eleven. I do remember my mother despising Richard Nixon for
having said that Helen Gahagan Douglas was soft on Communism. My secret reaction was to wonder whether Mrs. Douglas was soft on
Communism, but I didnt dare ask.
In those days I had a single, simple idea
of treason. It meant consciously betraying someone you owed loyalty to,
especially your country. The spy, the turncoat, the foreign agent
Benedict Arnold was the model traitor, as I learned in school. Hed just
plain lied about which side he was on. That was what I understood as
the essence of treason.
Later Id add the Rosenbergs and
Alger Hiss to the list, as well as anyone who belonged to the Communist
Party. Nobody I knew doubted that Communism was just plain evil. If
they thought otherwise, I never had an inkling of it. Communism and
treason were synonyms.
I couldnt imagine why anyone
would commit treason or become a Communist. It didnt even occur
to me to ask. The world was full of odd things and people: the giraffe, the
platypus, the skunk, and the traitor. They were all part of the variety of
creation, and they didnt seem to me to call for an explanation.
As I got older, I met more liberals, and by
the Sixties, which began during my teens, liberalism was even fashionable.
For a while I considered myself a liberal, though it went without saying that
that didnt imply any sympathy with Communism. Being liberal
meant being anti-Communist. So I thought.
But by then more and more liberals, for
some reason, spoke of anti-Communism with derision. I couldnt
understand this. It drove me nuts. They ridiculed anti-Communism
without explaining why, and without being willing to commit themselves
about Communism. They regarded McCarthyism as a terrible thing, but not
Communism. It was worse than that. They implied that it was a mortal sin
to call someone a Communist, but not such a serious sin to be a Communist.
In fact their tone began to suggest that Communism was a sign of idealism, and that the real victims of McCarthyism
werent the innocent liberals who were falsely accused of being
Communists, but the actual Communists who had been identified as such.
To me that meant that McCarthy was
essentially right. And probably Nixon too.
I never did meet many real Communists.
As far as I know, none Im sure Id have remembered!
But I did meet countless liberals.
I dont think Id have really
minded an out-and-out Communist who admitted being one. But the
liberals who equivocated about it, jeering at anti-Communism while
never declaring themselves, affecting a superior irony to the most basic
moral challenge of modern politics them I despised.
Actually, I did see a flesh-and-blood
Communist once. One evening in the early Eighties, when I lived in
New Jersey, I was dining with my three kids in a popular diner on Nassau
Street across from Princeton University. A few tables away I noticed a
familiar face, that of a man sitting with a couple of other men. Where had
I seen him before?
Suddenly I remembered! It was Gus Hall,
head of the American Communist Party! He was speaking at Princeton
that night! There were posters all over town, and Id nearly forgotten.
I had to tell my kids. Id raised them,
of course, to understand that Communism was evil. But there was one
problem. I was always pulling their little legs. By then they were used to
my tall tales. If I even cracked a smile while I told them we were sitting
near the top Communist in the United States, theyd think it was
another of my jokes! After all, if he was a real Communist, it
wouldnt be a laughing matter.
So it was absolutely imperative to tell them
with a straight face. In a low voice I said: Kids, dont look now,
but that man over there is the head of the Communist Party in this country.
All three of them gave me a searching look.
Was this a gag? The top Communist in the whole United States? The
skepticism on their faces was too much for me. It destroyed my composure. I
started giggling. Oh, sure, Dad! The harder I laughed, the surer
they were that I was kidding again. I was the Dad Who Cried Wolf.
I finally stopped laughing and explained that
the only reason Id laughed was that I knew they wouldnt believe
me. I kept my voice down so as not to offend Mr. Hall, even if he was still
defending Stalins good name after all those years. Finally they were
willing to give me a chance to prove my case. So when we left the diner I
showed them the posters. It was tough going, but I eventually succeeded in
proving to their satisfaction that Gus Hall was a Communist. I began to
understand what Joe McCarthy had gone through.
That night I even went to hear Hall speak.
He drew an audience of about a hundred who fitted comfortably into a large
classroom. The Princeton kids asked him tough questions and jeered at some
of his answers, such as A lot of the things Stalin did were
necessary. I had to admire the nerve it took to say that. But for the
most part, he was rather disappointing. Most of his talk sounded less like
Lenin than like an op-ed piece in the New York Times. At the
end of the evening the students gave him a thundrous ovation.
Anyway, that was my closest encounter
with an actual Communist.
(Continued on page 2)
*This lecture was originally titled
Two Types of Treason.
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