Looking back on Cold War witch hunt

I went to see Trumbo to learn more about my own history.
The film is a painful look back at the midcentury Communist witch-hunt that overtook our country after World War II. I already knew much about it from personal experience, but wanted additional information. And I got lots of it.
In a large family, it’s not unusual to have differing opinions, about politics as well as much else. The men in my mother’s nuclear family were all Republicans, while three of her sisters and their husbands were active progressive Democrats during that explosive time when the House Un-American Activities Committee (called HUAC, pronounced “Hew-Ack”) was at its height. I don’t know if they were Communists, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I have a list of all those who were called up before that committee when its long arm reached my home city; the name of one of my uncles-by-marriage is on it.
It was fine to be “progressive” before the Cold War; for a long time, efforts at Russian war relief had generally been applauded. And in fact, HUAC was actually founded back in the late ’30s, to seek out Nazis in the U.S. But everything changed with the coming of the “Red Menace:” then, America feared nothing more than Communism. The only thing more frightening was the power of the committee that was seeking out all the Communists among us.
In 1954, in the midst of this madness, I finished college. I had a major in writing. But because I had a second major in secondary education so that I would be qualified to teach English if I ever wanted to do so, I was required to prepare a demonstration lesson to complete my degree. I was assigned to teach it in an English class in the high school from which I had graduated, and there I met Miss Albert. I had never studied with her; she had joined the faculty after I left. She was a thin, mousey woman with pale, blotchy skin and stringy hair of a color we used to call “dishwasher blonde,” and a terrified look about her. No wonder: she was being called up before the committee. Her students told me they had signed a petition attesting to the fact that she was a superb English teacher, and politics had never entered into any of her lessons. No matter. She lost her job anyway. She was Jewish. There were many Jewish names beside hers and my Uncle Alex’s on the Committee’s local list.
After my demonstration lesson passed muster, I was offered a teaching position in the city’s school system. One of the requirements for hiring was to sign a loyalty oath, which offended me, the same way I was offended many years after, here in Dallas, when a shop at one of the malls wanted to fingerprint me before I could purchase anything. Then, I declined to do my shopping there. But at that earlier time, I declined only because I had decided I didn’t want the job because I’d opted to go on to graduate school. In all the years since, I’ve never stopped wondering what I would have done had I really wanted that teaching position. My father was a staunch right-wing Republican; would I have defied him with a refusal to sign? I was young and dependent, both financially and psychologically, and think I would probably not have risked his anger had I taken a more Democratic stand.
As it turned out, I decided on marriage instead of either that job or finishing my two year graduate program in social work. After the first year, I dropped out to wed a fellow student, a nice Jewish man several years older than I, and much more worldly. There’s a lot more to this story than I can tell in this space now, so I’ll leave the rest of it for next week!

Leave a Reply