Still Taking the Fifth
More than a decade ago, when I was already in my late thirties, I received a visit in California from an elderly woman whom I shall call Emily, the mother of my best childhood friend. She had come to confess her complicity in a crime committed long ago.
Like my own parents, Emily had been a member of the Communist party. Like my parents, too, she had been part of a colony of Jewish Communists who in the early 40’s had settled in a neighborhood of working-class Catholics in Queens, New York. People in this colony lived two lives. Outwardly they were middle-class: scrupulous in their respect for the mores of the community and unfailing in their obedience to its civil laws. Politically they identified themselves as “progressives,” espousing views that were superficially liberal and democratic. They represented themselves (and were perceived by others) as “socially conscious” and “idealistic,” and they were active in trade unions and civil-rights groups and in the “progressive wing” of the Democratic party.
In fact, however, Emily and my parents also inhabited another world as secret soldiers in the Third International founded by Lenin. In their eyes, a sixth of humanity had triumphantly entered an entirely new stage of history in Soviet Russia in 1917, and that achievement would soon be extended all over the globe by the actions of the loyal Communist vanguard which they had joined. The arena of liberal and progressive politics may have been the “address” by which they were known to outsiders, but their membership in this revolutionary army was the thing that really mattered to Emily and my parents and to all their political friends.
Indeed, in their own minds Emily and my parents were secret agents. On joining the Communist party, they had even been given secret names against the time when their true objective might require them to abandon the liberal facade and go “underground” in the revolutionary struggle. All their legitimate political activities were merely preparations or fronts for the tasks ahead, which they could discuss only with other secret agents like themselves. Their purpose in pursuing such legitimate activities was not to advance liberal or democratic values but to serve the interests of the Soviet Union, the place where the future had already begun to happen.
For those in the party, the revolutionary role was not the fantasy it seems in retrospect—a kitsch fantasy, at that—but something very real. The story Emily told me proves this. Emily had been a high-school teacher of foreign languages. Her only flirtation with life beyond the prudent bounds of the middle class was, in fact, her membership in the Communist party. But even her party life—despite its little Bolshevik rituals and conspiratorial overtones—was organized around quite unextraordinary activities: raising funds for volunteers during the Spanish Civil War, marching for civil rights, playing the part of a loyal cadre in the New York City Teachers Union (which the party controlled).
Then in 1940, Emily, who had just become a new mother, was singled out for a special mission whose purpose could not be revealed, even to her. Because it was the party that had made the request, any fear she felt at the prospect of danger only heightened her sense of honor at having been selected. She understood instinctively that the very unobtrusiveness and insignificance of her life made her suitable for the important task ahead. It was the party that spoke, but it was History that called.
Emily agreed to undertake the special mission. She left her infant son with her husband in New York, and flew to Mexico where she delivered a sealed envelope to a contact the party had designated. Then she flew back to New York and resumed her normal life. It was as simple as that—yet, as Emily soon discovered, she had become a small but decisive link in the chain by which Joseph Stalin reached out from Moscow to Coyoacßn, Mexico, to put an ice pick in the head of Leon Trotsky.
It seems to me now that one of the most disturbing elements in Emily’s story was that she had waited so long to tell it, and then only to me, privately, twenty years after Khrushchev’s speech acknowledging the crimes of Stalin (which was about the time that she and my parents left the Communist party). Neither she nor my parents would ever have thought to tell me such a story when as a young man I was starting on my own career in the Left. They certainly never told their stories publicly. And the reason is that, like thousands of others, they had left the party but could not leave the faith.
Al bernstein, the father of the journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, is one of those thousands. When approached by his son about a book the latter intended to write on “the witch-hunts leading up to the McCarthy era”—the book (or rather a variant of it) that has now been published under the title Loyalties1—Al Bernstein refused to be interviewed. He did not approve his son’s quest for the truth about his experience in the Communist party, or about the party’s role in American life:
“I think your focus on the party is cockeyed. You’re up the wrong tree. The right tree is what people did. . . .
“I worry about your premise. The right premise, the premise of a lot of recent books about the period, is that people were persecuted because of what they did, not because of their affiliation. Because once you admit affiliation you get into all that Stalinist crap. . . .”
Indeed, not to accept the “right” premise was, in Al Bernstein’s view, not only politically incorrect, it was also—as he explained to Carl—dangerous:
“The premise people eventually accepted after the McCarthy period was that the victims weren’t Communists. If you’re going to write a book that says McCarthy was right, that a lot of us were Communists, you’re going to write a dangerous book. . . . You’re going to prove McCarthy right, because all he was saying was that the system was loaded with Communists. And he was right.”
According to Al Bernstein, the fact that virtually all of McCarthy’s victims were Communists and that they lied about it by posing as liberals had nothing to do with their having been singled out for “oppression”:
“Was I ‘oppressed’ because I was a Communist? . . . No. It was incidental. I was ‘oppressed’ because I was affiliated with a left-wing union.”
Thus the father’s catechism.
In plain truth, however, Al Bernstein was a Communist. He was not merely “affiliated with” the United Public Workers of America; he was a leader of that union. Nor was the UPWA merely a “left-wing union”; it was a union under Communist-party control. And this meant that the UPWA was entirely different from a union not under Communist control.
That difference was manifested most dramatically in 1948, after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, when the Truman administration announced the launching of the Marshall Plan—an economic aid program to revive the war-shattered economies of Western Europe and to shore up its democracies against the threat of internal Communist subversion. Most American unions, left-wing and otherwise, supported the Marshall Plan, as a necessary defense measure for the West and as an economic boon for their members. Al Bernstein’s union did not. Along with all other Communist-controlled unions in the U.S., United Public Workers attacked the Marshall Plan as a “cold-war” plot and campaigned vigorously against it. And in the arena of national politics, Al Bernstein and his comrades bolted the Democratic party and helped organize the Progressive-party candidacy of Henry Wallace in the hope of unseating Truman and ending his program of resistance to Soviet expansion.
It was because of this campaign to support the Soviet offensive in Eastern Europe that Al Bernstein’s union (like other Communist-controlled unions) was expelled from the CIO—not by McCarthy or by Truman and his Loyalty Board, but by labor leaders like Philip Murray and Walter Reuther, democratic socialists in whose eyes the Stalinists had betrayed the unions under their control to the interests of the Soviet Union. Thus Philip Murray (praised in passing by Carl Bernstein himself in Loyalties for his principled opposition to the Loyalty Boards) told the CIO convention in 1948 that the Communists “have subverted every decent movement into which they have infiltrated themselves in the course of their unholy career.”
Yet today, more than three decades after Senator McCarthy’s death, Al Bernstein is still refusing to countenance any inquiry, however innocent, into his commitments and beliefs, still hiding his Communist principles behind a liberal facade. And he is doing this not only as far as the world at large is concerned but to his own, rather pathetically inquisitive son. To be called a witch-hunter by your father while only trying, however ineffectually, to sort out the oedipal tangle must be a daunting experience. So daunting, in the event, that Carl ends by withdrawing from the struggle altogether: “It is my father for whom I write, whose judgment I most respect, whose approval I still seek.”
The sheer desperation of Carl Bernstein’s filial hunger perhaps helps to explain the deficiencies of this book. Having started out to write about “the witch-hunts leading up to the McCarthy era,” and having failed after more than ten years to execute his original plan, Carl Bernstein finally produced a sketchy little memoir that neither provides a vivid portrait of the Communist milieu in which he grew up nor illuminates the general issue he is supposedly trying to explore. For while at the outset Carl manfully resists his father’s “premise,” by the concluding chapters of Loyalties he has capitulated to it. Al Bernstein’s Communist-party loyalties, Carl finally avows, did not matter, either to him or to those who pursued him; he and all the other agents of the Communist cause were targeted solely for their activities in behalf of trade unionism and civil rights; and the internal-security program of the Truman administration, which supposedly was aimed at Communists, “really was a war against liberals.”
Yet not even this capitulation has satisfied some of Bernstein’s critics on the Left, who have rapped his literary knuckles for not going far enough in justifying his parent’s politics. As Martin Duberman complains in the Washington Post’s Book World:
In his dedication, Carl Bernstein asserts that he is “proud of the choices” his parents made. But he never provides enough argued detail about what went into those choices to allow most Americans to join him—as surely they should—in his approbation.
But should they? To do so would mean accepting two tenets of faith. The first is that Communists were all peace-loving, civil-rights activists and American patriots. Yet there is a vast literature on American Communism (of which Bernstein is utterly innocent) that refutes this idea a thousand times over, as does the historical experience and testimony of scores of anti-Communist leftists like Philip Murray and Walter Reuther.
Not only were Communists not great believers in civil liberties, they were notorious masters of the political blacklist in all the organizations they managed to dominate. It was partly for this reason that when the loyalty boards and congressional committees finally did go to work in the late 40’s, they found many people—many liberals—waiting to settle scores with the Communists. These were people whose own organizations had been infiltrated and manipulated and subverted for hidden agendas, and who had personally been slandered, libeled, and otherwise punished for opposing the party line.
The second tenet Duberman wants everyone to accept is that Communists were the innocent victims of American fascism. On this point, Duberman is decidedly unfair to Carl Bernstein, who has the litany down pat:
“It was a reign of terror.”
I have never heard my father talk like that, have never known him to reach for a cliché. But this was no cliché.
True, the “reign of terror” is not a cliché; it is a lie. My own mother, for example, rather than answer questions about her membership in the party, elected to take an early “disability” retirement from the New York City school system. With the help of party friends and liberal sympathizers she immediately went on to other, more lucrative careers. Carl Bernstein’s father, having been a party lawyer, became a small-time businessman, and in supposedly terrorized America, he was still able to make use of his personal connections to get his son a job as a reporter at the Washington Star.
Many years later, to that same son, who went on to achieve fame and fortune for his role in toppling a President of the United States, Al Bernstein declares: “If you’re going to write a book that says McCarthy was right, that a lot of us were Communists, you’re going to write a dangerous book.” Why dangerous? Is not McCarthy himself the most unresurrectable political corpse of the McCarthy era, and does not Al Bernstein know this? Of course he does. Al Bernstein means that such a book would be dangerous not because it might bring persecution, but because telling the truth might finally penetrate the veil still protecting lives that were spent in service to totalitarianism:
“Look,” he snapped, “you’ve read Lillian Hellman’s book [Scoundrel Time]. She skirts these questions [about Communist party membership] very neatly. She’s too sharp to leave herself open to that kind of embarrassment.”
As always, Al Bernstein reveals a sharper judgment than that of his son. The danger is not that of a sham terror but of embarrassment, embarrassment over a moral and political guilt that is real. Once Carl Bernstein decided that he had to spare his father that embarrassment, he lost any chance he might have had to write a decent book and instead doomed himself to producing a craven and incoherent contribution to one of the most insidious myths of our time.
1 Simon & Schuster, 262 pp., $18.95.