In the 1950s, the author's father was interrogated by the House Un-American Committee and blacklisted by his profession. Years later, too many Americans fail to grasp the moral of his story.
Screenwriter Frank Tarloff, 37, appears before a hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Los Angeles April 8, 1953 / AP Images
My father, Frank Tarloff, a Hollywood screenwriter, was blacklisted by the entertainment industry in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era. For those unfamiliar with the blacklist, here's a brief explanation of its workings: People in the industry who were named by others as having had Communist affiliations were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and interrogated in open hearings about their political beliefs. They were also required to identify others who held similar beliefs. Witnesses who cooperated were usually able to resume their careers. Witnesses who refused to cooperate found themselves instantly unemployable1; their names were listed in a variety of publications (Red Channels being the most famous), and they were thereupon treated as radioactive by talent agencies, producers, studios, and sponsors.
Despite the grim consequences, a large majority of the witnesses refused to cooperate. Frank, like many others in his position, testified to the committee that while he would answer any questions about his own beliefs, he would not throw former colleagues to the wolves in order to salvage his career. But a willingness to humiliate oneself in just that way was the actual point of the proceedings; indeed, some especially valuable witnesses were even covertly given the option of naming only those who had been named previously, thereby, in theory, doing no actual harm. It was a public display of submission the committee was after, not information.
It has often been noted that both the Senate and House investigating committees during this period blackened reputations with a reckless disregard for the truth, besmirching many who had never been Communists. This is certainly true. But it strikes me as much too narrow a criticism, implicitly conceding the right of those committees to investigate the private beliefs of American citizens and to penalize them if those beliefs were deemed erroneous. It accepts the basic mission, in other words, but assails the sloppiness of the execution. Harry Truman was more on the mark when he described the Un-American Activities Committee as "the most un-American thing in America." Nobody, after all, was being accused of treason, or of terrorism. People were being investigated and punished solely for what they thought.
Within a day of his testimony, my father was dropped by his agency, fired from his job (he was a staff writer on the then-popular situation comedy I Married Joan), and declared persona non grata in the only profession he had ever pursued. An account of what followed can wait for another time; for now, it's enough to say that he managed to scrape by, the situation slowly improved, and the first script to bear his name after his blacklisting, produced some 11 years later, won him an Academy Award.
Now, let's flash forward to some time in the mid-'90s. Frank was invited to appear on an LA radio show to talk about his experiences of the blacklist. By then, Joseph McCarthy, the movement he led, and the blacklist that resulted were all in total disrepute, and my father agreed to the interview with the reasonable expectation that he would be treated as a victim of a deplorable aberration in American history.
That isn't quite what happened. The interviewer began the dialogue by asking if my father would feel equal outrage had the blacklist targeted Nazis rather than Communists. Wrong-footed, Frank fumfered some sort of response. After the interview, both my parents emerged from the studio in high dudgeon. "How dare he?" was the gravamen of their scandalized indignation. And when they told me about the interview later that day, I made matters worse by suggesting the interviewer had posed a legitimate question. There was a distinct chill in the parental household for some time thereafter.
But it is a legitimate question. Unless one is prepared to defend Communism on its merits, or, alternatively, is merely defending one's comrades out of a kind of tribal loyalty2, then one is, I think, obliged to consider whether punishing people for their political beliefs is always wrong, or wrong only when it's one's own side that is being persecuted3.
Now, I concede there's one important distinction to be made here. Americans of my parents' generation joined the Communist Party out of genuine idealism, no matter how misplaced. With 25 percent unemployment, Jim Crow laws in operation in the South and de facto segregation common elsewhere, and fascism on the rise in Europe and effectively unopposed by the continent's democracies, Communism might have looked like a reasonable political recourse. Whereas it's hard to imagine anyone becoming a Nazi out of anything anyone would recognize as idealism.