My Father Was a Communist

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.

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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.

In addition, my parents' and their friends' notion of what Communism actually consisted of was not especially highly evolved. When we were teenagers, my great friend Zachary Leader asked my father if he had ever read Das Kapital. Frank replied, "Are you kidding? No one could read that shit. We invented our own Communism." The Communism they invented was a system where everything was fair, everyone was nice to everyone else, and nobody suffered deprivation. That it contradicted human nature, ignored history, and defied the laws of economics were considerations they chose to ignore. They meant well.

But good intentions can excuse only so much. By 1938, it took a rather willful blindness to deny that the Soviet Union was perpetrating barbarities on a scale that rivaled Hitler's Germany. And it took a comparable refusal to face facts to fail to notice that, far from being independent and home-grown, the American Communist Party was taking its orders directly from Moscow. (On the other hand, by 1941, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, and for the duration of the war, discussion of our ally's failings tended to be muted, even in the conservative press.)

Still, it wasn't residual loyalty to the party that led Frank to refuse to cooperate with his Congressional interrogators. He had left it years before. His own politics, by that time, were far more mainstream. He may have voted for Henry Wallace in 1948, but by 1952 he was a Stevenson Democrat. He found it hard emotionally to repudiate everything he had once supported, but as a practical matter, it no longer had any relevance to him, and his disgust and disenchantment with the Soviet Union after learning about Khruschev's speech to the 20th Party Congress was close to absolute.

But those were his decisions and his intellectual process, and it was not for an organ of the government to demand an accounting or to determine their acceptability. His politics had no direct bearing on the nature of his writing4, and certainly not on his right to work. And perhaps most importantly, whatever position he had privately arrived at, he didn't feel he had the right to expose other people to save himself. They had their own decisions to make, and their own intellectual process to go through, and they certainly had the right to arrive at conclusions different from his own.

George Orwell famously wrote that freedom is the right to say two plus two make four. But, at the risk of committing lese-majeste, I have to say I find that definition much too restrictive. If the 20th century taught us anything, it's that simple political equations aren't always so simple. What conventional wisdom regards as five one year may start looking like four the next. Freedom, if it's real freedom, has to grant the right to say two plus two make five.

1An interesting sidelight: The earliest uncooperative witnesses invoked their First Amendment right to free speech as the basis for their non-cooperation, and subsequently were convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to prison. Later witnesses who, on the advice of counsel, relied on their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, escaped criminal prosecution, although they still sacrificed their careers. Of course, to any rational person, this distinction makes no sense: Since witnesses were not being accused of a crime, self-incrimination should have been an irrelevant consideration, whereas they had been exercising their right to free speech. But such were the times, and such are the vagaries of the justice system.

2In the spirit of Mel Brooks' 2,000 year old man, who, recalling history's very first national anthem, sang, "Let them all go to hell/Except Cave 76!"

3One of the ironies of the incident is that, had my father not been startled and offended by this line of questioning, he would have been able to answer without difficulty. Some ten years earlier, a group of Neo-Nazis had wanted to stage a march in Skokie, Illinois. They were denied a permit, and the ACLU sued the city on their behalf. Many liberals cancelled their membership in the organization as a result, but Frank doubled his contribution. He genuinely believed in freedom of speech, and not only for those with whom he agreed.

4The notion that a writer or director could somehow smuggle Communist propaganda into a TV show or film is one of the laughably idiotic justifications for the blacklist current at the time. Can anyone cite a single example? In fact, though, there is one, and only one, that I know of: Ring Lardner, Jr., who moved to England after being blacklisted, wrote the BBC children's show The Adventures of Robin Hood, and later claimed that he put Trotskyite doctrine into the mouths of the Merry Men.