Upon my discharge I returned to my job as a newspaperman with the Detroit Times.
I am a homeowner, a taxpayer, and parent, father of two boys and a girl.
Those were the opening lines in a three-page statement I examined one day in mid-May 2015 in the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities at the National Archives. I came across the document early in my research for a book about the Red Scare and my father, Elliott Maraniss, who had been fired from his job at the Detroit Times and called to testify before the committee in 1952 when it held hearings on communism in Detroit.
The statement was my father’s answer to the committee about what it meant to be an American, told from his perspective as a citizen, an Army veteran who had commanded an all-black company during World War II and a newspaperman steeped in the history of freedom of the press. Rep. John Stephens Wood (D-Ga.), chairman of the committee, would not let Dad deliver his response unless he named names and sought absolution for his ideological sins. But my father was not compliant, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights. The statement was submitted into the record unread and stored amid the paper detritus of history until I came across it more than six decades later.
Only a month after my visit to the National Archives, Donald Trump announced that he was running for president — and from that moment on, many of the themes I wanted to explore in the book about my father began echoing through the decades. The use of fear as a political weapon. The demonization of fellow human beings because of place of origin, race or political ideology. The attacks on free speech. And the raw power of government authorities to disrupt and destroy the lives of civilians.
In the Trump era, fueled by fear of the other, we are again arguing over what it means to be American or un-American. Alongside the Statue of Liberty ideal of American inclusion runs a counter-reality in which every era has restricted who might be accepted as a full-fledged American. The original nations of Native Americans were considered so un-American they were nearly annihilated; blacks were so un-American they were enslaved and treated as second-class citizens; women were not American enough to earn voting rights. In the 1950s Red Scare, communists and their sympathizers were called un-American traitors. Now Muslims are disparaged as terrorists and Hispanics as “illegal” and worse.
I was not yet 3 years old when my father was called before the committee. By the time I developed a political consciousness, he had survived and moved on. Many figures of the old left took other paths, toward neoconservatism and staunch anticommunism or toward bitterness and despair, but he emerged as a liberal optimist. He taught me to root for underdogs but to be wary of rigid ideologies. He was open to people of all political persuasions, unless he thought they were bullies or demagogues. His favorite essayist was George Orwell, whose leftist politics were accompanied by a clear-eyed assessment of the totalitarian horrors that can flow from dogmas on the left or the right.
My father had been, for a time, a communist. His politics were shaped by the disparities of the Great Depression, the bitter history of racial injustice in this country and the rise of fascism in Europe. He became radicalized at the University of Michigan during the late 1930s and returned to communist politics for several years after the war, turning away from it only around the time he was called before the committee. As a student, his support for the Soviet Union was strong enough that in editorials he defended what to me seems indefensible, including the 1939 nonaggression pact between the Soviets and Hitler’s Nazis. Whatever his reasoning, he held onto his ideological choice for too long — long after the Soviet version of communism mutated into a murderous elite. “I was stubborn in my ignorance,” he once acknowledged.
But he was no traitor. He loved America as much or more than the people who called him un-American. He broke no laws. He never advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. He assembled, he spoke, he wrote.
I was taught as a child and in school that the highest responsibility of citizenship is to defend the principles of the U.S. Constitution and to do my part in securing for the American people the blessings of peace, economic well-being, and freedom.
I have tried to do that to the very best of my ability.
And for doing just that — and nothing more — I have been summarily discharged from my job. I have been blacklisted in the newspaper business after 12 years in which my competency and objectivity have never once been questioned.
I must sell my home, uproot my family and upset the tranquility and security of my three small children in the happy formative years of their childhood.
But I would rather have my children miss a meal or two now than have them grow up in the gruesome, fear-ridden future for America projected by members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The men who worked on the committee positioned themselves as investigators, inquisitors, judges, patriots. Witnesses like my father had no rights to mount a defense. Only by confessing and naming names might a witness be allowed to deliver a statement. The assumption was that a Communist Party member was unpatriotically un-American. Unlike the men on the panel, of course. Unlike Chairman Wood, who had briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan as a young man and voted against every civil rights bill in Congress.
History is shaped by action and reaction, and in American history, the reaction often has to do with race and power. Any understanding of Trump’s political rise must begin with an act of blatant racism, his bogus birther claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore un-American. Once Trump gained office, he attempted to impose discriminatory immigration policies, separated children from their asylum-seeking parents and claimed that a Hispanic American judge couldn’t be fair — using his power to define who and what could be considered suitably American. My father’s lawyer at the 1952 hearing, George Crockett Jr., was a black civil libertarian who connected the attacks on communist free speech with the limits imposed on African Americans, two outsider groups vulnerable to majority repression. Crockett sat by my father’s side at the witness table as the chairman denied my dad the chance to defend himself.
The first amendment is not only a guarantee of free speech and a free press; it is also an indispensable part of self-government. That’s what makes this committee so dangerous. Ostensibly designed to protect the government against overthrow by force and violence, it proceeds by force, terror and threats to overthrow the rights of the American people . . .
Its attempt to enforce conformity of political or economic thought is a long step toward dictatorship that holds the greatest danger to the entire American people. In this country we have never acquiesced in the proposition that persons could be punished for their beliefs.
By the time I read my father’s statement, 63 years had passed. As much as the declaration resonated with me, it was something else that struck me first — the physical aspect of the words on the page, starting with the first letter of the first word of the first line:
Statement of Elliott Maraniss
That was the line, though in the original, the capital S of “Statement” jumped up a half-space, as capital letters on manual typewriters sometimes did. The smallest details can assume the most significance, and that is what happened now. Looking at that imperfect S for the first time, I could see my dad at the typewriter, a place where I had watched him so often in later years. He punched so hard that ribbons frayed and keys stuck. For decades, I had desensitized myself to what it must have been like for him when he was in the crucible, living through the most trying experience of his life, but now I started to absorb the pain of what he had endured. What it was like for him to be surveilled by the FBI, to be called before the committee, to be fired, to be called un-American.
As it turned out, our lives were disrupted but not destroyed by the Red Scare. After the hearing, my father was blacklisted from mainstream journalism, and we moved eight times in five years. Then salvation came in 1957, when he was hired by the Madison Capital Times, a Wisconsin newspaper with a long history of challenging home-state Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-hunting. McCarthy had just died, and my father was able to come up for air and use his remarkable skills as a journalist. Over the next quarter-century, he rose at the paper and retired as its executive editor. We were lucky, I realize; many lives were in fact destroyed, and I can’t look back on those long-ago years without marveling at the resilience of my parents and their ability to keep us together through a traumatic period. The nation also showed its resilience rebounding from that era of fear. It needs to again now.
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