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In 1953 the countryside seen from a train window between Washington and New York was still chiefly pastoral. But in March the bare branches of the trees, the dark brown of the fields, the black of the asphalt roads, and the cold gray of the sky, deepened by early nightfall, corresponded to the mood of the nation: gloomy and fearful.
I felt the same way. I should have been elated. I had gone to Washington in response to a subpoena from Sen. Joe McCarthy and had been determined to do as much as any single person could to destroy him. Now, convinced that I had damaged the senator severely, I was scared. I was sure he knew that he had lost, and badly. This was borne out by a personal attack on me in his newspaper column five weeks later.
I had had no doubt before being called, and even less after confronting him personally on consecutive days, that his was truly a fascist mentality. And fascists use physical violence to dispose of their opponents. He was immensely powerful, having brought the State Department to its knees and having already attacked the former head of the country’s armed forces, Gen. Marshall. Prime Minister Clement Atlee of England said to Parliament that year that he sometimes wondered whether it was Gen. Eisenhower or Joe McCarthy who was president of the United States.
Back in New York that evening, I learned that the most sensational parts of my attack on him had been carried on national TV news, in addition to the complete live coverage during the day. Later, NBC pre-empted its very popular radio show, “Music At Midnight,” to rebroadcast forty-five minutes of my testimony. The next day words of mine were front-page news in the New York Times, which wrote: “Mr. McCarthy reddened at times.” Time Magazine wrote: “The week’s most agitated performance came from a blazing-eyed New York advertising copywriter.” It is a mark of the times that Time chose to identify me not as a scholar subpoenaed because a book of his was in the State Department’s Overseas Libraries, the target of McCarthy’s investigation, but by the work to which I had to turn for a livelihood after I was blacklisted.
I went into work the day after the hearing, and my employer at a Madison Avenue advertising agency told me to stay home for a few weeks, and that my salary would continue. When I got home, a telegram had arrived from a fellow-employee with whom I had never had any association except at work. It read: “Dear Bill. The following is my telephone number Plaza 35198. The following is my address 153 East 51st St. If I can be of any service to you please call. Anna Santoro.”
I began receiving letters from total strangers who had gotten my address from media reports as well as from acquaintances. Most reflected enthusiasm that someone had finally taken McCarthy down. A few were antagonistic. One, signed by a woman with a Ukrainian name in Chicago, was sent to me care of the McCarthy Committee, which dutifully forwarded it. It contained a very interesting sentence: “You can see there is a temptation to get violent with your type of people.” It was not a stupid letter, and had some very pertinent things to say about lack of civil liberties in the Soviet Union, the country my sinful book had dealt with.
A man in Richmond, Indiana hoped I wouldn’t lose my job, and wanted to write my employer. I provided the firm’s address. He did write and send me a carbon copy. In a large, bold, sweeping, almost 19th-century hand, he made a particularly fine statement about the nature of the fight against McCarthyism. He wrote that I had defended my: “basic American privilege of writing books and putting into them what he feels is the objective truth, as he sees it. To me this attitude (freedom to think and speak), plus the bravery and courage to defend it, constitutes the true American way of life…that the authors of our Constitution and Bill of Rights envisioned.” The man also hoped that my “way of making a living would not suffer.”
A lot of good it did me. My employer canvassed all his clients — Parke-Davis, then the major drug manufacturer, Parkside Laboratories, Heublein, which was nonmusical — and asked whether I should be fired. None supported doing that, but neither did they urge my retention. They wanted no problems with McCarthy. Who knows what he might investigate next? After my month’s paid leave, I was fired and paid another month’s salary as severance pay, although I had been there only a year. Conscience money.
My main satisfaction lies in what I know I did for people in what Lillian Hellman dubbed “the scoundrel time.” From Shreveport, Louisiana, a Jack Hooper wrote me: “Any time that I become depressed, due to the operations of the Nazi Fascist McCarthy Committee, I play your record and truly get a ‘lift’.” I had made an LP from an excellent wire recording a friend had made from the NBC rebroadcast. Ordinary citizens did not yet possess tape recorders.
Those who heard the proceedings or read the news stories had no way of knowing what went on in my heart and mind in preparing for it. When I was handed the subpoena by a process server who rang my doorbell at about noon on a Saturday, I was packing an overnight bag in preparation for a lecture that evening at a synagogue in New Haven. I had been invited to speak by the rabbi who married Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. The subpoena demanded that I appear on Monday at 2 p.m. How was I to find a lawyer in Washington from New York City on a Saturday afternoon? I was lucky. I had a lawyer uncle who knew the right man in Washington.
I weighed the alternatives: should I go to New Haven to carry out my speaking engagement? The purpose of such subpoenas was to silence the people to whom they were served. I went to New Haven, spoke, came home, and spent Sunday making notes. With a wife and three young children, six, eight, and thirteen, I wanted to avoid a contempt citation and jail sentence. Every additional person who went to jail added to the atmosphere of fear of McCarthy himself and McCarthyism practices. So did everyone who stayed out of jail by caving in. I wanted to discredit McCarthy and yet avoid imprisonment.
I knew that the hearing would be televised. I was perfectly aware and, from his behavior, so was he, that this was theater. My job was to be the dignified scholar, which I was, and prosecutor when I got a chance. The senator knew that people were very dubious about his methods, and wanted to look and sound judicial.
I feared that my lawyer’s office would be bugged, because he had represented many “unfriendly witnesses,” as we were called. Therefore I wrote out my questions in clear longhand and handed them to him instead of stating them out loud. I asked whether I could query McCarthy about the relative size of his savings and salary, which I did in the public hearing, to good effect. My list of possible challenges to him continued: Why did you defend Nazis who murdered U.S. prisoners of war? Why do you want war with China?
I could not refuse to answer a question if it flowed logically from my own answer to a previous question. This would be a chess game. I had to avoid checkmate — being put in a position where I would have to name other individuals or go to jail for refusing to do so.
I was called as one of the witnesses on the first day of an investigation into how books by bad people like me and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, who was subpoenaed to appear on the same day, found their way into U.S. Embassy Information Office libraries overseas. DuBois’ attorney, former Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who had cast the sole vote against the Korean War, called McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, beforehand and asked: “Do you really want the whole Negro population down on the neck of the committee?” DuBois’ subpoena was withdrawn.
My barely teenage daughter and her boyfriend of the same age had their own personal FBI tail, presumably on the assumption that they might lead them to the boy’s father, whom the Communist Party had sent underground when it was made illegal by the McCarran and Smith acts and trials of its national and state leaders. This terror had serious effects upon Phyllis and Keith, her husband-to-be, all their lives.
Prior to my McCarthy hearing, a telephone caller identified himself as an FBI agent and asked me to come down to see them. I said no. They made further attempts to see me, at home. The fright it caused in our children was expressed in irrational fears for years to come, requiring a period of hospitalization for one of them.
I take great pleasure in the fact that I have written this piece at the request of my daughter. She wants no repetition of the McCarthy era under the Patriot Act and Homeland Security today.
The title of my autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER (Introduction by Howard Zinn), is based on my demolition of Sen. Joe McCarthy and later of HUAC in hearings of 1953 and 1960. It is a history of how the American people fought to defend and expand its rights since the 1920s (I’m 85) employing the form of the life of a 30s AND 60s activist, one who was involved in most serious movements: student, labor, 45 years of efforts to prevent war with the USSR and Cuba, civil rights South and North, women’s liberation [my late wife appears on 50 pages], 37 years on Pacifica Radio [where I reinvented talk radio, of whose previous existence I had been unaware], civil liberties, and opposition to anti-Semitism and to Zionism. You may hear/see my testimony before the three different McCarthy-Cold-War-Era witch-hunting committees [used in six films and a play]) on my website, I am the author of five books in my academic field, have taught at UC Berkeley, and earlier held a postdoctoral fellowship, by invitation, at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. The book may be ordered through all normal sources. For an autographed copy, send me $24 at 4466 View Pl.,#106, Oakland, CA. 94611
WILLIAM MANDEL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org