Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I've alluded a few times on Facebook this past week to my family's history with McCarthyism. I'm writing this post simply to lay out the facts. Three members of my family were blacklisted in the 1950s. Here are their names and their stories.

Prof. Charles W. Hughes was the husband of my grandmother's older sister, Fannie Lipman Hughes. He was a musicologist, and his example is probably the main reason I chose that profession for myself. Like many Americans, he had a passing interest in Communism during the 1930s, when capitalism appeared to be manifestly failing throughout the world. He attended a few meetings of an informal "discussion group," but to the best of my knowledge never identified himself as a Communist. By 1955 he was the same age I am today, and held a tenured position at Hunter College in New York. He was asked to reveal the names of others who had attended the discussion group 20 years earlier, and very appropriately refused. As a result, he was suspended from his job without pay for "conduct unbecoming a professor." Five years later, the New York Supreme Court gave him his job back, with full back pay. I honestly have no idea how he got by in the meantime.

Dr. Thomas Lockwood Perry was the husband of my mother's first cousin, Claire Lippman Perry. (Yes, the two "p's" are correct. Variant spellings and all.) He was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC for short). I listened many times to the recording of his speech to HUAC, in which he explained that, having grown up in North Carolina, he had acquired a solid appreciation for American values, and was expressing those values through the stand he was taking. He may have been a Communist, but, as hard as this may be to imagine for those who have grown up since Ronald Reagan, he was also a patriotic American. Nevertheless, he moved his family to Vancouver, Canada, where he was allowed to practice medicine and continue his active peace advocacy until his death about 20 years ago. Having been driven from the country of his birth, the country he loved, he never looked back.

Dr. Richard Lippman was also my mother's first cousin and Claire's brother. He was a distinguished kidney specialist who now has a building named for him at the City of Hope in California. During his lifetime he would not have been allowed to practice there. He was blacklisted on both coasts. He worked extensively with Linus Pauling, who considered him a protege and colleague. Dr. Pauling had two Nobel Prizes, so he was harder to persecute for his political activity—not that that stopped anyone from trying. After several years of frustration that must have taxed human endurance, Richard developed acute pancreatitis and died on the operating table. He is the family martyr. There is little doubt that his death, which left his wife a young widow and his four young children without a father, was hastened by the persecution he endured.

It is because of examples like this that I have grown up both a passionate advocate of democracy and a deep skeptic of the exceptionalism that Americans tend to claim for themselves and their country. Our country has done horrible things, and it could do them again at any time. The recent persecution of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon by another Wisconsin Republican, Scott Walker, follows a familiar script. My family may be left of center politically, but we are deeply American. In fact, the closest thing to a religion I was brought up with was belief in the powerful democratizing power of American organized labor. Crossing a picket line or in any way refusing to support a union action was a betrayal comparable to that of Judas: a betrayal—make no mistake—of America.

I very much fear that the specter of Joe McCarthy is haunting our country right now. As a patriotic American, I urge you to consider the stories above. These were my family. They were American patriots. I honor their memory.

1 comment:

  1. I think we're managing to combine McCarthyism and the Cultural Revolution, myself....