"Are you now or were you ever a communist?"
(some of the most frightening words to be uttered in the decade of the fifties)
We have come far since the ‘50s and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s power orgy/commie hunt—but what if.
The so-called sanguine years, “Happy Days”, of the fifties were no such thing for the intelligentsia, the free thinkers, and the artists of the day, especially the writers. Freedom of speech was up for grabs, put in peril by a few power hungry demagogues in the name of national security. Looking back now, one might say it was frightening as hell—and ultimately we were all threatened. In that atmosphere of no “fuck” speak, poodle skirts and flat top haircuts, conformity was almost a religion. The news media and publishers of the day (also abjectly fearful) told us what was right and virtuous. Thus, for a while we of the middle class stayed in lock step and went trippingly down the yellow brick road. But those who truly knew what was taking place were cowered into acting exactly as the proletariat in a communist country: scared to speak or act differently from the power’s imposition. Ironic, is it not? Sound familiar, Dixie Chicks?
Virtually everyone today has lips pursed, ready to wax political with an opinion no matter how controversial or insipid. But that was not the case in the late ‘40s through the mid ‘50s. Many subjects, of course, were taboo: explicit hetero-sex, homosexuality, drugs, civil rights, interracial marriage, bad stuff ad nauseam, but none was so punitive causal as that smacking of pro-communism. When it came to communism, (except to rail against it) mouths snapped shut, tighter than a working girl’s "asset" at an Elmer Gantry revival. For there was a piper to pay: The House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Committee On Government Operations, for which Senator Joseph McCarthy was Grand Dragoon.
One could literally lose one’s physical freedom during those days or one's life. (Some committed suicide. Some drank themselves to death. Many simply left the country, the "land of the free".) “The Hollywood Ten”, the more celebrated of the many, went to prison for refusing to be complicit in trampling a freedom supposedly guaranteed by the first amendment, (Brave souls were they who refused to answer the committee’s questions and were subsequently charged with contempt of congress). And hundreds were blacklisted from earning a living because they would not “rat out’ their friends, friends who would be dragged before the committee and be put on the rack the same as he or she had been strung and plucked.
Many celebrities talked the talk back then, but when the nut— or the tit, as the case may be— was in the vise, they just could not bring themselves to defy the committee. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Huston, my very favorite actors, and director, were among those who could not walk the walk. They had come to Washington to support the Hollywood Ten, but left without lending that support as soon as they found out that they could be blacklisted. What a shame; they might have made the difference.
Could those dark days from the ‘50s return riding the back of the terrorist threat? Of course, they could. We’ve already taken steps in that direction. All that is needed is another major terrorist attack, and another Joseph McCarthy will come crawling out of that congressional slop jar to feed.
Joseph McCarthy Documentary
Next installment: The Communist Village, Yellow Springs, Ohio, the place where I was born, the home of Antioch College, where Rod Serling and Correta Scott King were educated. It's also the home of funnyman Dave Chappelle. Can you dig it, daddio?
The communist Village
For the most part, the beginning of the 1950s brought more of the same from the optimistic post-war ‘40s, which was, in essence, the societal piquancy of gentilesse, no matter its banal conformity and certain pseudo tincture to the teens born before the war, teens who hungered for individual purpose and identity. Of course, the advent of television with its idyllic, perfect families and their inane solutions to problems-minute only fueled the fire. The shows simply confirmed a boring life, seen as another generation’s lifestyle sham. Wasn’t there something to call their own?
“Your Hit Parade” was the top television musical show, sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes, featuring the slow, syrupy ballads of Snooky Lanson and Gisele MacKenzie. And the top drama was “Big Town”, with its characters Steve Wilson and Lorelei Kilbourne invariably solving the formulaic mystery, catching the criminal two minutes before the half hour and last commercial. Eisenhower “Ike” had been elected president along with Richard Nixon as Vice President and Checkers, the Cocker Spaniel dog who had saved the VP’s political bacon (another story). The economy was good and jobs were plentiful. People could buy homes with VA loans, and inexpensive—cheap, in the worst sense, Levittown cheap— prefabricated homes were being constructed to house future baby-boomers. Indeed, times were good; expectations soared. The world was spinning on 2-ply-bias Goodyear tires and ambience idyllic on primrose lane.
Yellow Springs, Ohio, was a small town of about four thousand people and differed not so greatly from the rest of the country, with its philosophy of live and let live, its aspirations of peace and harmony. It was more or less “small town” USA, save one tiny enclave of bohemian apperception, which was, of course, that outrageous Liberal-Arts school of free thought, Antioch College. Those frigging, stinking, pinko commies. Those subversives who dared teach the pros and cons of communism. Who in hell did they think they were, educators? And who in hell were these goateed, unkempt, so-called students? Commies?
Geopolitically parochial, though it was, Yellow Springs and Antioch boasted a cross-section of students, ethnically and culturally, from all over the country. There were students from New York, California, Louisiana, large cities, small cities, all bringing something culturally different to a small melting pot that readily assimilated style and cool. Two of the more salient things this cross-section brought were Jazz and Jack Kerouac—perhaps a little smoke as well—and, of course, as we know now, the beat was on. They not only listened to it, but they also lived it: Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker—Jazz—their anthem, and “On the Road”, their new testament, Kerouac’s unique stream of consciousness that spoke to no other but them.
Those pre-war teens had found themselves. They were the beat movement, unconsumed by materialism or convention, and they dressed and played the part with zeal. To them, Communism, by and large, was only a temporal dalliance, if not just an abstract political concept politicians dragged out at election time to hurl at an opponent and get elected. Senator Joseph McCarthy was soon to change that notion, specifically in government and academia.
Rational thought should have prevailed in the country because just how in hell was anyone to make a judgment pro or con about communism if one did not know what it was or had only a vague, jaundiced perception? Movie star Gary Cooper probably exemplified the situation when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, quote: “I don’t know much about it, but what I do know, I don’t like it.” (Sharpest pencil in the box disclaimer: Cooper, while in Washington, wanted to meet "this here Tammany Hall." actually a political machine in New York)
Of course, he didn’t know. Communism was not given treatise in our public schools. We relied on the news media to tell us what was right or wrong in the political arena. Of course, we know now that, for the most part, what was being labeled as communistic was simply the affinity for social programs: Social Security, unemployment compensation, subsidized health care, labor unions, civil rights, welfare for the poor, etc., etc. Virtually all Democrats today and more than a fair share of Republicans would be labeled communists by the standards of the forties and fifties. As Bob Newhart, being an accountant before his venture into comedy, often said, “Go figure.” Besides, the first amendment guaranteed our right to be whatever we wished: rich man, poor man, beatnik or, yes, even a commie.
Two of the more naïve, ignorant, if you will, of the First Amendment, or just not caring, show business personalities who testified before the HUAC were Robert Taylor and Adolphe Menjou. When each was asked whether the Communist Party should be outlawed, both said yes and then elaborated. Taylor thought any or all communists should be sent to Russia, (shades of Civil War repatriation). Even worse, Menjou wanted them “eliminated”. And basically this was to become the tenor of the country as McCarthy whipped us into a frenzy. Holy shit! Eliminated? So much for Grammy’s Social Security.
The most intelligent testimony from any of the celebrities who cooperatively testified came from Ronald Reagan, believe it or not. He was, throughout his life, an abject anti-communist, but on this day, he was a bona fide American Constitutionalist. When asked if he thought the party should be outlawed, he said no, it should not be. He said the tenets of communism should be brought to light so that Americans could see it for what it was and then reject it themselves, (the same sentiment echoed by the President of Antioch at an earlier time). This perception and insight was obviously a portent of a man destined to be more than just an actor. His foot was certainly not in his mouth on this occasion, but it was planted firmly in Taylor and Menjou’s collective ass kisser.
The following is an article from the Yellow Springs News, written by Diane Chiddister. In it she underlines the ruthlessness of those who wished to wield power and control destinies. She names one man in particular for whom self-aggrandizement was mercilessly opportunistic. Also note that the town mentioned, Xenia, was a small town composed of working class people, many of whom were transplanted from the hills of Kentucky, unsophisticated and dependent upon the Daily Gazette for their political view. Of course, as it was then and now, demagoguery sells newspapers.
Antioch and town targeted for ‘Red’ ties
Communists, socialists, pinkos, radicals. According to two men, one a straightlaced native son and the other an ex-Communist stool pigeon, Yellow Springs and Antioch College in the early 1950s were hotbeds of such subversives. Fueled by feelings of revenge, ambition and perhaps self-delusion, the men brought national attention to Yellow Springs and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) brought its considerable power to a tiny town in Ohio.
In the end, HUAC absolved Antioch and Yellow Springs of Communist influence. But the process, like many anti-Communist witch-hunts during the Red Scare, sparked local conflict, smeared the reputations of good people and left lasting scars in the community.
(Annotation by LW Fugett: I remember as a kid being on the streets of Yellow Springs in the late fifties with my aunt and her whispering as students walked by dressed as beatniks, “Those are communists.” And this label held all the way through the late sixties—until hippydom invaded the entire country.)
“The situation at Antioch, the Antioch Community and the Yellow Springs Area is glaring and disgraceful. And right now certainly no man with any degree of social equilibrium can expect a situation to continue such as is being flaunted at Antioch, the Antioch Community and the Yellow Springs Area without public abhorrence, disgust and resentment.”
The author of those words, Lowell Fess, initiated much of the trouble. The son of former Antioch College President Simeon Fess, Lowell Fess lived in the village most of his life, served as mayor during World War II and was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. By 1954, Scott Sanders, the Antioch University archivist, said, Fess was “a pillar of the community.”
But Fess was also a man of many resentments, a political conservative who felt the village and college never fully appreciated the efforts of his father, who was also conservative. He felt particular resentment toward Ernest Morgan, the owner of the Antioch Bookplate Co. and one-time publisher of the News, who was an avowed Socialist and the son of former Antioch President Arthur Morgan.
Political ambition may also have contributed to Fess’ accusations, Sanders said. Fess once told an acquaintance that he was “waiting for Ohio Representative Clarence Brown to die,” in order to take Brown’s place in Washington, Sanders said.
The last straw for Fess, apparently, was the college’s action in 1954 against longtime chemistry professor Clyde “Doc” Adams, also one of the community’s more conservative voices. Long allowed to use the college facilities for research even after he stopped teaching, Adams had continued to receive a half-time salary, which was reduced to quarter-time during a period of economic instability.
In a letter to the Yellow Springs News, Fess expressed his concerns: “When you have a community to which has migrated individuals from all over, not only the United States but all over the world, who teach Marxist theories and Socialism and in some cases downright subversion, particularly as it applies to interracial relationships, and you have an institution that condones these things, it is about time that the matter be cleaned up.”
McGregor clarified the college’s position in a statement from August 1952: “Antioch upholds the American tradition of academic freedom. This means the right to hear and investigate critically all sides of any question, including the question of Russia and Communism . . . . Antioch is not Communist, and does not support Communism. On the contrary, Antioch follows the best method that America has found to discourage belief in false ideas and specious ideologies — the open forum, where falsehoods can be exposed.”
Some villagers’ support for the free expression of all political perspectives, including Communism, had contributed to a local controversy 12 years earlier. On June 25, 1940, the Xenia Gazette published an article, “Nineteen Names on Red Petitions,” which identified Yellow Springs residents who signed a petition to allow the Ohio Communist Party to run candidates in national and state elections.
Adding to the controversy that year was the revelation that 12 Antioch students were members of the Young Communist League. While some area papers called for the students to be expelled, Algo Henderson, the college president at the time, refused to do so.
Still, many in the area held on to the image of Yellow Springs generally, and Antioch specifically, as being Communist-friendly, and when the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s heated up anti-Communist fevers, Yellow Springs provided an easy target.
Before Fess got involved, another red-baiter aimed his sights at the college. That man, Harvey Matusow, in 1952 began a career as a “professional red-sniffing, whistle-blowing squealer, a job description couched in the term ‘Research Assistant for the Ohio Un-American Activities Commission’,” Sanders wrote in his history of Antioch.
A former member of the American Communist Party who was considered by HUAC to have a keen eye for Communist sympathizers, Matusow testified before a U.S. Senate committee that 6 percent of Antioch’s 1,200 students “carried membership cards of the Young Progressives of America, ‘known’ to be a front organization.” In addition, Matusow speculated that 40 percent of the Antioch student body supported YPA activities.
According to Sanders, Matusow researched Antioch’s Communist connection by spending several days in town at Ye Olde Trail Tavern, talking politics with students over beer.
Matusow, who also accused the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and the YWCA of having Communist sympathies, later gained nationwide attention with his book, False Witness, in which he confessed to having made up much of the information used in his accusations.
While Matusow proved a less-than-credible accuser, his accusations raised fears in a fearful time. And those fears were magnified by Fess, who remained persistent in his campaign to root out the Communists at Antioch.
One figure of controversy at the college was Ollie Loud, longtime professor of physics. A statewide leader for the Progressive Party in Ohio in the 1950s, Loud made no secret of his intellectual affinity with Marxist socialism. “I acknowledge the power of Marxist social science,” he told a Dayton Journal Herald reporter in 1951. “In it I have found both a clarification of my worldview and a procedure for the analysis of every concrete social issue.”
But Loud disavowed Communism, and proved a poor target.
Other suspicious figures at the college, according to a paper, “Red-educators at Antioch College,” published by the National Council for American Education in New York, were M.N. Chatterjee, professor of social science, for his civil rights activism and membership in the Fellowship of Reconciliation; Arthur Morgan, former Antioch president, and Wally Sikes, associate personnel director, for his membership in the Conference on Peaceful Alternatives to the Atlantic Pact.
The House UnAmerican Activities Committee’s focus settled on Robert Metcalf, professor of arts and aesthetics and chair of the creative arts department. A member of the Communist Party for a short time in 1945, he had since ended his affiliation with the party.
On Sept. 15, 1954, a subcommittee of the HUAC met with Metcalf in Dayton, and apparently was satisfied that he was not a threat to the American way of life.
Metcalf was the first and last Antioch faculty member to face HUAC, and following the hearing the committee, which was by then losing national support, aimed its attention away from Yellow Springs.
“The aftermath of these events indicates the existence in this world of justice, even if only poetic,” Sanders wrote. Metcalf remained in good standing at Antioch, and the college itself received favorable publicity for its conduct around the issue. Harvey Matusow admitted his deceits, and “went to prison for lying under oath,” Sanders wrote. “And Lowell Fess never made it to Washington, except as a delegate to the American Legion National Conventions.”
Post script: My new novel will be a mystery/thriller set in the fifties, based on the HUAC hearings and the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg spy trial.(Fiction woven around actual facts.) I wrote this piece as a trial balloon for interest in that particular era and those events. I regret to say that the interest level so far has been disappointing. If you have an interest and are just reticent about expressing it, please let me know. I value the opinions from those on AD.